November 13, 2015

Why is writing so hard? Common myths about the writing process

What is it about a university writing assignment that can fill even the most studious undergraduate with dread? Sharon Stearns, student learning advisor with the Student Success Center, identifies common myths about the writing process and advice for getting started.

While the causes of procrastination are varied, they often share an emotional trigger. In many cases the emotional foundation of procrastination is some combination of anxiety and fear — fear of inadequacy, fear of being perceived as stupid, fear of not being perfect. 

Another factor that may contribute to a difficulty with writing university assignments is the way in which writing is taught in junior high and high school. Writing is an uncertain and messy process that tends to proceed in fits and starts, but little of this tentativeness makes it into the school curriculum. How often are noted authors early drafts shared with students — reassuring them that even the most prolific authors struggle, too? 

The messiness of writing is not merely metaphorical. The internet is filled with images of first drafts of great literature filled with scrawls, written on random pieces of paper or covering walls, all interwoven with doodles, charts, and many crossed-out items. Too often, classrooms strip the process of its true organic nature and present it as a neat, linear sequence of steps that proceed inevitably from one to the next. Even worse, students are sometimes made to feel they should have figured out what to write before the actual writing begins. This sets up false expectations for how the writing endeavor really happens.

Who can blame an undergraduate for postponing that writing assignment if even the glimmer of a good idea is crowded out by feelings of intimidation and inadequacy to the task? More important, how do they escape the trap of procrastination?

The first step is to re-frame your approach to avoid feeling overwhelmed. You are NOT being asked to write the next great novel. And you should NOT sit down with the goal of writing your entire essay (or paper or reflection or whatever).

Things to consider when starting to write:
  • Remember that the best writing comes together through multiple sessions spread over time. 
  • Try sitting down to just write ABOUT your essay (or paper or reflection or whatever). Write everything you know about it, think about it, and even how you feel about it. 
  • Don’t worry about a complete draft or outline. Write without restraint or concern for conventions of grammar or mechanics. You don’t need research or data at this stage — you don’t even need to make sense.
  • Don’t agonize over creating the most intriguing opening sentence — save the finer details for later.
Many instructors call this the “Brainstorming” stage of the writing process; I think of it as the “Brain Vomit” stage — write down every thought related to your assignment, no matter how fully formed it is. The point now is simply to engage your attention on the topic, get used to writing about it, and find your way in. By emptying your brain of everything you think and feel about your topic, you should be able to produce a written nugget, which is the key to wrapping up your assignment.

How is a small nugget the key? Once you have written your nugget, all you have to do is revise it!

Okay, so maybe your nugget still requires a great deal of revision, elaboration, explanation, and clarification before it’s fit to submit, but that’s alright because it’s easier to think about revising than to think about writing. What is crucial is that you produce this nugget early enough in the process that you have time to leave it alone for a while — this is the “Percolation” stage.

Recent research into the way our brains problem-solve supports the strategy of embedding this stage (better yet, multiple "Percolation" stages) into a writing project. It turns out that your greatest “Aha!” moments during this writing project will most likely come when you’re not even occupied with the writing, thanks to a somewhat mysterious brain circuit called the Default Mode Network (DMN). Your initial nugget-producing stage of focused thought is essential for laying the groundwork, but it is only once you turn your attention elsewhere that your DMN will kick in. Oddly enough, the most likely time for such an “Aha” moment is when you are engaged in some menial task like walking the dog or cleaning the dishes. Yet, if you postpone your writing assignment until the last minute, you rob yourself of the opportunity for your DMN to generate “Aha” moments.

Even if you eventually trash every bit of your original nugget, it’s just that much easier to develop something once you have something started. But it’s important to remember that this kind of method hinges on having enough time to write and revise and think and revise and so on.

Just remember:
  • Dread of the writing experience is usually far worse than the writing itself—just write and see what happens.
  • Maintain your motivation by keeping your goals small and doable; a paper is built a nugget at a time, written in short writing sessions, one after the other.
  • Establishing the initial nugget early on is necessary in order to trigger your Default Mode Network, which, in turn, will inspire new insights.