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Learning Skills

Getting Started

If you find yourself staring at a blank sheet of paper or a blank computer screen trying to think of what to write, you're not alone. Many students say that getting started is the hardest part of writing a paper. Try some of the helpful techniques below to get you writing.


Take out a watch and give yourself 10-15 minutes to freewrite about your essay prompt. This exercise forces you to write and continue writing until your time is up. Don't stress about grammar and spelling here. Just write and try to let your ideas flow naturally from one to the next. Sometimes one freewrite won't be enough to find an essay focus so you should repeat it a second time, writing more acutely on the second freewrite. 

  • Freewrite #1
    OK, what do I want to say. Talk about some personal encounters of prejudice...Well, I really hate it when people approach me and speak to me in Chinese. They say something they think is nice and friendly which probably is equivalent to something like "How are you?" But how the hell am I supposed to know what they're saying, I'm Japanese. I guess they think all Asians are Chinese or something. And maybe they think they're cultured because they're recognizing that I am a different ethnicity. Whatever. It's like me going up to somebody white and talking to them in French. Yeah, you tell me if I won't get weird looks. But hey, I'm supposed to smile and tell them I don't speak Chinese and move on my way. 
  • Freewrite #2
    I think I found a focus. The horrors of implicit racism. If I had to choose between an encounter with blatant racism versus implicit racism, I'd probably pick the former any day. If people called me a nip I would not hesitate to call them out on their ignorance, school them, teach them why ignorance like theirs' fosters oppression. Blatant racism is easy for me to combat because I recognize their hatred, their loathe. But when I encounter subtle racism I somehow swallow my tongue. Why? Have I internalized racism and believe their actions are justified? When I lose my voice do I then perpetuate this oppression?

In the first freewrite, the writer addresses the essay prompt and writes about her personal encounters with prejudice. She writes naturally, detailing her feelings during and after these encounters. In her second freewrite she defines what she is writing about, implicit racism, and insightfully explores the role she plays in it. The writer effectively narrowed down her ideas in the second freewrite and is well on her way to beginning her rough draft.


Start by jotting down everything that comes to mind about your topic. You could write down ideas, past experiences, key words and phrases or possible examples. You want to just get your brain thinking about possible areas to explore. During this exercise, don't worry whether any of these ideas make sense or are related, brainstorming is just a starting point.

The menace of time, watches, clocks:
  • never there when I need one, always there when I don't need one
  • my schedule is ruled by them
  • stops at inopportune times
  • the time my power went out and I was late for my midterm exam
  • buzz blares in my ear, heart attack- sick association with buzz, like a Pavlovian dog
  • determines when my parents force me home
  • nice ones never fit my wrist
  • snooze- 9 minutes never enough
  • what's up with the ones without numbers
  • why do I want to dive 400 meters with one on
  • stupid backing makes it so hard to replace the battery
  • some of them have a 10 page manual to operate, unnecessary
  • clock ticking during final exam feels like putting a fork in my eye
  • generic, most thoughtless gift

Now you have a variety of ideas to explore and elaborate upon. You can start eliminating some ideas and expanding on others, finding a possible direction for this essay by clustering ideas together. For example, you can write a paper about the physiological horrors of time constraints (causes stress during finals, alarm buzz promotes acne via classical conditioning). You can also write a humorous essay detailing the perfect clock for a college student (simple to operate, back-up battery supply, five alarms to spread out "snooze").

Asking Yourself Questions

A very effective method to get you thinking is by asking yourself these six important questions: Who? Why? What? When? Where? How?

If we use the essay prompt, "What does home mean to you?", we can generate the following questions:

  • Who belongs in my home?
  • Why is my home hard to pinpoint?
  • What makes my home memorable?
  • When does my home disappoint me?
  • Where does my home begin and where does it end?
  • How is my home different from my father's home?

Obviously, you can direct these questions in numerous ways. But the purpose of this exercise is to develop questions so you have something to confront and react to. And the answers you come up with, once narrowed and organized, will be the starting point for your essay.


Another method to get you writing is clustering. In this exercise you connect ideas together by drawing them out on paper. You start with your subject and then branch out from there, connecting related ideas together into subgroups.

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Learning Skills Department
Located on the second floor of the Life Sciences Building

English: LS 201
Math: LS 205
Testing: LS 206

Math Lab: (323) 953-4000 ext. 2775
Language Arts: (323) 953-4000 ext. 2776

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Phone: 323.953.4000


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