How do you begin a new piece of writing?  Let's say, for instance, you are giving a paper at a conference and it's a paper you've never given before.  What do you do to start yourself off writing?  I have a few strategies; most are helpful.

  • Agonize - I spend a lot of time on this step.  Worrying about all sorts of possible outcomes, and producing no usable content.  This part doesn't even have to take place in front of a computer.  It happens in the car, at dinner, and especially in the early morning hours when I should be sleeping.  
  • Plan - This step is many times more useful than my first step.  For a conference paper, I look back at my proposal or abstract to remind myself what I said I would cover.  Then, I make a question-driven outline which includes questions like "What is the takeaway?" and "What evidence supports this argument?"  This helps me think about my message for the audience (all 4 of them) and how to order the essay in a rational and straightforward way.
  • Plan some more - I look through all my notes, archives, and files (all of which are digital, with a few minor exceptions) to see what evidence I have for this specific paper.  When I'm reviewing sources, I try to tag them as much as possible to lead me back to them at this step.  I use Zotero, Evernote, and FileMaker to keep track of all my sources.  I also have lots of printed sources on Google Books, which is convenient but not a great interface for quick, visual scans of my personal collection.  
  • Write - Then the writing begins.  I usually write from the middle out, beginning with my main points and then going back to the introduction and conclusion at the end.  I tend to write on my points that have my favorite visual evidence first, but that's just a result of me doing what I like the most first.  Sometimes after this step there is more research to be done, and even more planning, but if I've been thorough in the lead up to the writing stage this is only minor.
  • Revise - This step can be devastating, because this is when I face the bitter reality that my favorite sources aren't always the best sources to use as evidence for a particular argument.  This is a bummer, but in this circumstance (writing for a conference presentation) cuts must (almost) always be made.  I seek out well-informed second opinions from people who can offer straight grammatical criticism and field-specific content review.  
  • Read aloud - Yes, that advice from 4th grade still applies.  I read everything aloud to myself and my dog.  It really helps to clarify, simplify, and streamline a paper that will eventually be delivered orally.  In the cases where it won't, it's still a useful way to ensure sentences are clear and direct.  
  • Finalize - In this step I triple check my footnotes, grammar, and tables/diagrams/images.  

I find that the steps help me to get started on what seems, when considering the mass of the work, to be an overwhelming amount of synthesis, writing and critiquing.  What methods do you use to get yourself writing?  

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