Education researchers have shown that the most powerful way we learn is by trying to articulate what we know, believe, and feel (Connally, 1989). The creative process of transforming what is inside our heads into a form that can be shared with others is difficult but absolutely necessary for meaningful learning to take place. How many times have you passively listened to someone (ME!) talking about a topic thinking to yourself how boring it was or how obvious or how random, but when you later tried to explain it to someone, you found it nearly impossible to do so?
Writing is not about simply producing the correct number of words in the correct format; rather the writing process itself is part of the learning process. Writing requires us to think about what we know and to confront what we don’t know. In the process, we find out where we need to focus more attention and find the gaps in our understanding.
Few of us have healthy writing habits, unfortunately. Maybe you share some of these weak habits:
- You believe that writing is about producing a finished product.
- You believe that once it’s written, you don’t have to think about it again.
- You put off writing until the last minute.
- You write papers the day or night before they’re due.
- You write in marathon sessions, spending whole days struggling with writing.
Such habits are self-defeating. You feel guilty for putting off writing, so you put it off even more. You feel stressed, because you have an unpleasant task to do. You don’t write carefully, because you’re on a deadline. Everything you turn in is, by definition, a first draft… and first drafts are almost always bad drafts (even for professional writers!!!). You then feel guilty about the quality of your work (“I just can’t write well!”) and anxious about the feedback you’ll receive.
If this isn’t you— if you’ve already found a successful writing strategy for yourself that promotes your learning and leaves you feeling good about your work— then congratulations and keep up the good work!
If this sounds familiar, however, then here are some suggestions to help you develop a positive and productive writing habit:
- DON’T BINGE WRITE. Instead, find a 30-60 minute time block 3-4 times per week that you schedule as your writing time; ideally the same time each day, so that you develop a habit. If you’re writing a little bit 2-3 hours per week, you will be a very productive writer; more productive than a single 5-6 hour session!.
- DON’T SKIP YOUR WRITING TIME. Don’t schedule other meetings during this time. You wouldn’t want to skip meals, class, or sleep, so why should your writing be any different?
- DON’T TRY TO WRITE AND EDIT AT THE SAME TIME. They are different cognitive tasks that require you to apply different skills. Focus first on getting your ideas recorded without worrying about gramer, speeling,,, or punctuation!!! Just get your ideas down. I often turn off my word processor’s grammar and spell checkers so I’m not distracted by colored underlines all over my document. Later, during your next session, perhaps, switch your mind to editing mode, turn the grammar and spell checkers back on, and clean up what you’ve written. Either be an editor or be a writer and you’ll be better at both.
- YOUR FIRST DRAFT IS GOING TO BE ROUGH. Accept it. Embrace it. Writing is a process and processes happen over time.
- DON’T BE EMBARRASSED TO SHARE YOUR WRITING. Writing is about communicating. Don’t hide your writing assuming it will get better on its own. Share it with people you trust to be honest, get feedback, and be gracious about the feedback you get. You don’t have to incorporate every change someone suggests, but you should think about the suggestions.
- PLAN ENOUGH TIME TO EDIT YOUR FIRST DRAFT. You need to spend at least one of your writing sessions editing your first draft, before turning it in. So, plan to finish the first draft at least a day or two before it’s due, so that you can dedicate a session to re-reading and editing your work.
As for your writing process, here are some methods I’ve found helpful both to get started and to keep writing:
- START WITH YOUR CLAIMS. To get started writing on a topic, simply write 10-20 one-sentence statements that you believe to be true about the topic. Don’t try to write full paragraphs or to justify your claims at this point… just get what you believe to be true out of your head and on to the page. You can re-order, modify, add, or remove claims later. I’ll often write down claims for a paper as my last task of the day, before going to bed. That way, I have something to engage my mind during my next writing session.
- ADD OVERT STRUCTURE TO GUIDE YOUR READER. Cluster related claims together and add section headings between clusters of claims to explain what each cluster is about.
- For general persuasive writing, use headings that clarify your narrative.
- For scientific papers, often you’ll want to use: Abstract, Introduction, Literature Review, Methods, Analysis/Results, Discussion, Conclusion.
- FILL-IN YOUR EVIDENCE. Use each statement as the opening of a paragraph and use the remainder of the paragraph to explain why you believe the claim to be true. You might provide examples, relate your own experiences, or appeal to authority by citing the work and experiences of other authors.
- IF STUCK, TRAIL OFF MID…… Leaving a dangling sentence gives your mind a place to pick up when you come back for your next writing session. You read the build up to that incomplete thought and can’t help but finish it… and go on to write even more. It’s like having a productive conversation with yourself.
- EDIT, EDIT, EDIT. The secret to good writing is good editing.
- There is no great writing, only great rewriting. ~ Justice Louis Brandeis
- Perfection is achieved, not when there’s nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. ~ Antoine de Saint Exupery
- I cannot think of anybody who doesn’t need an editor, even though some people claim they don’t. ~ Toni Morrison
Writing is a skill that you develop with practice, like any other. No one creates fully formed, polished, finished work on the first try.
Connally, P. & T. Vilardi (Eds.). (1989). Writing to learn mathematics and science. New York: Teachers College Press.