Absolute Beginners

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

So, you have the idea that you might like to try to write something but have no idea how to get started. Should you just dip your toe in the inkwell or should you jump in feet-first?

Beginning to write is not as simple as it might seem. It can be intimidating to start a new hobby (or career, depending on how far you want to go), especially when you are basically teaching yourself.

Bookstore shelves sag under the weight of “how-to” books in the writing reference section. If you’ve never written, how do you know what advice to follow? What if you just feel like you’d like to tell a story but the back cover intimates that you should aim for publication? Before you decide to take up model shipbuilding instead, here are a few ideas for the absolute beginner.

Getting started

Writing as a hobby can be a lot like jogging as a hobby. Just as a runner only needs to know “left foot, right foot, repeat” to start running, you only need to be able to put what’s in your head onto paper. That’s all there is to it! Worry about style and substance later. Your goal is to get accustomed with the writing process.

You don’t need fancy equipment to get started. To start running, all you need is a pair of shoes. Special pens or ergonomic keyboards won’t make a difference in what you produce. I think it’s best to start as simply as possible. You need either a computer or paper and a writing utensil. That’s it.

Step 2: Relax. You don’t have to win a race the first day you go out jogging. There’s no need to produce anything of any quality right off the bat. You don’t ever have to show your work to anyone, so there’s no worry about impressing people with a spectacular first draft.

Try to decrease your distractions. If your writing space is distracting (noisy, bright, etc.), find a new place to work or cope with the distractions. If you can’t stop thinking about your grocery list, it’s okay to jot it down but don’t let it replace your creative writing.

Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get any creative writing done on your first few ventures. You’re settling in and learning what you need to be a writer, whether that’s an inspiring exercise or a CD of cello music in the background. You’re writing for pleasure so allow yourself a pleasurable experience.

Try to write a little every day for a few days, like how runners condition themselves. Promise yourself a set time period or word count. You may be surprised by how quickly you can produce just 500 words of fiction or a dozen lines of poetry. If you don’t meet your goal one day, just say to yourself, “I can meet tomorrow’s goal.” You won’t have gold pour from your fingertips every time you sit down to work.

Even if you only want to write as a creative outlet, it is still just that—”work.” Just as jogging can be exhausting and fun at the same time, writing can be pleasurable and taxing all at once. It is the reward of work well done that brings joy to a writer. Don’t be intimidated by the “work” aspect of writing.

Appreciating the art of writing

The written word is an essential part of everyday life. You may not even realize how much writing you encounter every day. Someone wrote the creative copy on the back of your shampoo bottle. Someone wrote the copy being read by the morning news anchor. Someone wrote the lyrics of song you listen to on the radio. You encounter more writing before 9 a.m. than you may have realized.

As you begin to identify yourself as a writer, try to identify writing wherever you find it: greeting cards, instruction manuals, advertisements and menus as well as magazines and books.

When you watch a TV show or a movie, think about how the story began: as a writer’s inspiration. Do you think he came up with the situation first or the characters? What would you have done differently if you were guiding the story? Do you find the dialogue believable? Do you find the characters consistent? If not, how does that affect your enjoyment of the show/film?

When you talk about a piece of writing, try to refrain from using the term, “what the writer was trying to say.” The writer was not trying to say something; the writer said something. It may have come across well or poorly but it was said. It may not seem like a great difference but you may be surprised how much it changes what it is you are saying about writing.

Think of writing as a form of abstract art. What the writer-as-artist produces is not just this piece of art; she produces a reaction in you. Your response is essential to the piece. Without a reader, writing is simply “words on paper.” Once you gather something from those words, once the writer says something to you, it becomes a story, a book or a poem.

Let’s get writing

You may not know what it is that you want to write but you know you want to write. Maybe you should ask yourself, “What do I like to read?” If you read poetry, let’s write a poem. If you like novels, let’s work on fiction. If after seeing the Lord of the Rings trilogy you thought it might be fun to write a story like it, try your hand at “fan fic” using those familiar characters.

There are a few exercises that accompany this article and that would be a good place to start. Comb through our past exercises to find something that interests you. Check our calendar or our boards for writing prompts.

One good place to begin writing is in a weblog, or “blog” as it is commonly called. You can begin a weblog by signing up with a free service like Blogger, Blogdot or Diaryland. If you are more Net-savvy, you might want to investigate Movable Type or Greymatter.

Your weblog can be public or private. You can write about anything from the minutiae of your day to specific topics like baseball or a political campaign. Read other people’s weblogs to get ideas for what you’d like to write about. Keeping a weblog, either for non-fiction or for creative writing, is a good way to keep on a daily writing schedule. Just keep a handy link to your blogging tool and you’ll find yourself making time to blog even when you have time for little else.

Suggested Reading: The Weblog Handbook by Rebecca Blood

And then…

Once you’re in the groove of writing, gaining confidence and practicing, go ahead and take the next step. What is the next step? It’s what you want it to be. You might want to share something you’ve created, if for no other reason than to hear a friend say, “You’re a writer? Cool!” You might want to try more complicated exercises. You might want to plunge into publishing. You might want to find a critique group or take a course.

You may never be more than a beginner and that’s fine. What’s important for you as a new writer is to enjoy writing for writing’s sake. If it’s not fun anymore, take a break. Come back when you are ready. The inkwell will be there.

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