Embracing the Messiness of Writing This Summer

expository writing

Statistical Mediation & Moderation in Psychological Research (29)The dawn of inspiration is such a lovely, romantic concept. Someone says something or a bird chirps in a funny way; you freeze in your tracks; you slowly intone, “…say that again.” You run to the nearest laptop, and you write down your masterpiece in the matter of hours to the sound of a swelling rock anthem.

Alas: if I only wrote my doctoral dissertation when I felt truly inspired to do so, I would probably have about five unrelated pages by now. Writers cannot rely on inspiration to drop in; instead, we have to find it in the messy process that is drafting. Luckily, the summer allows for even more time for writers to get our hands dirty.

Whether you’re working on a personal statement or academic essay, if you care about the end result, it’ll probably take multiple drafts to get it right. The upside of that is that the more drafts you write, the lower the stakes will be for any individual draft. The trick to making the summer work for you is to be diligent about making time for writing but relaxed and experimental with your process. You’ve got time to play around, so use it! It’s less about what you put on the page on any given day and more about keeping your goals in mind.

Ready to stop staring at a blank page? Here are some ideas:


Much of writing is the art of making your brain legible to other people, but for now, you don’t have to slow down for anyone to follow you. Try to write as much as you can about your topic in a 10 to 15-minute stream of consciousness. You might veer off course. You may or may not write in complete sentences. Still, you’ll have words to look back on.

Group ideas together.

Now that you have a bunch of raw ideas, how do you begin to make connections? Again, we're not yet trying to make sense to someone else-- what makes sense to you? You could generate a word cloud to see what comes up most often. You could make lists or charts (say, the top three most interesting ideas that you've come up with so far). You could make piles of physical index cards, each with a different idea (perhaps an anecdote or a quality for a personal statement), and start mixing and matching to see how ideas could build off one another. Get crafty! If you see something you don't expect, write it down.

Try a different format.

The blinding stare of a blank Microsoft Word document can be very intimidating. Try writing in the draft of an email to yourself to lower the stakes. Take note: a pencil and paper won't place a judgmental red line under misspelled words.

What if you’re staring at a more complete draft? When an essay starts to take shape, begin to save multiple copies. Leave at least one untouched for your records, and with the others:

Annotate it.

Treat your work like a difficult text. Underline words that appear often. Ask questions in the margins. Make summaries of paragraphs. Start to see yourself not only as a writer but as a potential reader. Be thorough but neutral-- it's not about "good" and "bad" so much as it is about what you take away from it.

Frankenstein it.

Move paragraphs around. What happens when you start where you finished? What happens when you take one small supporting paragraph or idea and try to write a new draft where that idea is the main focus? What happens if you can only keep one sentence from each paragraph? Remember, discovering that something doesn't work is also good information.

Inspiration is less of a gift from on high than a nugget you dig up after trying different sites and shovels. It's not as pretty, but it works-- and you might even have fun with it!

Writing is one of the primary skills required of high school and college students, yet rarely is it taught well. That’s why our writing tutors are published authors, MFA graduates, and Ph.D candidates in the humanities who have devoted years to learning how to teach their craft.

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Looking for some other helpful writing tips? Check out some of our previous blog posts below!:

Two common grammatical mistakes to avoid in polished writing

Writing: Knowing Your Audience

Crafting a Strong Thesis Statement



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