FYWP Online Help Module I: Getting Started

Having trouble getting started on your paper? Try these great strategies!

How does a writer begin the process of putting words to paper with the greatest chances of creating a successful finished product? This web tutorial will help you develop a few key habits of planning and generating content in the beginning stages of essay writing.

Strategy 1: The Importance of Reflection (Before You Begin to Write)


stategy1Contrary to what you might have seen in the movies, effective writing rarely, if ever, springs only from sudden moments of inspiration. Even famous novelists admit that they do not write in response to spontaneous fits of insight alone, but rather, they mull over ideas in advance. We would like to share some reflective strategies that are useful as you begin to generate ideas for your essay.

Below are some important guiding questions to help you start thinking about your content.

Reflective questionnaire for every writer:

  1. Who is my audience? What do they already know about the topic? What background information should I provide or omit, based on the reader's prior knowledge? What new ideas or information will I provide?
  2. What task am I expected to accomplish in this assignment? For example, am I being asked to take a position of an issue, to present factual information on a topic, to compare and/or contrast two subjects, to analyze the components of a topic, to respond critically to a reading, to explain a process, or to tell a personal story? These are some common writing assignments.
  3. What is my "so what"? In other words, what is the core question I am trying to answer and how can I make this matter to my audience? What will make the writing meaningful or engaging?
  4. How much content can I effectively include in 2, 4, 7, or 10 pages, depending on my assignment? Is my focus narrow enough to really explore my topic?
  5. What are the special instructions or guidelines for my assignment?
  6. What is my timeline? How soon do I need to develop a draft? How much time will I have to revise and edit?

Strategy 2: Find the Best Working Environment, and Eliminate Distractions

stategy2Create a dedicated space for writing that will be as free as possible from distractions.

  1. Try turning off your phone and disconnecting your computer from the internet. 
  2. Avoid working around noisy people, loud music, and television. 
  3. Take advantage of campus and community spaces for quiet work environments.

You may think you can multitask, but the brain does not allow us to effectively complete several objectives at once. Your paper will suffer and the writing process will take longer.


multi-taskFamous writers frequently identify distractions in their work environments as the biggest obstacles to success. Check out these interviews:

  1. Anne Rice, author of Interview with a Vampire, discusses her process and how she escapes distraction: 
  2. Stephen King discusses the importance of practice, writing and writing again, and reading a lot:
  3. Successful screen writers discuss distractions and procrastination:
  4. Junot Diaz discusses strategies, the importance of perseverance, and dealing with writer's doubt.

Strategy 3: Learn about Available Writing Support, And Remember To Use it!

stategy3Here is where you can find help planning or revising your writing. Before you begin your writing, you should check out some of these available resources, and remember to use them:

  1. The campus writing center
    Writing tutors can help you with all stages of putting together your paper, from developing a topic and main idea to revising the final draft. 

    Check out the UML campus writing center, the Write Place. Tutors are available (for free) to help you at any stage in the writing process. They will help you generate ideas, organize and revise, understand grammar, avoid plagiarism, or with any other difficulties you may have with your writing. (The one thing they won't do, however, is simply proofread/edit your paper for you.) Everyone from freshmen to graduate students uses this service, and tutors will help you with any writing; it need not be a class assignment.

  2. The campus librarians
    Campus librarians are very knowledgeable about using outside sources in your papers. They can help you locate sources and cite them correctly.

  3. Your peers
    While keeping in mind that peers may not always have the same level of experience as trained tutors, they can still offer good advice or insight as you are developing or completing an essay. Talk to your friend or roommate about your topic and ideas. Try reading your essay to a peer for feedback on clarity, organization, and quality of ideas.

  4. Your professor
    For extra help, arrange a writing conference with your professor at any stage of essay writing.

  5. Books
    Textbooks from English 101 and 102 often provide a number of strategies for essay writing. We also recommend picking up a writing handbook.

  6. The Internet
    There are several helpful internet resources to help with language and usage, organization, planning, and using outside sources. These are just a few:

Putting Ideas Onto Paper

ideasIn the early stages of writing, or prewriting, it is important to capture moments of insight by allowing the free flow of ideas. When you feel ready to write and have eliminated distractions, you can use several strategies to generate rough content and ideas for your essay. The two practices below should not produce the final draft of your essay, but they will help you to get writing. Once you fill up a few pages with rapidly generated content, you can go back through this pre-writing and pull out the best ideas to be added to your essay.


Strategy 4: Generating Content - Freewriting

stategy4Freewriting is a way of getting the brain in gear, and it's an exercise you can use to start generating ideas for an essay or project. You can use freewriting with or without a specific topic in mind because freewriting can help you choose or narrow your topic.


Write down your topic at the top of an empty page. Plan on writing uninterruptedly for fifteen to thirty minutes, put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, and go to it, writing in rough sentences and paragraphs. Although you can work on the computer, most students find that freewriting on paper is less limiting and more fun. Write as fast as you can, and don't stop writing. Don't worry about transitioning between ideas, perfecting grammar, or checking spelling. Don't form a judgment about what you write; your censor is on vacation. Your writing may take you in some really weird directions, but don't stop and never think to yourself, "Oh, this is dumb!" If you get off the subject, that's all right. 

Once you finish your freewriting, you can go back and choose the best ideas and circle these to be used in the body of the paper. You might also identify a main idea, potential thesis, or paper topic if you don't yet have one. It's also  a good idea to read your freewriting out loud. Often the ear will pick up patterns or insights that you hadn't noticed while you were writing.

Freewriting Example

Follow this link for a short example.

Practice Freewriting Exercises

Follow the freewriting instructions above and write for 10-15 minutes on one of the topics below. You can use the online 'Writing Practice Text Box' or write on paper.


  1. Several New England communities have been fighting to keep Wal-Mart from opening stores in their towns. Should Wal-Mart be permitted to open stores wherever they want? What are the effects of bringing in a Wal-Mart? How can super stores impact communities?
  2. Write about Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, describing the colors, mood, setting, scene, time period, people, and possible story behind the painting.

Strategy 5: Generating Content - Brainstorming or Listing

Brainstorming or listing, like freewriting, is an informal way of generating ideas to write about or content for your essay. You can freewrite at any point along the writing process, but freewriting is often helpful before you create your rough draft. 


stategy5 As you brainstorm, don't worry about organizing your ideas, creating full sentences or paragraphs, or using correct grammar or spelling. You should simply open your mind to whatever pops into it. Think of it as a kind of free association. Some of what you write will not be useful, but that's okay. The point is to create as many ideas as possible: you will select from them at a later stage.  Write your topic or subject at the top of the page, and then begin writing your ideas rapidly as phrases or words, but not as complete sentences or paragraphs.

You can choose to brainstorm in the form of a list, using numbers, bullets, or dashes, or even have nothing at all before each item on your list. You can also create several categories in your topic and then place items on your list under each category while brainstorming.

There are lots of techniques to guide your brainstorming. Follow this link for some good ones.

As you can see from the images below, brainstorming doesn't have to look any particular way and can sometimes look like a hybrid with freewriting.


Even Bram Stoker used brainstorming when writing Dracula!

More Brainstorming Examples

  1. Brainstorming can also take place in groups. Here's a video example of brainstorming/listing to solve a problem at Google headquarters.
  2. You can also brainstorm in a web format to show the relationship between your ideas. This can be helpful in narrowing and focusing your topic.

Practice Brainstorming Exercises

mind-map Follow the brainstorming instructions on the previous page and write for 10-15 minutes on one of the topics below. You can use the online ' Writing Practice Text Box ' or write on paper.


  1. First, you will practice brainstorming in two columns. Draw a line down the center of the page and label one side "good technology" and the other "bad technology." Fill in your ideas in the correct column. Prompt: Which modern example of technology do you find to be most beneficial to society, and which do you find to be least beneficial or even detrimental? Why?
  2. Now try brainstorming in a single list in response to the following quote by Brazilian author, philosopher, teacher, Paulo Freire. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he writes, "Education either functions as an instrument, which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity, or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world" (34). 

    Write about what it means to be an educated person. You can choose to respond to Freire if you like.

    Open the online 'Writing Practice Text Box' or write on paper.