Graphic by Zac Fox

When trying to refine my writing, one thing I learned was that the advice I’d been offered was deceptively simple. You can often hear people say how you have to “just go for it” with writing, to stop worrying and feel comfortable. But these bits of advice are often given by people who have their own processes and who actually go through a lot of effort to “feel comfortable.” I want to try to articulate some of the principles of writing I was never told and had to learn the hard way during midnight cram sessions.

First, don’t worry as much about trying to formulate the whole thing in your head beforehand. In reality, most writing comes in the moment as we work to bring together all the things we’ve learned into a single place. Every piece of writing, from a spontaneous free-write to a master’s thesis, will have to, at some point, be set down, turning abstract ideas into words and paragraphs. So, I would advise you not to tear your hair out creating some perfect essay in your head. If you have the necessary information, you will be able to write something meaningful.

I myself learned how dangerous overthinking can be for writing. I remember one essay I had spent all day thinking about, trying to come up with a concrete plan based on what I’d learned. I could decide on the thesis, but I felt I needed to keep perfecting the whole idea before I could begin. Ultimately it was only after I started typing it out that I started to fully express it in a way that I found satisfying. From this, I would advise trying to “free write” through your writer’s block; try to see what it is you know even if you can’t come up with the structure right away.

Consider an analogy with any other skill-based activity: it is necessity that drives one to learn and master something. Though I don’t know how to hang-glide, I would start learning fast if I were hang-gliding down a mountain. Similarly, we start learning what it is we want to write while writing. Perhaps along the way we figure out that some of our ideas won’t fully work out; we only know this by truly working with these ideas.

The second piece of advice I have to offer is to know your format. Each different thing we write has its own set of rules, and sometimes we follow them subconsciously without even thinking about it. For example, we know without having to remind ourselves that letters begin with a greeting and end with a closing. If you have a good idea of what form of writing you want to do, you will have a sense for what sort of rules you’ll have to follow in constructing it. If you are writing a research paper, for example, you can know that the form will require an extensive thesis statement, extreme attention to detail and a careful description of the facts.

If you think of writing as a process and not a set destination, it becomes apparent how to respond to that advice I mentioned earlier, about learning to “feel comfortable.” Comfortable writing comes when, rather than stressing at the beginning, we go into the process knowing that we will learn by doing. It does indeed help to create a routine, and choosing a specific place to write where you feel you’ll be most comfortable helps too. Ultimately, however, attitude is the most important element. Confident writing is knowing what you can do beforehand and then going ahead and doing it.

From college to the professional life, you may soon have to deal with the constant need to write. Much of this writing will have to be very different from what you’ve done before, adapted to different circumstances and using very different levels of detail, emotion and professionalism. Just remember that you have been writing your whole life. If you trust yourself, and let yourself make all the necessary mistakes in the writing process, you may be surprised at the skill you already have.

letters@chronicle.utah.edu

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