So one of the things I experience the most in my time so far in the Writing Center, and I’m not the first to touch on this, is that people seem to have a bit of trouble starting. They have ideas, not fully formed, but in their head it seems to be there, waiting to cover the page and present a paper that is perfect in the eyes of their professor. However, the cursor, that thin black line that anticipates every single letter I type, yes, even as I type it out right now, misspell right and type write instead, it’s there, blinking against a white page, waiting. Waiting.
Waiting… …for words.
Whoa, sorry, got a little carried away there. I think I speak the truth though when I say it is hard to start writing. I constantly have decent ideas in my head, how I want to approach a topic, my kickass analysis of that overtly sexist commercial from Dodge, it is there, in my head. I don’t want to write it out though, I think. In my head, the idea is perfect, because it is just that, an idea, and what’s wrong with having an idea, right? They’re up there, swimming around in your skull mingling with other ideas, making conclusions, trying to make something of themselves. I’m not taking this too far, right? I think I am.
Maybe I should bring this back to reality.
So the other day, we’ll call it a week or two, but honestly it could have been last month, because once the semester starts, I don’t really have the ability to keep track of time outside of due dates. But anyway, a student was having difficulty attempting a rhetorical analysis that was due later in the week. The student was trying to analyze a poem and then looked at me, leaned back in his chair. Defeated, the student sighed. He then said, “I know what I want to say, but I just don’t know how to…like start it.”
I was empathetic. I’ve been there. I remember writing my capstone project last winter and doing three… ahem …THREE PAGE ONE REWRITES of the thing as I tried to finish it for the end of the semester. That’s not a fun thing to do with a fifteen-page paper. It really isn’t. So, yeah I know what it’s like to try and get this perfect idea, or at least some idea on the page and just not know how to frame it. The solution? Well, it’s not fun. It’s actually kind of boring and well, it makes you feel like you’re in middle school. Write it as simply as you possibly can.
Now, when I say this, this obviously doesn’t mean that this is the version you are going to keep, there’s definitely going to be a significant amount of revision involved, which another tutor, Jackson, spoke about a few weeks ago, but it definitely does get the ball rolling. How did we accomplish this? I’ll tell you.
First, we discussed their analysis, since you should probably have a good handle on your topic before you start writing your paper. This seems obvious, but obviously, as obvious things sometimes are, we overlook it. The student had their main points, and he showed me the places in the poem he was analyzing that supported their ideas. Coolcoolcool.
Not knowing how to start writing, I asked him to just tell me what he was going to write about. He wrote the first sentence of his paper saying, and I quote, “In this paper, I’m going to tell you what I did and how I did it”. That was literally his first sentence. And you know what? It is a sentence; now I don’t know any person that would say that’s a really good sentence, but it got him started. Then he stated his three main points in sentence form—again, very Mickey Mouse easy, but he did it. And when it came to his thesis? Well, he’d already written most of the introduction, so he was starting to get into the groove and came up with an idea that connected his three ideas and prepared his audience for his analysis. Problem solved, right?
No, not really.
It did help him though, and that’s the main point. Sometimes just getting the words down in a really simple way, just the thoughts, lacking any sort of style or engaging prose that explicitly captures the innate complexities of what we try to define as the substance that makes up the human condition…ahem, yeah sorry, anyway those simple steps of getting it out is enough to get you going on to the larger argument of your paper. That student was now able to focus on the part of his paper that he really cared about, the points he was trying to make. He laughed after finishing the intro and said that it really sucked, but I told him that he had it complete. He was now done, at least until he started revising, but he’s on his way and that is the important part for any writer…get that stuff down. Write it out, because I don’t think it matters how much it is in your head, it’s not actually a piece of writing up there, a thing that someone else can read and understand, until you pull those thoughts down and press them onto paper.