How to start writing: 16 tips to overcome common writing problems

How to start writing
Getting started can be difficult. Here are 16 tips to help.

How to start writing is a common lament among beginner writers. They know they want to write. They might even know exactly what they want to write about. But something is stopping them. If you are familiar with this feeling then this blog post is for you. These tips are to help you overcome 16 of the most common writing problems.

Many people have the urge to write. Not all of these will actually do anything about that urge. Of those that sit down to write fewer still finish a book. And not all of those books will end up being published. There is a lot of self-doubt and internal struggles to battle through when we are writing.

All writing problems are psychological problems. Blocks usually stem from fear of being judged. If you imagine the world listening you’ll never write a line. That’s why privacy is so important. You should write first drafts as if they will never be shown to anyone.

Erica Jong (Fear of Flying)

1. How to start writing your book

Start with the first part of your idea. It could be a character, place or scenario. But you will not start writing your book with the first line.

The first words on the page are not going to be the first words at the start of your finished book. It is only when you have the rest of your first draft written that you will know what the start of your story needs to be. The first line of your book could continually change as you redraft and edit your book. 

Beware of spending too long on that ‘perfect’ first line. First lines are only appreciated in context with the book that follows after.

2. Allow yourself to write badly.

This is the hardest advice to follow when you are starting to write. After all, the books that you read are not written badly. 

You can only craft a good (not perfect) sentence when you know what the sentence after it is going to be. Nothing on the page is in isolation. And your first draft is communicating the story to yourself first. Then you are going to polish it up and move words around to make it possible for the reader to understand what it is you want them to know.

Because you can’t write habitually and well all the time, you have to be willing to write badly. That’s how you get the regularity that enables you to be present for the good stuff.

Jennifer Egan (A Visit From the Goon Squad)

3. Prepare for mistakes when you start writing your book

There are so many different parts to a book and levels to a story. 

It is not possible to always get everything right. Experienced, published, bestselling writers with writing qualifications can still get things wrong. But it’s still worth trying. Just stay prepared to learn.

We are all apprentices in a craft where no one becomes a master.

Ernest Hemingway (The Old Man and the sea)

4. Don’t put pressure on this writing project.

What you are writing now might not become a bestseller that will allow you to retire. Statistically speaking it definitely won’t. But learning how you write can help a lot when you are starting to write.

Finishing this writing project will definitely benefit you for the next book you write. Putting pressure on your writing will only make it more difficult. Focus on the process and not the results.

When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself ‘I am going to produce a work of art,’ I write because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.

George Orwell (1984)

5. You will never feel ready to start writing your book

I don’t know what the ‘perfect’ moment looks like for me. I always feel too tired, or busy etc. There is never a perfect moment to write. There will always be something else that could be done. Or some element of writing craft that I need to learn more about.

This need to wait until we’re ready often comes from fear. Putting words on the page is a great way of battling that fear. And you can only get better at writing when you are writing. 

6. Write a synopsis or summary of your idea

Summarising your idea for your book is a great first step when you start writing. It will help you to focus on what you want to achieve from this writing project. Once you have your initial idea written down then you can either just dive straight into the story or break it down into sections. The method you choose will depend on whether you are a planner or pantser.

What do you want readers to feel? What do you want to communicate?

7. Are you a Planner or Pantser?

Do you write best when you have a plan or do you just let the ideas appear on the page as you write? Maybe you do a bit of both. Knowing which of these you are most comfortable with will help you get started.

There is no ‘correct’ way to write. There is only the way that works for you. If you are not sure then try out both ways.

I know I am a planner because I experimented with discovering the story as I write during Nanowrimo one year. I didn’t like how I wrote myself into corners and ended up using ridiculous (for the story) plot twists to keep the story moving. But this could be what you enjoy about discovery writing. 

A story is like a human face. We have as many stories as human faces. You might have similar facial features but they’re all a little different.

Svetlana Alexievich (The Unwomanly Face of War)

8. Anything is better than nothing when you are starting to write

Writing is more about habit than achieving perfection. So, when you are starting to write you are getting used to writing at a certain time and in a certain place. It can take time before you write something you are happy with. Quantity is easier than quality. It can be hard for us to recognise quality when we are reading our own writing.

Writing is also a skill that requires practice. We don’t expect someone who has just started to play the piano to be ready to perform with a professional orchestra. So, why do we put such pressure on ourselves to write to a high standard straight away?

A word after a word after a word is power.

Margaret Atwood (The handmaid’s tale)

9. Do the writing first

When you start writing try to just focus on the writing. There is lots of information available on how to get an agent, how to publish etc. But all of that can only happen after you have finished a book.

Don’t let yourself become distracted by bright and shiny ideas. Focus on getting words on the page first. If you want to prepare ahead, then learn about redrafting and editing.

10. Keep it simple when you are starting to write

You don’t need a special notebook or a particular colour pen when you are starting to write. These are nice to have but are not going to make any difference.

In fact, looking for the ‘right’ pen, notebook or writing program will only slow you down. Start with what you have right now in front of you. It could be the notes app on your phone. Or a pencil and a piece of paper from the recycling pile.

I once used a crayon because I was colouring with my son when I had an idea for a story.

11. Finding your voice.

This is one of the most difficult parts of starting to write. We all have a style of writing and a way of expressing ourselves that are individual to us. But we can only find this after we have done a lot of writing.

Finding your voice happens towards the end of the writing process. You might have to discover how you don’t want to write before you discover how you want to write.

You have to get used to how your thoughts look when they are on the page. This can be hard. It always sounds better in our heads. 

Try not to overwrite. Try not to make it sound too good. Just use your own voice. Use your own style of putting it down.

Elmore Leonard (Get shorty)

12. Other people’s feedback and expectations

They are not useful, important or necessary when you are starting. When you start writing you are writing for yourself first.

You have to discover what you want to write, how you want to write it and then go through a few drafts and editing before you will be ready to show anyone. In fact, showing someone too many versions of a story can mean that they are not able to give you useful feedback. 

Books aren’t written – they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept. Especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.

Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park)

13. Finding community

When we start to write we are often doing it on our own. It can be lonely feeling like you are the only person that struggles and has difficulty getting words onto the page. You can look for writing groups in your area and see do they meet at times that suit you. There are also many online groups, both paid and free. Some people do live group writing sessions on Instagram.

You do not have to be doing a writing course to find other people that also want to write. Start following other writers on social media. Listen to podcasts about writing.

Knowing that there are other people out there that are also writing and struggling can be a great encouragement.

14. Reading other writers

Reading other writers is great for inspiration when you are just starting to write. There are so many ways this can help. A bad book can be just as inspiring as a good book if it frustrates you enough to put pen to paper.

Reading is also important for learning your genre. Knowing the tropes and quirks of your genre can help you with the structure of your own book.

We are always standing on the shoulders of giants. There have been so many books written that you will never be the first person to write about your topic.

But this is a good thing. This means that there are readers out there waiting for your book.

15. Start with the idea you have right now.

This is similar to point 8 – Anything is better than nothing. When you are starting to write it is really hard to know if your idea is a good idea or not. When you first think of an idea it’s too soon to judge how good or bad of an idea it is. You might need to add more to it or develop it further. But it still doesn’t mean your idea is bad. We all need a starting point. 

There is also an argument to be made that there are no bad ideas. Jim Butcher wrote a 6 book series to prove this point. He was part of an online discussion where someone challenged him to write a fantasy book that combined pokemon and the fate of a lost Roman legion. Which he did with the Furies of Calderon series.

You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff. And then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.

Octavia E. Butler (Bloodchild)

16. You can call yourself a writer even if you are just starting to write

As soon as you start writing you can call yourself a writer. There are no qualifications or achievements that you need to call yourself a writer. When you are putting words on the page, it doesn’t matter how many or how often, you are a writer. When you have a story you want to tell, it doesn’t matter if it is fantasy, romance or your own, you are a writer. Even if you have only ever written in your personal journal, you are a writer.

And when you start to call yourself a writer it becomes easier to develop the habits of a writer.

Action Steps for How to Start Writing

Which one of these 16 writing tips is the reason you have not started writing your book?

Journal about why you think this way and where this thinking came from.

Now write 3 reasons why this thinking is not correct. It could be authors you know that were able to succeed in spite of this block or only when they overcame this block.

Put an encouraging quote on the wall in your writing space. Another good place to put it is on your desktop or phone screen.

More help with your writing

How to use other writers routines as inspiration for your own

12 Quotes to Inspire You to Write

How to find your writing niche

How to get the first words on to the page

The complete guide to the benefits of journaling for writers

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