The Blinking Cursor of Doom: How to Begin Writing Academically
Brooke Boling, Writing Consultant
Across the board, writers both new and veteran acknowledge how difficult it is to begin an academic paper. Do you start with a thesis? Do you write from introduction to conclusion? Should you make an outline? Where do you put your research in the flow of your argument? What is the “best” way to start a paper?
The best-kept secret in academic writing is this: there is no “correct” process to writing or beginning a paper. There’s no way that works better than every other way. Lots of writers who are new to academic writing, returning after a long hiatus, or write academically as a career are daunted by beginning a paper and making an effective argument. You might feel like that blinking cursor on your word processor might as well be a physical wall stopping you from getting started.
A few questions to ask yourself when you’re starting a paper might be: what, to you, is the most important part of your paper? What ideas do you need to get down before they slip away? What is the overall argument you’re aiming to make? What pieces of research and evidence do you think are the most important? These are some great places to begin thinking about your paper overall.
I, personally, write my introduction first, and it is always long and rambling, leading to a thesis that is comprised of keywords rather than a solid claim. This process does, however, enable me to get all of my formulated ideas in one place, and it helps me order the rest of my paper. I can always go back and edit, so I try not to get hung up on grammar or spelling in a first draft (which is also a helpful tip as you’re beginning your paper). Some consultants in the Writing Center outline extensively, plugging in their research and relevant quotes in different parts of the outline, and even spending more time on their outline than their paper when all is said and done.
Other consultants find it helpful to free-write and see where it leads regarding the topic; I find this to be especially helpful in creative writing. Still others write all of their paragraphs out of order before figuring out where each element of their argument belongs, and then write around these paragraphs once they put them in order to make their overall argument. Lots of writers claim that writing their introduction last is what helps them get started on their paper. If parts of these approaches resonate with you, mix and match and see what works!
The bottom line is, feel free to experiment with different writing processes and ways of ordering your writing. There is no correct way to begin to write, and the more ways you experiment with, the more you will find what works for you, and you’ll be well on your way to developing your own personal writing process.