10 Ways to Start the Writing Process When You’re Staring at a Blank Page
Louis L’Amour is attributed as saying, “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”1
Sounds easy enough, but a lot of times we can’t even find the faucet. Or we find the faucet but fail to turn it on.
Either way, we want to write, but no words flow.
Is that you?
Are you ready to begin writing but you don’t know where to start—you don’t know how to get the words to flow?
I’ve got 10 options for you—ten faucets, if you will. I’ll bet one stands out more than the rest.
Pick one. Try it.
See if it gets those words flowing.
1. Start with a memory
Think back to an event that seems small yet feels packed with emotion. You don’t have to fully understand it. Just remember it. Something changed due to that event. The change may have been subtle or seismic, but you emerged from it a different person.
The simple prompt “I remember” can get you started. Use it as a journal entry and see where it takes you, or go ahead and start writing something more substantial.
When you remember and recreate these scenes from your past, you’ll learn from them. I experienced this when I wrote a short scene in this style, called One Lone Duck Egg.
2. Start with a photo
Photos can whisk us back to another place and time, whether as recently as last week or as long ago as childhood.
Pull a photo from your collection of family photos, physical or digital.
Write in response to the scene. Recreate it. Let the memories unfold.
You could be in the photo, or not.
You could write the story behind the moment, or elaborate on a particular person in the scene.
- What do you think was happening?
- Why were you—or weren’t you—there?
- What does this say to you today?
Another approach is to combine words with images to create a photo essay.
Back in 2011, I walked around the farm where I grew up and snapped photos. Each time, a fragment of thought came to mind, a flash of a memory.
When I got home, I pieced it together to come up with Dancing in the Loft.
3. Start with art
Art ignites imagination. Whether you invent a story behind the piece of art you choose, or you document your response to it, you’ll end up with an interesting project.
One of my creative writing professors in college gave us a similar assignment to write poetry from art. It’s possible she was trying to introduce us to ekphrastic poetry,2 which, according to the Lantern Review Blog,3 is “written in conversation with a work(s) of visual art.”
But she took a less formal approach, asking us to find some art, study it carefully, and write a poem.
I used a small, framed print of an Andrew Wyeth painting as inspiration.
I studied the boy sitting in the grass and imagined a possible scenario leading up to the moment Wyeth captured. As I was finishing the poem and typing it up, I realized I needed to include information about Wyeth’s work. I turned the frame around and fortunately I found the date and name of the painting. Wyeth named it “Faraway,”4 and I coincidentally called my poem “Runaway.”5
Spend time with the art and see where it leads.
4. Start with an object
I once wrote about an old, worn knob that topped the post at the bottom of our stairs.
I loved the worn knob for being worn. All the stain was rubbed off one side of it from the years before we owned the house. Like the previous owners, we swooshed around that newel post, running our palms around the knob every single time we ran up or down the stairs.
When we decided to replace the railing, I begged our carpenter—who is also a friend of ours—to save the knob.
Another time I wrote about a precious soapstone vase I played with as a child. The consequences of that day of play lasted a long, long time.
My friend and coauthor Charity Singleton Craig uses objects (and places) to launch a “chain of remembrance.” She explains in her newsletter “The Wonder Report“:
I start with something specific: a year, a place, an object. Then I try to remember just one specific thing about it. After that, I try to remember another thing and another after that, allowing each memory to flow from the one before. Eventually, I have a whole chain of memories, often growing stronger and more specific as I go.6
One story can stand alone or link multiple stories for a more complex chain of connections.
5. Start with a question (inquiry)
“I begin an essay with a willingness to be changed by what I write,” Scott Russell Sanders says. “I do not set out to deliver something I already know, but to inquire into the unknown, to dive into confusion in search of greater clarity.”7
To inquire into the unknown is to start with curiosity—to start with a question.
Your questions could be personal questions, cultural questions, specific questions, or big questions about the meaning of life.
To get you thinking, here are some of Scott’s questions, which he shares in his book The Way of Imagination:
- Why did my father drink, and how did his drinking affect me?
- How have the landscape and culture of the Midwest shaped the people who live here?
- Why is racism so persistent?
- What is beauty?
- What is wildness?
- What is so mesmerizing about rivers?8
Scott writes with the same sense of inquiry as Dani Shapiro, who says, “I write in order to discover what I don’t yet know.”9
What questions rise up in you?
Use those to launch your next writing project.
6. Start with another piece of writing
Have you read something recently that resonated with you—something you wanted to discuss with someone?
- Maybe you ran across an article you connected with, that put words to your thoughts.
- Maybe you read a book that you disagreed with?
- Maybe a blog post held information you’d never heard before?
In any of these scenarios, you can start with the writing that stirred something up in you.
Refer to it.
Respond to it.
Riff on it.
The world of online writing has expanded the sphere of discussion and debate so that anyone with a digital device can find a way to publish their point of view.
This could be you.
Start by re-reading an existing piece of writing and type your thoughts as a response.
Weave a select quote from the original with your thoughts. Add other perspectives. This is how we enter the conversation and add our angle and deepen a discussion.
7. Start with news
I first heard about newsjacking from Teej Mercer, founder—or as she calls herself, “Chief Noisemaker”—of Media Mavericks.10 I’ve since learned it’s a known publicity and marketing technique.
The idea is to monitor breaking news and find a connection with your personal brand.
- If you write about health and wellness, you could respond to any study released with your take on it.
- Your personal story may relate to a high-profile person’s announcement.
- If you’re passionate about the environment, you could write in response to any number of breaking news, from wildfires to another animal added to the endangered species list.
Monitor the news, find your connection to the event or announcement. Learn what’s being said about the event, and bring your slant, story, perspective, and opinion.
8. Start with culture
You could argue that a cultural event falls under the broader category of news, but I like separating these. Starting with culture might stimulate creative connections to a talked-about episode of a show or a scene from a film.
On a group coaching call in Your Platform Matters (YPM), my membership program, we discussed this concept. After describing Newsjacking, I coined this: “Culture Lassoing.”
That’s because of Ted Lasso.
That show has so many different threads you could engage with. I’ve seen several Twitter threads about mental illness because of some plot twists in this season.
You could use a pop culture phenomenon like that and lasso it. Fans notice the show they love and enter the comments to weigh in.
When The Good Doctor first came out, authors who write about autism analyzed the accuracy of the portrayal of a surgeon who is on the spectrum.
Look at music and movies, social media shifts and gaming trends. Identify what you’ve discovered, decide what to say about it—and share it with the world.
Because you’ve lassoed something with name recognition, you may interact with a whole new set of people you never would have met otherwise.
9. Start with conflict
When you see two product options or two wildly different opinions on something, take a side. Make a claim. Explore it and support it.
- Write a this versus that piece, like Trello versus Notion, front-loading versus top-loading washers, or Yellowstone versus Yosemite National Park
- Provide a balanced view to something that has been presented as either/or
- Start with a public claim someone made and support it if you agree with it, or disagree with it
This can feel risky in a time when positions on various issues seem more volatile than ever, but milder versions and topics can be just as interesting.
10. Start with a list
Start with a list. Your brain loves lists. If you’re stuck, you may find you’re unstuck by the time you scribble the fourth or fifth entry.
And then you might as well keep going. Next thing you know, you’ve written the draft or at least the outline of any number of things: a poem, essay, short story, or blog post.
While a list can store ideas and fuel longer projects, occasionally a list can actually become the project itself, like, oh, I dunno, maybe a blog post titled “10 Ways to Start the Writing Process When You’re Staring at a Blank Page.”
James Altucher is an idea machine and he attributes that to the habit of making lists.11
Most often, he seems to suggest writing at least 10 things on the list, but the topic can be about anything.
Let’s say you’re working on a book about trust—maybe you’re flipping the standard idea of trust by redefining it and claiming distrust is a good thing. You could make lists related to this book:
- 10 beliefs people have about trust
- 10 quotes about trust
- 10 examples of trust with this new definition
- 10 cautionary tales of people who don’t step into this new way of viewing trust
- 10 people who exhibit healthy distrust
You could build out your book’s content with a series of lists.
Of course, you could use this for any kind of writing, from a poem to an essay.
How Will You Start the Writing Process Next Time You Face the Blank Page?
Let’s run through the list one more time:
- Start with memory
- Start with a photo
- Start with art
- Start with an object
- Start with a question
- Start with another piece of writing
- Start with news
- Start with culture
- Start with conflict
- Start with a list
Like I said at the beginning, one of these ideas is likely going to stand out a little more than the others.
Try that one today, and bookmark this post for the future.
Next time you’re stuck and the words won’t flow, you’ll have options for how to start the writing process when you’re staring at a blank page.
- Your Best Material: The Practice of Remembering
- One Lone Duck Egg
- Dancing in the Loft
- The Old Worn Knob
- Write Poetry from Art: Runaway (Andrew Wyeth, “Faraway,” 1952)
- Charity Singleton Craig’s “The Wonder Report” that describes the chain of remembrance
- How to Use Lists to Transform Your Writing (and your life)
- My Everything Page
- “A Quote by Louis L’Amour.” Goodreads, Goodreads, https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/303969-start-writing-no-matter-what-the-water-does-not-flow. Accessed 27 Sept. 2021.
- “Ekphrasis: Poetry Confronting Art.” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, https://poets.org/text/ekphrasis-poetry-confronting-art/. Accessed 27 Sept. 2021.
- Malhotra, Mia: “Weekly Prompt: Ekphrastic Poetry.” Lantern Review Blog, 19 Mar. 2010, http://www.lanternreview.com/blog/2010/03/05/weekly-prompt-ekphrastic-poems/. Accessed 27 Sept. 2021.
- “Andrew Wyeth in China.” Christie’s, Christie’s. https://www.christies.com/privatesales/andrew-wyeth-in-china#about-section. Accessed 27 Sept. 2021.
- Kroeker, Ann. “Write Poetry from Art: Runaway (Andrew Wyeth, ‘Faraway,’ 1952).” Ann Kroeker, Writing Coach, 3 Sept. 2015, https://annkroeker.com/2015/09/03/write-poetry-from-art-runaway-andrew-wyeth-faraway-1952/.https://annkroeker.com/2015/09/03/write-poetry-from-art-runaway-andrew-wyeth-faraway-1952/. Accessed 27 Sept. 2021.
- Craig, Charity Singleton. “September 24, 2021.” The Wonder Report, The Wonder Report, 24 Sept. 2021, https://thewonderreport.substack.com/p/the-wonder-report-september-24-2021. Accessed 27 Sept. 2021.
- Sanders, Scott R. “A Writer’s Calling.” The Way of Imagination: Essays, Counterpoint, Berkeley, CA, 2020. (204)
- “On Inquiry.” Dani Shapiro, 10 July 2015, https://danishapiro.com/on-inquiry/. Accessed 27 Sept. 2021.
- “MEDIA Mavericks Academy.” MEDIA MAVERICKS ACADEMY, https://www.mediamavericks.tv/. Accessed 27 Sept. 2021.
- Altucher, James. “The Ultimate Guide for Becoming an Idea Machine.” James Altucher, 14 May 2014, https://jamesaltucher.com/blog/the-ultimate-guide-for-becoming-an-idea-machine/. Accessed 27 Sept. 2021.
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