Margot Lester at The Word Factory

Me at my desk in the L.A. office

When people find out I’ve been a writer most of my life, they often ask me about beating writer’s block. "How do you get started," they ask? "What if you can't figure out how to end?" they query.

How to get started writing

I have to admit that working at the late, great Chapel Hill News as a school page contributor helped me discover an unbeatable tonic for clearing the block: the deadline. When you know it’s gotta get filed no excuses or extensions, you learn pretty quick that the best way to beat the block is to just start – anywhere.

I learned this back in the day when the IBM correcting Selectric™ typewriter seemed like the greatest thing since canned beer. This meant that if I ended up starting at what actually needed to be the middle of the story, I’d whip out the scissors and literally cut and paste (where do you young whippersnappers think that term came from, anyhow?) the copy into the right order. Then I’d retype the whole thing and take it over to the copy desk. Oh, yeah. We didn’t have faxes back then either.

[Speaking of the olden days, if you’re a print news vet and you’re on Facebook, you have to check out the hysterical historical gift app here. My favorite is the deadline volley of profanity].

How to write ledes/openings & conclusions

But many folks don’t create written content on serious daily or even weekly deadlines, so this tactic isn’t necessarily scalable. For that, though, Steve created The Glossary of Good Beginnings©. It’s a handy list of 35 ways to start almost any written piece, complete with examples. I keep a copy taped the wall by my desk for easy reference. Conveniently enough, he also built a similar list of “happy” endings so you can get out as neatly as you get in. Since he created these for school kids the examples are pretty basic, but the ideas definitely provide the right inspiration. One trick I use is to pick three and see which results in the best lede. Takes about 10 minutes at most and ALWAYS works.

If you decide to try this, do let me know how it works for you. Especially if you come up with a kind of beginning or ending we don’t have on the list!


Get more tips on how to write.