How to Write When … You Can’t Seem to Get Started

9 May 2024 | Writing

(Title Image) How to Write When ... You Can't Seem to Get Started

This post is part of my ongoing “How to Write When…” series.

Getting started is, for many of us, the hardest part of writing.

Beginning a big project like a novel can be so daunting that writers put it off for years.

But even smaller-scale “starts” can be tough. How often have you put off sitting down to write, for instance, or found yourself scrolling social media or the news headlines at the beginning of a planned writing session?

Why is Getting Started So Difficult?

Starting can feel daunting. It may seem like you need a special kind of energy to start a writing project, or a writing session, or get going again after a break. Once you’re already writing, it’s perhaps not too hard to carry on … so why does it feel so different when you’re waiting to begin?

I think there can be a lot of different factors at play here, like:

Getting Started Means Making a Commitment 

My longest-running writing projects are two journals that I keep (handwritten in a series of notebooks) for my two children. 

I had the idea for this project months before I began it, when my eldest was 17 months old. Once I began, I knew I’d be committing to writing at least a sentence or two in each journal, every single day.

Getting Started Means Giving Up the Illusion of Perfection

Perhaps you’ve been thinking about and coming up with ideas for a novel for months or years. 

In your mind, the novel feels perfect. But as soon as you write the words Chapter One and begin, your novel won’t be perfect. No first draft (and probably no finished draft!) ever is. It can be really difficult to watch your dream hit reality like this.

Getting Started Means Entering Into the Unknown

Even if you’ve diligently outlined your first novel chapter by chapter, or planned out an article point by point, as soon as you begin writing, you’ll likely come across different ideas, directions, thoughts, and obstacles than you’d expected. 

Getting Started Means Facing Up to What You Haven’t Done

If you’re reluctant to begin, that could be because it’s easier to not think about your writing project. 

Once you do get started, especially if it ends up feeling easier than you thought it would be, you’ll perhaps feel confronted by the time you didn’t spend writing.

Getting Started Means TrustingThat You’re Good Enough to Write This

If you have an idea you really love or a message you’re keen to share, then you might be worried about whether you can do it justice. The act of getting started is like a vote of confidence in yourself, saying that you’re good enough to tackle this project … and that can feel really difficult, even scary.

You can see why a lot of us end up putting off starting a writing project. I know how hard it can be  – I’ve spent plenty of my writing life not starting (or, just as often, not restarting) projects.

So what can you do to make it a little easier to take that first step?

#1: Brainstorm Around Your Project Idea

My kids will tell you that when I get into the British sea (never exactly warm!) I have to go really slowly. No jumping straight in for me! I take it a tiny step at a time and gradually get used to the temperature.

When you’re starting a writing project, you don’t have to leap straight in. You can dip in a toe – or just walk along the shore for a while.

One great way to do that is by brainstorming. You could jot down ideas you might like to try or things you could include, without committing to anything. 

You may even want to brainstorm opening sentences, little snippets of text, or other pieces that may find their way into your first draft. “Starting” in this way can feel a lot less intimidating than opening up a fresh, blank document.

#2: Set Aside Special Writing Time to Begin a New Project

Starting a new project probably doesn’t feel like something you can easily do in a 15 minute writing session crammed into your lunch break. 

When you know you’ll be starting something new soon, it can help to put aside some special writing time. That might be a writing retreat where you get away to a hotel or Airbnb for a night or two … or it could simply be an afternoon in a coffee shop.

Even if you’re just doing a longer-than-usual writing session at home, you might want to look for a way to make it feel special and set aside – perhaps treating yourself to a favourite drink/snack, lighting a candle, using a new notebook or pen, or anything else that can mark out your writing time as out of the ordinary.

#3: View Drafting as a Process of Play and Exploration

Drafting is just one stage in the writing process. Yes, it can feel really daunting to begin a first draft … but your draft definitely doesn’t need to be perfect. You can always change it. If you really don’t like it, you could scrap the whole thing and start again!

My drafts (and redrafts) don’t always begin as a document titled “Draft 1”, “Draft 2”, etc. They might start out as a “New novel ideas” document or a “Snippets / bits and pieces for X” document. That’s a lot less daunting than jumping straight into a whole formal draft.

Your drafting process can be messy and explorative. You can try out ideas and change your mind. You can write whole chapters that you later cut – yes, this can be frustrating too, but it’s a better way forward than simply not writing anything until you’re 100% certain it’s staying in the book.

There’s no “right” way to produce your first draft. In fact, some writers like to create essentially a Draft 0 – this is what Steffanie Holmes calls a “skeleton draft” – that races through their story, writing some full scenes and some scraps, until they’ve got the complete shape of the whole thing in perhaps 10,000-20,000 words.

You can play around with drafting. You can explore the fun ideas you have. I like to work in a more-or-less linear fashion, but you don’t have to do that (especially if you’re doing a redraft, when you already have the essentials of your story in draft 0 or draft 1).

#4: Remember It Will Get Easier Once You Get Moving

I think one reason we sometimes hold back from starting a novel is because we think that if getting started feels this hard, the whole thing is going to be awful!

But there are probably lots of things in your life that you’ve put off starting that turned out to be OK (or even fun!) once you got going. Maybe you have to really push yourself to begin exercising, for instance, but you enjoy it once you’ve begun.

The first sentence will be the hardest. Once you start getting words down on the page, it’ll all get easier from there. 

Begin with a deliberately terrible sentence, if you like … then at least you’ll have something to improve on.

Getting Started on Individual Writing Sessions

Even if you’re already moving on a project, it can still be hard to get started on a regular basis, each time you sit down for a writing session.

There’s no magic cure here – you’ll probably also feel at least a little bit of resistance to beginning – but you could try having a routine or ritual to ease yourself into writing.

Some things you could try are:

  • Warm-up writing: simply writing anything that comes into your mind, or choosing a writing prompt and setting a 5 or 10 minute timer. 
  • Reading over what you wrote during your previous writing session.
  • Jotting down some bullet points to rough out what you’re going to tackle in today’s writing.
  • Listening to the same piece of music every time you sit down to write – this can be a great auditory cue to help you get into the mood.

There are lots more tips to help in Supercharge Your Writing Session

Getting Started Might Be Hard … But You Can Still Do It

I have a list of daily “soundtracks” (inspired by Jon Acuff’s book Soundtracks) that I try to read over each morning and evening. 

One of my soundtracks is I’m doing hard things and it’s OK that they’re hard.

Sometimes, when things feel hard and difficult, it seems like I’m doing them wrong or I should be doing something easier instead. And of course, it’s always worth looking for ways for something to feel lighter and more enjoyable – there’s no point making things hard when they don’t need to be.

But when you’re reaching for big goals and important dreams in your life, you’re probably doing some hard things – like getting up the courage, energy, and focus to start on a new writing project.

It’s OK that those things are hard. You can do hard things. You may need some support, you may need some time, you may need to promise yourself a reward to help you through it … but you can absolutely get started on that piece of writing.

About

I’m Ali Luke, and I live in Leeds in the UK with my husband and two children.

Aliventures is where I help you master the art, craft and business of writing.

My Novels

My contemporary fantasy trilogy is available from Amazon. The books follow on from one another, so read Lycopolis first.

You can buy them all from Amazon, or read them FREE in Kindle Unlimited.

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