I spend a lot of time in the “getting started at getting started” phase of the writing process. For me, that’s the phase that comes after I’ve decided on a topic. I know what I’m writing about, but I’m not sure yet about how I’ll frame what I’m saying, what tone I’ll use, or how I’ll structure the piece.
I spend hours, days--for larger projects, sometimes even weeks--getting started at getting started. I play with ideas in my own head. I’ll talk options over with myself while I shower or walk the dog or with a friend during commercial breaks (only during commercials, though. We don’t talk when Olivia’s on screen. I mean, we aren’t heathens). I read things that might be useful as sources or models, highlighting standout information, phrases, or rhetorical devices. I jot down a few sentences--sometimes even whole paragraphs--that might be good starting points or conclusions or transitions.
In many ways, all this pre-start starting is useful. It helps me declutter my mind and focus. It gives me starting points and direction for when I'm ready to actually bust out a draft. It's also useful because I'm super distractible--OMG SHINY THINGS ON THE INTERNET YAY!--so having a more drawn out getting started phase keeps my head in the game.
But sometimes I just can't move from getting started at getting started to actually, like, starting. I have all the pieces I need, but for some reason I struggle to, as they say, just get 'er done. I'll sit in front of my computer screen, fingers on ASDF and JKL;, ready to tap tap tap out the essay or story or blog post or article or whatever it is and I just. can't. make. it. happen.
It's a problem.
But, over the past year or so, I've happened upon what seems to be a potential solution: proposals.
At its most basic, a written proposal is simply a document in which you offer up your plan for addressing a particular task. Engineers write proposals. Nonprofit groups write proposals. Academics write proposals for conference presentations. My husband, who makes crazy cool custom costumes, writes bids for contracts that function as, you guessed it, proposals.
My first exposure to detailed proposals came last year, in a graduate level literature class. Our instructor had us write a 1-2 page proposal for our final papers. In the proposal, she asked us to not only explain what our topic would be, but to also give a brief run-down of how we envisioned the paper. She wanted us to map out, in detail, what our final paper would look like. Would it be broken down into sections? What would the introduction be like? The conclusion? What sources were we thinking about including?
Sitting down to clearly articulate my plans for the final essay in writing got me ready to start writing for real. It was like freewriting and outlining had a baby: it pushed me to get something on the page (freewriting style), but in an organized fashion (a la outlining). And, a month later, when it was time to draft, I was able to turn to my proposal when I struggled to move from getting started at getting started to just, like, doing the damn thing. I was also able to turn back to the proposal as I got deeper into the paper. It was a way to keep me on track.
Since that first experience with writing a detailed proposal for a writing assignment, I've written many more proposals. Some (conference panel proposals; a proposal for a book chapter; my thesis prospectus) have been assignments in and of themselves and have been directed at outside audiences. But most have been proposals I've written just to get started. Writing a proposal has become a standard part of my writing process. Added bonus: it gives me an excuse to watch Single Ladies again and again.
If you find yourself struggling to get started, I recommend you give proposals a go. The Purdue University OWL has some fantastic sample academic proposals to give you some inspiration. And Dr. Karen Kelsky over at The Professor Is In gives proposal-writing advice that can also help you clarify your intended topic.
So, write on.