I spend time reflecting upon these ideas, letting the ideas tumble around in my mind until I discover the connection I’ve been seeking. Slowly, I relate one idea to the next until I’ve found my thesis.
When I feel as if my thoughts are blocked, I go for a walk. The sound of the city streets – the music from the local restaurants – the cheery sun outside – it helps. I soak it all in, I walk, I sit, and I focus on a single word or theme from my notes. I let it seep through my mind; I can feel the thoughts firing through the synapses of my brain. They start off stumbling – disconnected. I focus; I let my thoughts drift until the words are flying – soaring through my mind. I produce my best writing without a paper in front of me -- without the taunting blink of a cursor on a blank page, so I wait until the full picture comes together. Then, I write.
This isn’t how they taught me to write in school at all; my thoughts and ideas were stifled by the formulaic writing ‘style’ taught in school. They wanted my thoughts to conform to a set of rudimentary steps. They wanted to change the way I processed my thought – for me to box them up and suffocate them with graphic organizers and outlines – to somehow put everything into such a linear process – to separate my ideas topically when my ideas, my thesis, simply didn’t fit this formula. I don’t --- I can’t – start my writing with a flow chart, let my thoughts dangle from a spider web, or layer my ideas into the parts of a hamburger. I start with just a word – a phrase – maybe a sentence; it’s usually not my thesis. It’s simply something I need to say. It needs work. I need to develop it more, but I’ll get there – I know. I write in paint splatter, and I let my words lead the way.
I write in paint splatter. Some write in reverse, starting at the end and working back to the beginning. Some start with the meat and potatoes – the support and the research. Some just let it flow like a waterfall. Some write like leap frogs – many of my students do – their thoughts move faster than their hand. Let it flow; fill in the holes later. That’s okay. School asks students to write like i-robot, but we’re not robots; we’re human.
Writing is a creative process. It’s the one skill we learn that isn’t founded in memorized steps, rules, or protocols. It’s an opportunity to communicate our ideas to a wider audience – to unleash the ideas that simply won’t leave us alone. Writing is therapy; we can project our deepest emotions onto our characters. Our best writing exposes us; it makes us vulnerable to our reader. Writing is the basis upon which we can process our thoughts, to turn the information in our brains into something more.
Writing is the basis upon which we can process our thoughts, to turn the information in our brains into something more.
I teach my students to unleash their creativity – to find their voice – to use their writing to let their peers and readers understand them better. I teach my students how to dig through their internal dictionaries to find a word that perfectly articulates their thoughts, a word that not only says something but says everything. I teach them to reflect upon their writing not because the writing process says “revise and edit” but because there’s always a way to say something better – stronger. We can – we should – let our thoughts flow freely in whatever order suits us at the time, but then we must consider whether we’ve truly said what we meant. Have we said this in the best, most concise way possible? How can I let my reader inside my mind?
Too many students have become reluctant writers; they’re terrified of writing. They’re intimidated by it, but everyone is a writer. Everyone has ideas to share. We simply need to give our students the tools they need to feel empowered as writers. Student writing often looks like paint splatter; it’s disorganized and chaotic. I start by writing like paint splatter on the walls, but it’s my understanding of the English language that allows me to turn a jumbled mess of thoughts into a well-articulated final paper.
I encourage my students to use any pre-writing strategy that works for them. For some, this means doodling ideas across a page with very few words. For some, this means creating a strict outline. For others, it’s easiest to free write – just let the thoughts flow. Pre-writing is a mechanism that we can use in writing to help us “blurt” out our thoughts without worrying about structure or organization. Pre-writing should look and be a visual interpretation of your ideas and nothing more. It is not until we unleash the ideas within us that we can, or should, start to refine them – to pick and choose which ones are worthy of making it into our final writing – to uncover the correlation between one idea and the next – to decide upon an organization style for our final piece – to shape our thoughts into sentences and paragraphs that not only convey meaning but also purpose and intent.
Writing is not so much about what we say but how we say it.
Writing is not so much about what we say but how we say it. Our pre-writing can look like paint splatter – it can look like anything or even everything, but our final product must be accessible to our reader – clear, concise, and organized.
The organization of our writing must be the first decision after we finish pre-writing. Again, we can brainstorm the organization of our writing in any way we choose. Some students put numbers next to ideas; others draw arrows from one to the next. I encourage my students to literally cut and paste their ideas until the paper in front of them looks like an abstract painting – move the ideas from your pre-writing around until you find the deeper meaning – until you find the theme that connects it all – until you find order in the chaos. Then, you can write.
Just write. Don’t worry about word counts, sentence counts, or page counts. Don’t worry about how long or short your final paper will be, who cares? Say what you need to say – nothing more, nothing less. A paragraph is not five sentences nor is it three or seven. It is a distinct section within a piece of writing that deals with a single theme or idea. An essay is not, despite the lessons of many public schools, a set of five “paragraphs” smashed together that can easily be broken down into the same formula: topic sentence + supporting detail 1 + supporting detail 2 + supporting detail 3 + conclusion. An essay is not five paragraphs. It is not four to five pages or 1500 words. An essay is, quite simply, a piece of writing on a subject that proves an overall statement or theory – a thesis. A conclusion is not – nor should it ever be – a restatement of one’s introduction. It is, however, your final opportunity to address your reader, so make it count.
Revision and editing are not steps in the writing process; they ARE the writing process. The writing process is self-reflexive – it’s kneading our words together until we reach an optimal consistency. We must not wait until we’ve finished our writing to revise or edit. Linger on each word – each phrase – each sentence for just a moment longer. Lock your mind on each addition to your writing and reflect. How does it feel as it rolls across your tongue? How does it sound surrounded by its neighbors? Does this word or phrase benefit my writing or is it simply there to help fill the page?
We can – we must – find a balance between our creativity, our voice, and the conventions of our language that connect us to our readers. I encourage creativity amongst my students, but I stress that creativity does not mean *creative* spellings or sentence structure. It doesn’t mean *creatively* eliminating punctuation, long winded run-on sentences, or choppy sentence fragments. I teach my students to write creatively but revise analytically.
I teach my students to write creatively but revise analytically.
Decode the purpose of each word – each phrase – each clause. Focus on the little words – the ones we so often forget – our conjunctions (those tiny joining words) and our prepositions (those short words that show relationships). Focus on our adjectives and adverbs – those modifiers that we can so often replace with a stronger noun or verb. Let’s be creative, but let’s also make our writing stronger – clearer – better. Let’s make it something that we’re proud of – something we want to read and re-read just to salivate at its beauty.