Sunday, February 21, 2010

Writing Often Improves Writing

If I dream of becoming fit and strong, I must begin to eat less and exercise more. If I long to play the piano beautifully, I must begin with scales and devote time to practice day after day, year after year. If I wish to write or need to write, then I must begin.

The question most often asked by those facing a writing task is how do I begin? My students often hope that I will answer that question with a foolproof strategy. Alas, the answer is neither foolproof nor magical. The answer is: begin.

Even if you are not yet sure of your point, even if you hate the first sentence and would like to start over, commit by beginning. You can always add, subtract, and re-write. You can also use what you write to discover good phrases worth saving and uncover main ideas because writing helps you clarify your thoughts.

In addition, I can help you shape what you have written, but only if you begin. So make a start. Put words on paper. Make a list or write freely, letting the words take you where they will. If your ideas are well developed, make an outline or a chart that begins with your main topic and branches off into sub-topics and sub-sub-topics. No matter what form your early writing takes, just begin.

Some illustrations of what your beginning might look like appear below, but before you begin, remember not to close off ideas. Be honest and thorough. Write down everything that comes to mind, and keep at it for at least five full minute. (Set a timer so that you will not be tempted to look up or away from your task.)

Example: What do you hope to gain by completing a college degree?

Beginning with a list.

Friends Someone to love Recession-proof life
Knowledge A great income
Security A job on Wall Street
Parents’ approval Ability to retire young
Expertise Options

Beginning by writing freely.

I want a better life than my parents have. They are always worried about where the money is going to come from. Food and insurance and everything go up but their paychecks stay the same. They joke that they will retire when they win the lottery. They are cutting back to help me go to college. I know it’s important to them—that I finish college. They have told me many times that a degree will open doors. I’m not sure what doors they have in mind . . . .

Beginning by preparing an outline.

Thesis: A college degree will provide important opportunities.
A. To learn about people with different backgrounds
B. To learn about satisfying careers
C. To prepare for a rewarding career
D. To build a strong foundation for a secure future

You can also begin by making a list before writing freely. Then, you can use the information that you have set down to make decisions and choices for an outline.

Assignment: Practice beginning. Use the sample prompt above, search for a different prompt by reading college and scholarship applications, use a prompt that you have been given by a teacher, or use this week's writing prompt, listed below. Then, make a list, write freely, develop an outline, or write all three in sequence. Just make a start.

Writing Challenge:

Serendipity: A happy accident. Be open to serendipitous events. Write about the surprises and good fortune that exist everywhere.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach