Every time I write, the process always starts the same. It never changes. It always starts with plenty of thinking, pondering, and wondering.
How that process plays out, though, is always different. I know where I’m headed whenever I start a new story. But I’m never sure about how I’ll arrive.
That uncertainty causes many unpleasant feelings when I write. If you write (and chances are you do because why else would you read this piece?), you understand what I’m saying. At the start of every new story, it doesn’t take long for beginning enthusiasm to morph into a sense of dread.
Writing is hard work, and starting is often the hardest part. It’s overwhelming, I know. But I’ve discovered that something amazing happens every time I show up. Somehow, someway, my writing always finds a way to work itself out.
I’ve experienced this too many times to ever question it. The process has never let me down. Don’t get me wrong, I still struggle to find the words whenever I start to write. The angst and apprehension don’t go away. I also know that what I write is far from perfect, too.
But with patience and persistence, the process never fails. Writing is a long war with many skirmishes and small battles. If you can stay alive, it’s only a matter of time before you win.
Simple Tips to Keep in Mind Before You Start Writing
When searching for direction, any writer will give you a legion of ways to start a new story. There isn’t one approach that’s better than the other. But because there are many different ways, starting, in itself, often gets messy.
It’s possible, though, to restore a semblance of order before you begin. Following all (or some) of these three simple guidelines can help.
Starting a story is a lot easier when you come prepared. My writing on this site is often rooted in the experiences I have, the people I know, and what I read and listen to. I often don’t start a draft until I’ve collected more notes from these sources than I’ll likely use.
I also prefer to map out the structure of a piece before I begin. Writing outlines is a logical way for me to organize my thoughts. Outlines help me to compartmentalize a concept into its most essential sections and parts. In doing so, I’m able to flesh out what I want to accomplish and how I can get there. And the act makes me feel less daunted by the overall task ahead.
Excuse How Bad You Begin
Few things kill creativity faster than perfectionism. If you try too hard to write the “right way,” you’ll never get anything down. So instead, allow yourself to make mistakes when you start. Learn to appreciate whatever you write first, even if it’s terrible.
When you do, a funny thing might happen. You may reread what you’ve written and come to discover that not everything is trash. Yes, it likely needs some work. But at least you can work with the words you’ve written. That’s something to be grateful for.
Remember, you can always fix your writing later. That first draft you wrote will never be your final draft. A good piece of writing always endures revision before it’s ready to share.
If Stuck, Set Aside Your Story’s Intro for Now
If you still can’t figure out how to start, you can always work on your lead later. It’s valuable to give your mind some space to figure out what you want to say. So instead of obsessing over your introduction, begin writing in the middle. Or, feel free to start with the end.
There’s no unspoken rule that says you can’t do either. To begin building any kind of momentum, you need to write what you can. You’ll gain some reassurance in the process by putting something down on the page.
Stepping aside from your lead also allows your subconscious to go to work. Writing is a thought-intensive activity. Sometimes, an idea needs to marinate before becoming a concept worth telling.
5 Ways to Start Your Next Story
Now that we’ve established some basics, let’s move onto specifics. Below are five suggestions for how to start a new story:
Idea #1: Set the Scene
Begin your story with a vivid visual of where it takes place. Choose your words with care, as they can ignite the imagination of your readers. Rich details of what you (and by extension, they) see, smell, and hear can captivate their attention.
This is where having good notes or keeping a journal comes in handy. Use what you’ve written to remember how a place made you feel. Pictures and videos make for good reference material, too. Our smartphones have made it possible to capture media at any time. It’s not difficult to scroll through your camera roll to jog your memory of the places you’ve been.
To start my story about Medellin, Colombia, I revisited some of the content I captured while I was there. I was able to recall details about the “barrios of brick-built homes” that accented the city’s lush hills. I was able to remember how sweltering hot some of Medellin’s best salsa clubs were. The pictures and clips were good reminders of what I had seen and experienced.
Idea #2: Describe Someone
Good stories have compelling characters. As a reader, a story can hook me by making me care about the people documented. With that in mind, try opening a story with portraits of people it’s about.
Like setting a scene, describe the qualities of your characters with colorful particularity. Are they loud and gregarious, or are they quiet and observant? Tell readers about where your characters are in their lives. Share whatever you can to give them a sense of who these people are.
Loren Lee Chen was the central figure in my article about how to get on Jeopardy. When we spoke, I asked him what his state of mind was like the night before he taped the show. Loren also told me his opportunity to play Jeopardy came as he was making a big move across the country. These details grabbed my attention. And as a result, I thought they’d serve as valuable building blocks to start the piece…so that’s how I began.
Idea #3: Make a Simple Statement
Whether it’s your opinion or some universal truth, try starting a story with a declaration. It doesn’t have to be profound or prophetic. All it needs to do is invoke some sort of emotion out of your readers.
Less is always more when it comes to writing. The fewer words you can use to introduce a story, the better. Making a pithy statement is often powerful enough to invoke a little curiosity. Its simplicity may stir your audience to want to learn more. The only way for them to achieve that is to keep reading.
Take, for example, this opening phrase in another article I wrote about writing. I began by saying “Writing is an act of faith.” My intention with a sentence like that was to conjure up some feelings. It shouldn’t take a reader very long to either agree or disagree with that sentiment.
As a writer, you learn over time that not everything you create is for everyone. Your work will resonate with only a select few. You can use the start of your story as a litmus test of your audience. By making a bold yet simple statement, you can find the readers who care about what you write.
Idea #4: Be Personal
Whenever you write, remember that there’s a human on the other end reading your work. So with that in mind, remember to talk to your audience like fellow people. You can start your story as if you’re sitting down to chat with a friend.
Tell your readers what you care about. Like the previous tip, you can lean on an opinion for foundation. Your sentiments on the subject you’re writing about can hook readers when they’re (sentiments are plural) sincere.
I always find myself engaged by writing that shows me sincerity. Good writing, to me, isn’t dry, detached, and emotionless. Instead, it demonstrates the personality and identity of who wrote it. Good writers engage me with their humanity.
Idea #5: Refer to What You’ve Already Written
Don’t pressure yourself to write something from scratch. Instead, look at what you’ve already written. Hunt through your notes or previous drafts. You may discover that the start to your next story was already there.
It’s not evident until you do that different parts may work in different places. Writing is selection, as creative nonfiction writer John McPhee once said. Some words, sentences, and paragraphs work better when you try them in other places.
Remember that part of writing is a subconscious process. Some of the work happens beneath the surface. But recall that it’s also a conscious effort, too. Stringing ideas together into coherent sentences on a page takes mindful attention.
Your Turn Now
Starting a new story can be fraught with challenges. Writing isn’t easy. And remember, there’s no perfect way to begin. Keep this in mind if you ever feel blocked before you begin.
If you get disheartened, don’t give up. Keep writing. Do the work. Show up, even when you’re at a loss for words to say. Have a little faith that the process will work itself out. Believe me, inspiration will arrive. Your fingertips will know what to do when the time comes.