How to start writing a paper

Do you need help to start putting words on paper? Whether you’re procrastinating or simply not in a writing mood, you might need some tools to get over that hump and start writing. As a high school teacher I developed a toolkit to help my students commence writing for their essays and research papers, and now as a PhD student I am using these myself to get started on my writing tasks. These tips are relevant for any type of academic text, whether it’s a school essay, a research proposal, or a scientific paper.

1. Start in the middle

If the thing that’s blocking your flow is crafting the perfect opening sentence, instead try starting somewhere in the middle of your text, or even at the end. I’ve used this method for writing this blog post. Starting at the very beginning can sometimes feel like too much pressure. Plus, it can be easier to craft an introduction that guides your reader into the body of the paper once that text is already written.

2. Paraphrase while you take notes

If you are writing a research paper, essay, or any other genre that draws upon numerous other sources, you will of course be integrating and synthesising contributions from those sources in your own words. When you are taking notes from these sources, such as in your reference management software or a dedicated notes document, paraphrase them (i.e., rewrite them in your own voice) immediately. This way, when you are constructing your text, you already have an entire bank of original and referenced sentences ready to draw upon. If you take paraphrased notes every time you read a relevant source, this not only maintains your writing practice, but is an efficient way of adding some initial bulk to your text.

3. Create subheadings or topic sentences

You may find writing easier if you have a basic text structure to work with. Even if you’re unsure about what the structure should be, that doesn’t matter – simply having one will allow you to find order in your ideas, and as you start to map these out you may find ways to improve upon that structure. Creating subheadings and/or topic sentences is a great way to do this. Subheadings could be phrased as themes, statements, questions, or a combination of these. You can also place these under the major headings of your text (if any – depending on the genre), such as the introduction, methods, discussion and conclusion. Topic sentences are the first sentences of each paragraph, which indicate what that paragraph is about and summarise its main point. Once you’ve written topic sentences, you may also find that you are able to write their preceding linking sentences, giving you a ‘top and tail’ for each paragraph in your paper.

4. Don’t write — speak instead

If the words are simply not flowing from your fingertips, consider a different mode of communication. Imagine you are preparing for a spoken presentation, like a conference talk or a Three Minute Thesis presentation. I like to actually stand up and pretend I am about to give a presentation to a live audience. What phrases come to mind? How will you introduce the topic to your listeners? What background information do they need? How will you summarise your key points? I find thinking in this way to be great when I am stuck for words, as it reminds me to think of my audience. Use a voice recorder or speech-to-text app to record your ideas, rather than sitting at the computer.

5. Don’t write — draw instead

Try creating a figure for your paper, such as a flowchart to visualise a process or a Venn diagram to depict relationships. This process can help you to connect, compare and contrast your content in ways that inspire description and discussion. I love using Canva and SmartArt in PowerPoint to organise my thinking with diagrams.

I’ll leave you with a wonderful quote that totally changed my perspective on writing:

“There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting”.

There are many attributions for this quote, and I’m not sure which is correct. But regardless of its origin, the message is clear — the words you string together today are not your final product, so don’t judge them as such. They are only a starting point for revision and improvement, and these are the processes by which your final paper is produced. So don’t wait for inspiration to strike — just write!

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