by Kristi R. Johnson
The logic behind writing practice is simple: The more we do an activity, the better we will be. The more ways we use writing (summarizing, instructing, thinking, convincing), the fuller our toolkit will be. We will have more comfort, more ways to think about what works for us, and more positive experiences that we can remember and repeat. When we think about writing, much of the time we think about long projects, tortuous sessions at the keyboard, or the angst of knowing it was not the best we could do.*
As a follow-up on last week’s post by Scott, “Writing, Athletes, Practice, and Peak Performance,” I will be talking about my own writing process and how I get myself to sit down in front of the often intimidating, as well as depressingly blank, computer screen. I will go ahead and make the disclaimer that my method is certainly not for everyone, nor will it work for all would-be writers. However, if you haven’t found your own writing process or find yourself becoming short of breath whenever you open a new Word document, there may be something in my own process that will at least help you move forward and out of that paralysis that many students find themselves when trying to write a paper.
Depending on the writer, ‘process’ can be as basic as not submitting the first draft of a project.
At the very least, submitting a first draft as a finished product should definitely be avoided. I understand that writers, most certainly students, often find themselves in a time crunch, sometimes of their own invention. I have heard procrastinators say that they work better under the pressure of having to have an eight-page paper completed before 8:00am the next day, and it is already 11:00pm the night before. I am not a procrastinator. Never have been, and I probably never will be, mostly because I begin to lose my mind if I have a writing assignment due within two weeks and I haven’t at least outlined the entire paper, completed the research (if research is necessary), and planned out every paragraph and every point I wish to make. Procrastination just isn’t for me. But even for the chronic procrastinators, while cranking out an eight-page paper overnight may not be an issue, I doubt there is little time leftover for any significant amount of editing and revision (any chronic procrastinators out there are free to refute me on this one).
From my experiences working with students at the writing center, it seems that much of the anxiety some of them face comes from them simply not giving themselves enough time to sit and write, much less edit, revise, rewrite, and polish. If the looming deadline for a school paper is causing you to stress out, waiting until the night before to begin writing isn’t going to alleviate any of that stress.
For other writers, writing is already a process because it occurs in stages over time.
Since I began participating in National Novel Writing Month, where the goal is to write 50,000 words in between November 1st and November 30th, when writing fiction I have taken to simply sitting down in front of my computer, or even my iPad, and writing. I usually do have an outline that I have put together, mostly containing character information, as well as details about whatever imaginary school, small town, or business I have decided to place the characters in, if only for the sake of being able to maintain some consistency as I tell the story. When churning out this first draft, my primary goal is to get the ideas and words on the page, and not worry too much about everything coming out perfect the first time. Because it won’t. And while the goal is to have so many words done by the end of a specific time period, that goal can be met by writing so many words a day, everyday.
…writing as a process is not about the product. It is not about the text that you submit to the professor, committee, or journal.
After so many days, or sessions, in front of the computer or tablet, and I have finally met whatever goal I was trying to meet, I know the project isn’t over. Don’t get me wrong, it feels great to get that first draft out of the way and completed. To me, that means 75% of the battle has been won. But now I need to edit. Because I simply sat down and wrote, without worrying about everything making sense, without taking the time to make proper transitions, and without paying too much attention to grammar, punctuation, use of the appropriate tense, etc, there is no way I can submit my story without some revision.
…the writing process is a practice…Practice is about every day, controllable activity that connects to larger issues and ideas or has longer timelines.
For the novel I eventually got published, I wrote out the draft, then went back over it with a fine-toothed comb. In retrospect, I should have had someone else look over it first before submitting it to publishers, but I didn’t. However, after it was submitted and accepted, I then handed it over to a trusted friend, eventually went over it again myself once she gave it back to me, and then submitted what I thought would be a final copy back to my publisher. But once the design guy formatted it into bookblock, I was given the opportunity to look over it once again, and sure enough, I had more revisions to make.
Writing as practice is not only about submitting more grammatical papers; it is about regularly using the tools of written communication to improve the quality of our learning and thinking. Re-drafting lecture notes, journaling, blogging, or writing letters and emails are small, daily ways to slow the pace of our life and use writing in a practical way and to achieve texts that are not high-stakes.
While I would love to have another novel published, and am currently working toward that goal, it isn’t my only writing project. For one, I occasionally contribute to this blog that you’re reading. Then I have my own book blog where I basically read books and then review them. Most recently, I have began searching out anthologies I could potentially submit my fiction to in hopes of getting some of my shorter fiction published. Even though I have graduated from college and am most likely done with academic writing and now write for fun, I still have to work at it and practice in an attempt to get better at my storytelling.
*Excerpts in italics are taken from the January 22, 2015 blog post, “Writing, Athletes, Practice, and Peak Performance,” by Scott Escalante.