Writing: Getting Started
1. What's the Problem?
A lot of students have terrible problems just getting started on written work. Perhaps they have their eyes on the empty page in front of them, and their minds on the finished product - a highly-organised, grammatically-correct piece of work. The gap between the empty page and the finished product is too great - they don't know where to begin. Let's set about solving this problem.
2. Something is Better than Nothing
Let's forget about academic writing for a moment. Suppose we just want to write about 'An Interesting Journey', or 'My Eccentric Uncle', or 'A Day at the Beach' - you know, the kind of things any schoolteacher might set for homework!
Don't spend hours sucking your pen - that doesn't help! Just start. Don't think too much about it, just say something. Your first sentence might be, 'I really enjoyed my high school trip to Kyoto', or, 'My uncle is really weird!', or, 'The last time I went to the seaside it rained'. It doesn't matter what you write, just so long as you write something.
Now look at what you've written and ask yourself what you'd like to say next. Perhaps, if you're writing about your trip to Kyoto, you'd like to give a reason why you enjoyed it so much ('The best thing about it was that I had a seat next to a girl I had often seen and admired, but never had a chance to talk to...'). Or if you're writing about your eccentric uncle you could give an example of his strange ways ('When his wife died, he went to her funeral in the morning and bought himself a pet dog in the afternoon...'). Or if you're writing about a rainy day at the beach you could describe your feelings about it ('I didn't mind; I had a really nice time just sitting in a coffee shop for about three hours reading Sophie's World...').
If you carry on like this you will soon have written two or three pages. Stop from time to time to ask yourself what you want to focus on next, so that you don't say too much about the girl and not enough about the trip, or too much about the dog and not enough about your uncle, or too much about the coffee shop and not enough about the beach; but don't spend too much time thinking about it. Just write as if you were speaking, telling it to a friend. The result may not be the greatest piece of prose ever produced, but it will be something, and something is better than nothing.
3. Mistakes? So What!
Of course, if you are writing in English there will be some mistakes in your work. Don't worry about those! Students sometimes hesitate for ten minutes, wondering whether to put 'a' or 'the', and they still get it wrong! After you finish, read through your work and check for mistakes, but don't spend a long time hesitating while you are writing.
4. Don't try to be clever
There is nothing worse than trying to read a piece of writing that is full of difficult language that the student doesn't really know how to use properly. Keep your work clear and simple. If you can't think of the English word, change the sentence and say things in an easier way. If you can't remember the word 'cousin', just say 'my uncle's daughter'. If you don't know how to say 'air raid shelter', call it 'a place where people went to be safe when enemy aeroplanes were attacking'. Don't bother searching in the dictionary for 'polytheist' - just say 'someone who believes in many gods'.
5. Practise Regularly
Of course the students who do half an hour's writing in English several times a week will be better writers than those who do not. Try keeping a diary, or writing lesson reviews in English. Or else start writing letters or e-mails, poems, shopping lists - anything! It doesn't matter what it is, so long as it's in English.
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