I was recently helping someone with a comparative essay they had to write for school. This person did not like writing—a common enough state of affairs. They felt that they had no talent for it. The process frustrated them. I could see that they were struggling in part because they were trying to do everything at once (come up with ideas, write grammatically sound sentences, discover their own thinking and opinions on the topic at hand).
The pressure to do everything not only right but simultaneously can lead to a surprisingly inefficient working process. It can make writing feel stressful and unpleasant. You’re only one person, after all! And this is why, whether I’m working with a student who’s writing an expository essay, a short story, a speech, or any number of other projects, the first thing I do is remind them to separate the process into multiple practical steps.
1. The Joys of Brainstorming
When I worked as a writer for newspapers and magazines, I always kept a running file of ideas. It didn’t matter if they were “good” ideas or “bad” ideas—they were ideas that came to my mind, and that was the sole criterion for inclusion. Some of them were just fleeting curiosities. Did I use them all? No! Of course not. Some of them, though, became the seeds for longer works.
Track your curiosity. Pay attention to what interests you. Notice what you notice. I give this as general advice for a lifetime practice of thinking and writing but it can just as easily be applied to a specific assignment. Let’s say you’ve been assigned a paper for a Literature class or a History class. Barring the possibility that you know exactly what you want to write about right away (it happens to all of us now and again, though it’s best to be prepared for that more frequent reality, not being quite so sure), you’re going to need some ideas.
I usually recommend that you sit down and write a list of ten ideas as quickly as you possibly can. Five, ten minutes. Seriously. Remember, they won’t all be usable. Maybe most of them won’t be. That’s OK. Generally speaking, I’ve found that if you come up with a list of ten ideas, at least one of them will catch your interest and feel like something worth exploring further.
Let yourself be a little silly, even—it’s totally fine if among your ideas for an essay on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein are things like “scariness” or “words.” Because on second glance, maybe your unconscious is sending you a message and those aren’t such silly ideas after all: “scariness” might become “techniques of suspense” or “fear in the Gothic novel”; “words” could become “the use of figurative language in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.”
See what I mean? You’re already on your way.
2. Separate Writing and Revision: Make a Mess First
It’s hard to overemphasize how much this one has helped me as a writer over the years. Once I learned to do it, I wished someone had told me about it earlier. (I was helped along by a book called Writing on the Right Side of the Brain by Henriette Klauser—a goldmine of tips and techniques that helped convince me not only that writing can be taught but that learning to write can be fun.)
If I had to write an article or an essay, I used to sit down right away and set a timer—ten minutes, say—and just get as much raw material and thought on the page as I could in that time, not worrying at all about spelling, grammar, or even whether I was making any coherent sense or not.
Believe me, if you could see some of those ten minute “freewrites,” you’d wonder how I ever managed to put together any essays or articles, let alone a book. But the point is to get that raw material on the page—clay you can then start to play around with and sculpt. Nothing’s set in stone here: you can do as many freewrites as you want and throw as much material in the trash as you need to.
You’ll turn your attention to sentence structure, clarity of expression, and so on in a bit. First, free yourself up to write “badly,” to say whatever comes to mind about the topic at hand—ideas, stray thoughts or connections, fragments.
3. Rewrite and Revise
A writing mentor of mine once told me that rewriting was where the real writing took place. I’m not sure that it’s always true, but there’s definitely something to it: once you have your raw material and you start working with it, shaping it into a coherent whole, you’ll start to experience the pleasure of seeing your messy draft material take on impressive polish and shine.
This is the time to focus on the details. In your freewriting, you cut loose. Now you break out the precision tools and begin to look at the little things: word choice, grammar, sentences, transitions. And then the bigger things: paragraphs, overall structure. If you love this kind of nuts and bolts work, it’s your time to shine.
4. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
Move back and forth between these two processes a few times—making a mess, cleaning it up, making a mess, cleaning it up—and I promise you you’ll have something more workable than a blank page and a blinking cursor staring you in the face. You might also be surprised how productive you feel.
5. One Last Thing: Surprise Yourself
OK, this is more of a mindset point than a practical step. So be it. One of the greatest things about writing, whether it’s a short story, an essay, even just a journal entry or informal notes, is the feeling of discovering new things as you work. Try to take pleasure in the process as it unfolds. Daniel J. Boorstin—historian, teacher, author of many books, and the Librarian of Congress for twelve years—once said, “I write to discover what I think.”
Writing becomes more enjoyable when we use it to explore and refine our own thoughts, ideas, feelings, and visions. And there’s nothing quite like surprising yourself with some unexpected insight or connection when you get on a roll. Writing can help you think for yourself—and rethink for yourself. It can bring your mind to life. And isn’t that what we’re here for?
Cambridge Coaching was founded by doctoral candidates in English, and instruction in reading and writing is one of our particular strengths. Our tutors are published authors, as well as Ph.D candidates from the top English graduate programs in America, with most hailing from Harvard or the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop--or both.
We have a long history of helping high school, college, and graduate students become more astute critical readers and writers capable of producing their own polished academic essays. Many of our students come to us looking for help with basic composition or reading comprehension, but our expert tutors have coached our clients through everything from business English to doctoral dissertations. Whether you need to learn how to tell a participle from a pronoun, or need help making sense of Shakespeare, we can design a syllabus to suit your specific goal.
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