For many people, the toughest part of any writing task is getting started. Here are some exercises that help with "blank page syndrome" or "writer's block."
Listing: Brainstorm a list of possible topics. If the assignment deals with your own experience, try a list of important events in your life related to the topic. If the assignment deals with material from a class, brainstorm all of the things you've talked about in the class that you remember or that interest you. The important thing is not to censor yourself at this point - write down anything that comes to mind.
Freewriting: Freewriting simply means writing without stopping for a set amount of time. Start with shorter amounts of time (2-5 minutes) and build up "stamina" slowly. Again, as in listing, it's important not to censor ideas at this point; simply write down anything that comes to mind. Sometimes, if you keep your hand moving, you'll come up with details and connections that never occurred to you until you wrote them down!
Looping: Looping is a variation on freewriting. Pick one aspect of your topic to begin writing on. Freewrite for five minutes. Then, read over what you have written and underline the most important or interesting idea or sentence. Start with this idea or sentence and freewrite for another five minutes. Find your "center of gravity" sentence again. If you continue this process, you'll often find you've started a rough draft of the assignment.
Clustering: Write the topic in the middle of the page and put a circle around it. Then, branch out from the circle with associations and details about the topic. Write down anything you can think of, making connections as you see fit (see "Guidelines for Selecting a Subject," next page, for an example).
Cubing: This is another way to look at one topic from many angles (like the pentad exercise). Write for one to three minutes on each of the six "sides": Describe, Compare/Contrast (How is it like something else? How is it different from something else?), Analyze (What parts does it have?), Evaluate, Apply (What can you do with it? How can you use it?), Argue (for or against). All sides will not work equally well for all topics.
Answering WH-questions: Write the five "Wh" questions (who, what, where, when, why) across your paper. List as many questions as you can think of that a reader might ask about your topic in those categories. Write down answers or features of your topic that might address those concerns.
Story Board: This is ideal for narrative assignments. In each "screen," sketch the stages of a story (like a comic strip). Under the sketch, briefly define the action. In a large box below, list at least three descriptive phrases or adjectives which clarify the action.
Invisible Writing: If you have trouble writing without constantly re-reading and editing what you've said, this may work for you. Using a computer, turn the contrast down on your monitor so the screen is blank. Type for at least 20-30 minutes without looking at what you've written. Then, turn the contrast up and, ignoring typos, find out what you have to say!