Tuesday, July 25, 2023

On Writing: How to Begin to Start

This question appeared in the comments on a recent blog post:

I have wanted to find an efficient way to ask you this question— I want to start writing a blog. I’m an old gal— 76, so it’s not like I have a lot of time. I have enjoyed writing since I was a young girl. I fantasized about writing my memoir but have never taken the plunge to actually seriously start. However, I think writing a blog would be good for a number of reasons. I write things occasionally on my Facebook page and many people have commented that they enjoy my writings. I think, among other things, the discipline of writing a blog would be beneficial to get me serious about communicating my ideas/thoughts/ impressions to a wider audience.

So, my question to you is: What advice would you give me in terms of starting a blog— What should I do—in terms of setting it up? ( I am not on Instagram, etc. Mainly just FB.) Thank you!

I heard similar questions from a woman in her seventies when I was selling books at the county fair last week. She had slightly more specific ideas of what she wanted to do [her life story for her grandchildren, and life lessons for a wider readership.] Her main question was the same: How do I begin?

Long ago, my sister Rebecca and I would put on plays and performances for our family. We would get all set up and then announce, “Now the show is beginning to start!”

I am still puzzled that we, as little Amish girls, knew anything about putting on shows of any kind.

Later, at maybe ten and eleven years old, we outgrew that silly announcement with our performances. At that stage [pun intended], we adapted stories from old books into plays, roping our little sister Margaret into the role of the maid or the spavined mare. One year it was an elaborate Christmas play, with all of us whipping into and out of roles and costumes.

We would find a story, write out the script, practice over and over, create costumes [including our brothers' pants and Dad's hats as needed], string a curtain over the pantry doorway, write out invitations to our parents and brothers, and set up chairs for our audience. Then it was time to begin. We’d pull aside the curtain, take a deep breath, and say the first lines. In one play, two poor spinsters discussed a tea rose that changed their lives. In another, two men argued over a horse, the one insisting it was a “spavined mare” and the other insisting it was sound. “But the eye, Master Schneider!” is the only line I remember.

The beginning is where your preparation ends and the show starts. It’s a lot harder than it sounds, and it takes a lot of energy to overcome the fears and barriers to that first step.

So, here’s my advice for anyone who wants to write. And I define “write” as it was meant by the women who asked me the above questions—writing specific pieces or projects and displaying your words for public consumption.

1. Answer this question: What are you feeling called to do, say, write, or publish? Some feel only a vague urge to share their accumulated wisdom in some way, some have a goal of writing their life story for their grandchildren, and others definitely want to write a book or start a blog.

It’s ok if you have only a general nudge toward writing. It’s also ok if you know exactly what you want to say and how to say it.

Think about this. Answer it for yourself.

2. Think about what you’ve already written. If you’re feeling the nudge in your seventies, I’m pretty sure you already have an accumulation of writings. Think of letters, diaries, updates in family emails or work newsletters, Sunday school lessons, and college essays.

If you can, gather your writings and flip through some of them.

What kind of writing do you do best?

What themes keep coming up?

What received the most response from others?

3. If you know exactly what you want to write, narrow your focus. Let’s say it’s a children’s book on first getting electricity when you were a child.  File away the journals from high school and the diary from your year in the Peace Corps. You'll use those in later projects; you don't need them now.

For the children's book, write down everything you can remember from that era of your life. Ask family members for their memories. Look up local history. And so on.

If you want to write your life story, gather the diaries and letters, but don't dig through the Bible study notes and the instruction manuals you wrote at work. Focus on a specific time period, and gather all the information you can.

4. If you don’t have a specific project in mind, then choose a platform. I recommend blogs as a great way to break into publishing. If you can figure out email, you can manage a blog. Go to blogger.com or wordpress.com and start clicking. Other social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, are great for spreading the word but not so great as places to express actual essays or articles.

A less techy and less public option is email newsletters. My almost-90-year-old mother-in-law considers herself neither techy nor a writer, but she sends out weekly emails updating us all on the bread she baked, the Sunday sermon, and the progress of harvest outside her window.

Your emails can be chatty letters, devotionals, essays about your thoughts, stories from your past, or carefully-crafted articles about specific topics. Ask friends and family if they’d like to be on your list, and encourage them to forward your emails to others if they find them interesting.

You can also operate offline and write with paper and ink. Compile a list of people who have enjoyed your letters in the past, type up letters or articles, copy them, and mail them out. See what happens.

5. Ask for help. The writing/publishing world is complicated and frustrating. I don’t know of anyone who does it well, all alone.

Ask your family for memories, ask young people to show you how to access the internet, ask published writers for advice. Most writers are “pathologically helpful,” as my friend Jessica Maxwell described herself. I freely ask for help, and I freely give help whenever I can.

6. Set small deadlines for yourself, and create a bit of structure. Not only is it hard to begin, it’s hard to create a pattern and keep up the momentum. For almost 19 years, I had a monthly newspaper-column deadline that kept me motivated. This summer, I have a goal of writing a blog post every Tuesday. I even have a rotating list of subjects—travel, life advice, random ramblings, writing advice, and so on. While I don’t have an editor waiting on me, I have a commitment to my readers and a bit of structure to keep me going. You can also create accountability with someone else—a spouse, friend, or another writer.

7. Take a deep breath, and let the show begin to start. Write something. Share it with someone else.

Many writers can plan and organize and outline until the cows come home. At some point you have to begin. Pick up your pen or laptop. Write something. Look it over. Make it better. Share it before it’s 100% perfect.

8. Keep going. Blog today and next week and the week after that. Write a devotional, then another, then another. Write about your birth and your early years and kindergarten. Write a letter and mail it to everyone in your group. Do it again, and again.

Words accumulate. Before long, you’ll be surprised at how many words and pages you’ve written. Eventually, you’ll have a children’s book or memoir or a set of devotionals ready to go.

9. Listen to feedback. Obviously, you don’t need to take all feedback seriously, but treat any response as valuable information. Someone read your writings and took the time to reply. You can learn from all of it. Look at what everyone enjoys or misunderstands. That can guide you in how and what to write next time.

10. Take opportunities that show up. You might be asked to write about vacation Bible school for a church newsletter or gather memories from the cousins to read at the reunion. Please say yes. 

11. Knock on doors. Contact publishers about your children’s book, ask other authors about printers they like, submit articles to magazines. 

Recently I’ve become aware of how much Anabaptists wait to do things until we’re asked, and how much that has shaped my writing life. Think about it. We often wait for a phone call asking us to serve in missions or a voluntary-service venue. We don’t pursue becoming a pastor, but wait to see if we’re chosen by the church. We don’t fill out applications to teach in church schools but wait until the board finds out about us through that mysterious school-board network and asks us to teach.

[Disclaimer—I’m sure this varies with place and time, but it has been very true in my experience.]

I saw this distinctly in my dad’s life when I read his book, A Chirp From the Grass Roots. Over and over, he says, “[Someone] suggested/put a lot of pressure on me to [go to college, go to Paraguay, teach in Indiana], so I thought I would try it.”

I find myself doing the same, "So I thought I would try it" routine. This worked out spendidly when the Register-Guard asked me to write a monthly column. It hasn’t worked so well since that job ended and I published the last book of family-life essays. I find myself waiting for someone to ask instead of figuring out what I want to do and going after it. 

So I’ve been thinking about Jesus’s words in Matthew 7:

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

I’m good at waiting. Pursuing is a skill to be learned. It means doing everything I’ve just told you, especially beginning.

Here’s my summary of how to begin:

Gather what you have.

Choose a project.

Set small goals and deadlines.

Put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.

Start writing.

Share it with others.


Keep going.

It's time for this show to begin to start.

[But seriously, if there’s a specific topic, book, article, or post you wish I would write, please tell me. I'd love to hear from you. dorcassmucker@gmail.com]


  1. Thank you, Dorcas. As usual, your thoughts are honest, thoughtful, accessible and so RIGHT ON! To me, you are such a kindred spirit, despite our background being so different. I love that, actually. These words here you have written on the writing process, I want to keep to refer to. Good advice. Muchas gracias!

  2. Thank you for this post Dorcas. And you and I have a mutual great grandfather, Eli Yoder. You are in the line of his daughter Barbara I am in the line of his daughter, Lydia Lydia had three husbands live through two world, wars, the depression, and all that entails. I have made a timeline of her life, including historical events, who is president, etc. I would love to write a historical fiction. My big drawback is the dialogue. I’ve never professed to have a vivid imagination! I have started writing some, but I always get bogged down. Thanks again.