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How to Start
The trouble with writing starts right at the beginning. There you sit, pencil in hand, a blank sheet of paper before you, and you don't know how to start. Maybe you have some ideas you want to express, some words and sentences you want to use, but what you have in mind just isn't ready to be put on paper. Somehow you have to change it from a vague thing in your head to something you can take and write down; and you don't know how.
Don't think there is anything unusual the matter with you. That kind of trouble is common among people who haven't done much writing--it doesn't matter whether they are 15 or 50. Naturally, if you are a born writer, that's different. Then you will have an urge to write. You will have no trouble getting started. Words and sentences will come to you by themselves. But born writers are few, and the chances are that you're not one of them. Like most people, you will probably have to learn how to write step by step. And, like most people, you will think the first step the hardest.
Well, how does one start to write? It will take us a little while to tell you about it, but the most important thing is this: Don't just start! Don't think the main thing is to get going, and, once you have got something on paper, you will run along nicely. If you do that and put down words and sentences that come to mind at the moment, you have simply postponed the time when you will look down at your paper and not know how to go ahead. Sooner or later--probably sooner--that moment will come; only this time,instead of a blank page, you will have a beginning that isn't any beginning and doesn't lead you anywhere.
So don't just start. Don't let that blank white page frighten you into action. Take your time. Slowly work out in your mind what you are going to say. In other words, make a plan. A piece of writing, like everything else you do, has to be planned. Think of a weekend trip, for instance; you can't just blindly go ahead on Saturday morning, not knowing what's going to happen. Instead, during the week, you make plans. You make up your mind when you want to start and when you want to be back; you decide where you want to spend Saturday night and what you want to do on Sunday morning; you get yourself a map and find out which route to take; you spot a place to eat lunch and another to eat dinner; and you work out a different route to go back on Sunday afternoon and evening. When you are through, you have a plan: You know where to start, where to go first, second, and third, and where to end.
Writing works the same way. The thing to do is to plan ahead, to map out beforehand that word-trip you are going to take. Know your starting point, your next way-station, and the next, and be quite sure you know where you are going to land at the end. And since you are planning for something that is made of words, make sure your plan is in words, not just vague, unclear notions in your mind, which you'll have trouble pinning down when you get around to them. It's very easy to believe you have words and sentences in your mind when actually you have only a string of formless or half-formed ideas. For instance, if you want to explain to a friend how to get to your house, you may think you know the way so well that the words you need will be right on tap. But when it comes to telling your friend, you may find that in reminding yourself you thought of the bus stop as "the one before you pass that good bakery," and of the corner where you turn as "the one with the house that stood empty all last year." So you'll have to start all over again really planning your explanation in words and sentences that will make sense to your friend.
There is a simple way to avoid this trouble: Write your plan out. Put down on paper the start, the main in-between stops, and the end. Only in this way can you be quite sure that you have a plan. Then, with your sketch in hand, you can go ahead and work out your piece of writing, step by step and without any danger of losing your way. That's the way all speakers, lecturers, and writers work. It's the way we wrote this book, the book you're reading now. We spent a long time working out a plan before we started to write.
Let's see how it works. Let's go back to the friend who doesn't know how to get to your house. You sit down to write him or her. Before you start your letter, you take another piece of paper and put down your plan. You think of the start, the main points on the way, and the end. So you write something like this:
Take E2 bus at station
Get off corner Pine St.
Walk 2 blocks Hill Avenue
Turn right into Chestnut St.
House is No. 823
Now that's a good, practical plan for you to use. Mind you, it wouldn't do your friend much good. He would probably still get lost. But it helps you to tell him. As long as you stick to it, you will write directions that your friend can use--like this:
When you get off the train at the station, walk to the other side of the square. There is a bus stop in front of the bank building. Take the E2, "Pleasant Hts." bus. If you have to wait awhile, don't get impatient; the bus runs every 20 minutes.
Get off the bus at the third stop after the bridge, the corner of Hill Avenue and Pine Street. You will see an A & P store and a gas station at this corner. Watch out for them after you cross the bridge.
From Pine Street walk two blocks ahead on Hill Avenue, that is, in the direction the bus is going. The next corner is Maple Street and the second is Chestnut, where we live. . .
You see how easy it is to work it out, once you have a good plan to go by.
Giving directions is, of course, only one example. The same applies if you want to tell a story--let's say about a weekend you spent at your cousin's. Again, be sure to put the events one after the other, in order.
Or let's take another example where you can see the point even more clearly. Everybody knows that some people are good and some clumsy at telling jokes. What makes the difference? Simply this: If you are good at telling a joke it's because you always know beforehand exactly how you are going to tell it. You know the things you must mention right away, you know what to tell next, and you know, word for word, the "punchline"--the point of the story. If all this is not clear in your mind before you tell the joke, you'd better not try to tell it at all. Nobody will laugh and you'll be terribly embarrassed.
How would you tell this joke?
A boy answers his father that he doesn't think much of getting up early in the morning, walking before breakfast, and so on. His father has told him that he did all this when he was a boy and thought nothing of it.
This does not seem very funny. But if you think about it for a minute, you'll see that the joke lies in the father's saying that he "thought nothing of it" and the boy's answer, "I don't think much of it either." So you'll have to plan on telling the story like this:
Father says: "When I was a boy, etc."
Father ends: ". . . thought nothing of it."
Boys answers: ". . . don't think much of it either."
Filling in the details, you say:
Father was lecturing Junior, who liked to sleep late: "When I was your age, I got up at six every morning, walked ten miles with my dog, and thought nothing of it."
"Well, Dad," Junior answered, "I don't think much of it either."
In other words, you cannot write or even tell anything without a plan. But let us add this: We don't mean to say that the parts of your plan must always follow in the same order. As a rule, it's the safest thing to start at the beginning, go on to the middle, and wind up with the end. But sometimes you may want to tell things in a different way. For instance, here are directions for a weekend guest that start at the end:
You know that we live at 823 Chestnut Street, Pleasant Heights. But since you want to come by train, let me tell you first that we never use the Pleasant Heights stop, but always get off at Greenville, which is much nearer to our house.
So when you take the train, be sure to ask for a ticket to Greenville. . . .
Or suppose you want to tell about that weekend with your cousin. Suppose nothing much happened on Saturday, but you had a wonderful time at a party Sunday night. So, for a change, you might first tell about the party and then a little about what happened before.
Even in telling a joke you have a little leeway in the way you tell it, as long as you stick to some plan that will not spoil the story. For instance, you could tell the little story about Father and Junior this way (although we think the first way was better):
Junior was quick with an answer the other day. The Classic Guide To Better Writing: Step-by-step Techniques And Exercises To Write Simply, Clearly And Correctly. Copyright © by Rudolf Flesch. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.