How to begin writing when you can’t


My son had to write a paper for his college class. He had a week to do it and while he did write some notes over the weekend, he left writing the bulk of the report until the night before it was due. It wasn’t that he’s a bad writer. It wasn’t that he didn’t know the subject.

It was that he was overwhelmed and he didn’t know where to start.

We’ve all been there before thinking how on earth can I write anything that’s going to be judged (in this case graded) by someone else? It’s too big to do, so I’ll just sit here and do nothing in my fear-induced paralysis.

The problem with ignoring the challenge is that it doesn’t get done. And if you want to get a project done (or pass a class) then you’ve got to buckle down and get started. This is how I advised him:

First step – write an outline. It doesn’t have to be a complex outline just put the general points.

  • Introduction – definitions, relevant history, purpose of paper, layout of discussion
  • Part One – definitions, how it relates, good things, bad things, graphic
  • Part Two – definitions, how it relates, good things, bad things, graphic
  • Part Three – definitions, how it relates, good things, bad things, graphic
  • Summary – bring it home baby, repeat your purpose and state why you have proved it.

He knew what he wanted to say, he just hadn’t known how. Using this format, my son banged out an outline. But even though he now had a structure, my son was still stuck.

Second step – write. “So what’s the easiest part to write about?” I asked. He pointed to Part Three of his outline which described a type of technology that he found interesting. “Well then go ahead and start there.”

As long as you have a structure and you’ve identified your purpose, you never have to start at the beginning if you don’t want to. Have a killer idea for a summary?, well then jot that down first. Feel more confident about one particular topic? then write about it. You don’t have to worry about complete sentences, or even coherent paragraphs, you simply need to capture what it is you want to write about.

Because once you start writing, you start writing.

Following this approach, he was able to crank out a first draft. But as we all know, first drafts are not meant to be judged by anyone. He knew his paper had holes and he knew that it didn’t transition well from one topic to another but he didn’t know how to fix it.

Third step – get feedback. This is where a trusted confident comes in handy. My husband sat in the room with my son and while my son read the paper out loud my husband asked questions like Why? and How? when it appeared that information was missing or was confusing. When you are so close to the subject you can be guaranteed that you’ll miss things. A second pair of eyes is critical.

There was no judgment, there was no criticism. There was only a desire to make the document stronger.

The paper got done, it was passed in the next day and my son let out the breath he had held since it had been assigned. This is the method my son ended up using to write his assignment, but take a look at the steps:

  1. Outline
  2. Write
  3. Get feedback

And you’ll recognize that the process he used for his paper is the exact same method every writer uses for every piece of writing. It’s not magic, it’s just a path to the goal. As a writer, you need to step back in order to break your work down *before* you put pen to paper – you need to know where your words are going. Once that’s done you then work to coherently build the parts into what will become the glorious whole that is your piece.


Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). ( She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.

7 thoughts on “How to begin writing when you can’t

  1. Pingback: How To Begin Writing | timwburke

  2. Wendy, with respect, I do not follow the process you describe. I start with my topic do my research and begin writing straight away. It is a bit of a brain dump of all the things I want to evoke or say. The written sections are then organized into something logical. Only then do I construct an outline to identify structure and areas needing to be augmented or deleted. Next is the self-edit. Feedback and rewrite follow in a loop, often with more than one reviewer until it is deemed worthy of seeing the light or day. An outline is a useful tool, but it has never been the place where I begin. Then again, mother always did say that I was “special” 🙂

  3. I broke down your article into a summery similar to your
    1. outline
    3. Get feedback.
    I liked where you said it didn’t matter what order you started to write because when you start writing you simply write. I will keep those three points in mind when I am looking for a short story to write.
    Thank you for sharing.

  4. I’ve had starts and stops with my own blog, and I have to say that the best advice always comes from someone telling me just to “write.” Even when I think I have nothing to say, I always end up with something once I have started writing.

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