From the Desk of the Director of Academic Support Services: Getting started on a writing assignment

By Sophia Mavrogiannis, director of academic support, Harry Van Arsdale Jr. Center for Labor Studies

April 8, 2013

old typewriterCrafting a successful piece of writing is often a process that requires multiple steps of drafting and revising. It’s never as easy as sitting down in front of a computer (or with a pen and some note paper), writing a perfect essay and then walking away. For many, the hardest part is writing past the first few sentences. This experience can be daunting for any writer.

Luckily, there are a number of strategies you can try for getting started on your next writing assignment:

Start early and give yourself plenty of time. Whenever possible, begin working on a writing assignment weeks before it's due. Starting early is important because it gives you time to move through the writing process in stages from figuring out what you want to say to revising your final draft. The more time you give yourself to write, the less stressed you’ll feel about getting it done.

Work with a learning coach. Sometimes talking with someone else about a writing assignment can help you better understand the task at hand, clarify your thoughts, strengthen your thesis statement, etc. Learning coaches are a valuable resource for any student writer at any stage of the writing process—from getting started to revising and proofreading—regardless of your area of study.

Don’t try to write the perfect essay in one sitting. Instead, try writing your essay in pieces or stages. As a writer, you’re free to begin writing any part of your essay first. Experiment with starting to write in the middle of your essay, or maybe draft your annotated bibliography first. At the very least, this technique gets you writing. When you feel like you’re done, move on to another part.

Brainstorm or “freewrite.If you’re not sure where to begin writing, try this technique: Make two columns on a sheet of paper or on your computer: Everything I Know About My Topic and Questions I Have About My Topic. Take five minutes to write everything you can in each column, even if it seems trivial. The purpose of this exercise is to jump-start your writing for the assignment and help you get an inventory of how much you already know about your topic.

Keep going. For many, getting “stuck” when writing can be frustrating. Keep writing! Whatever you’re feeling—bored, stuck, anxious, confused, not knowing what to say, etc.— start writing about that, and keep going. Writing through the “stuck” moments is the single best thing you can do to keep your writing process moving along.

Don’t worry about perfection. In writing, sometimes you don’t know where you’re going until you get there. You might start writing about one thing, only to find you’ve written many pages supporting an opposing argument. This might be the result of a scattered, disorganized tangent, but many times it’s a natural result of the writing process. Let yourself take that detour. You can always go back to revise, delete things, re-arrange paragraphs and pick up where you left off.

Image courtesy of thaikrit /

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Article Contributors

Anita DeCianni Brown

Sandra Barkevich

Sophia Mavrogiannis

Helen Edelman

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