Break Writer’s Block: Don’t Begin at the Beginning

By Michael

Agonizing over your first words? Unsure of how your article or letter should start? Can’t come up with a good title? Don’t worry about it – yet. Newspaper reporters don’t write headlines while out on the beat. Their editors do, back in the office. Great novelists usually don’t sit down and launch immediately into brilliant words such as, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” (Charles Dickens) or even, “It was a dark and stormy night” (Edward Bulwer-Lytton). The faster horse may not be the first one out of the gate. The first horse out the gate may not be the winner. No, starting out is hard for everyone.

So what should you do when you don’t know how to begin at the beginning? Start writing wherever you can start. Start writing wherever you feel comfortable. Many magazine writers rarely write the introduction first, and they almost never write the title first.

The first words they write may simply be an introduction for their own use, an introduction into their day’s writing task, a springboard into the rest of the article. The first words they write may not even appear in the final article. After all, writing garbage is a good way to kick-start your writing habit. When the article is finished, they can now write an introduction with the confidence of knowing exactly what it’s supposed to be introducing.

Fiction writing can work the same way. For example, maybe you’re obsessed with an idea for a novel about a music critic who becomes the unwilling object of a rock star’s affections, but aren’t sure how to start it. So what part are you sure about? Maybe it’s a later conversation in the musician’s hotel room after a concert. If you can picture a scene, you can probably write about it. Or start with any part that’s exciting to you.

You can always change it or completely rewrite it later, but as you write, it will give you ideas for more chapters. Maybe, once you’ve finish writing about that conversation, you’ll have a better idea about how to write a chapter about their first meeting. Or even, how to write the first chapter.

One reason why many writers don’t start at the beginning is that the beginning is so very important. Readers may not judge a book by its cover, but they often judge it by the back cover (which most novelists don’t write anyway), or its title or its first paragraph. That’s why editors often have strong opinions about book titles and first paragraphs. Don’t be in a rush to finish the most important part. Maybe after you’ve finished the end of the book, you’ll be more qualified to write the beginning.

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12 Responses to “Break Writer’s Block: Don’t Begin at the Beginning”

  • Hieu

    Oh great tip!!!

    I have always had problems when start writing. It takes hours for an introduction, and after that things just flow. How come I have never thought of writing NOT at the beginning…

    Thanks a lot.

  • Deborah

    This is precisely the way I do write! I rarely start at the beginning, because my initial idea is usually falls somewhere in the middle of the narrative. Then I work forward and backwards.

  • Michael

    The downside of not writing consecutively, of course, is that the thoughts or events may not flow as smoothly. But fixing that problem is what editing is for.

  • Mari

    I learned this lesson the hard way. I had writer’s block for two years. I was miserable. I didn’t even write any poetry in that time period. But what got me out of it was finding an online writers’ group and talking to other writers in other places. I found out you don’t have to write consecutively. Consecutive writing is how I thought “it had to be done” , and I’d written myself right into a hole. Now, I write whatever seen, thought, etc, happens to pop into my head at a given time. I keep “working notes” and a timeline to let me know what’s supposed to happen when. I’ve done this for three years now — and have been a ton saner! 😉

  • Mimi

    I am a reporter for a weekly paper and often have trouble thinking up the theme of focus for my articles. I find that following your suggestion really helps me get going. Sometimes to relieve “thinker’s block, I do a “brain dump” – just write down whatever’s in my head, unformed thoughts, unconnected information, garbage. That way I get rid of the junk and can start the thinking.
    But I run into a problem when starting in the middle: I write my own headlines, and when I do, often I discover what the real theme of the story should be – which isn’t always what it is. That forces me to rewrite, but I don’t always have the time.
    Any suggestions on how to get to the real theme earlier in the process would be welcome!

  • Tyree

    This is an excellent tip! You always write better what you are most familiar with. I am sure I am not alone as a fiction writer when I say that my concepts come in theatric spurts. My entire story ideas come from “scenes” I put together in my head. If I attempt to write about the character(s) in those scenes outside the scenes, I find myself struggling. If I write the “scene” or event first, I am more successful.

    I have written stories more accepted by the reader when I write backwards, or even more centered leaving room for differentiation. Write a couple of events you are comfortable with and your character and story will bleed out of you.

    One thing I personally do is a combination of writing a later event and an introduction. I write an introductory setting, filling the stage with environment, ambiance, and props. From there I skip ahead and write the action or event. I go back later and fill in the gaps. Sometimes you can have an idea in your head that works, but when you put it down it seems shallow or flawed. I help myself by setting the stage first then leaping head to the action. Things work upstairs different than when you intend to apply them to paper.

    A friend of mine is a brilliant oral story teller. He advised me once to start at the end and work backwards. If you know what is going to happen next, writing what occurs previously is painless. Start at your strongest point. This is usually somewhere in the middle.

  • Kycoo

    Terrific tip! I’ve been struggling with suitable beginnings lately, so I think I’ll try this out.

  • Sam

    this sort of gave me de ja vu.. I think I’ve been told this before. My old teacher warned me not to be concerned about the title at all until I’m done. Another teacher had us write body paragraphs in essays before the intro and conclusion. I always write my essays out of order then edit them so they flow nicely. I never thought of doing that for a story though. I don’t know why I haven’t thought of that, I always do everything out of order. the beginning of my stories always feel rushed, because I want to get to the parts that I’ve already planned out. But if I write those parts first, more ideas will come to me and the rest of the story wont be rushed. I think this will help me a lot, thanks.

  • Trevor

    I have dozens of pieces of writing that never will, or should, be finished.

    I try to get any idea that lasts more than a few lines written down. Some spawn other ideas or characters that I can use later and some turn out to have more life in them than I expected. I’m currently on the second chapter of something that was intended to be summarised in a few lines but developed a life of its own when I found I could “hear” conversations that took place during the incident.

    If I try to force a subject I’m likely to get writers block but if I have a pool of ideas, characters or conversations, I’m more likely to find something I can run with and perhaps adapt to the original subject.

  • oludola ekanade

    Thanks. Those tips greatly helped. It’s great to know I don’t necesarily have to start my story form the beginning. Just write that part that is revolving im my head, then later add the flesh to make it complete story. It has helped my other writings and reports as well and has opened fresh ideas in my mind. Thank you!

  • Emily

    Great advice, I have always struggled with beginnings. I like the idea of writing what you can visualize, because those scenes always turn out the best for me. However, now that I’ve decided the beginning isn’t going anywhere, I can’t decide which of the hundred scenes I can actually see I’m going to work on first.

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