Jeremy Dunn, Consultant
Now and then writers I work with in the Writing Center ask me if I know of any tips to help them improve their writing. I find that offering cogent suggestions isn’t always easy. Perhaps part of my difficulty in offering “easy” tips to improve writing lies in the glacial rate at which my own writing seems to progress, and it’s difficult to imagine easy fixes for the challenges we face as growing writers. Still, it’s important to acknowledge the desires of writers (myself included) who earnestly want to know what they can do outside of things like going to the Writing Center to help them develop their craft. So, here goes my attempt at mustering a nugget of writing advice: First, if possible, allow yourself to let go of the anxiety to “improve” your writing. Second, keep a journal. In this post, I’ll try to explain my reasoning for these suggestions.
We seem to live in a goal-oriented age full of sensationalized bullet lists for self-improvement. For example:
- Seven steps to lose 30 pounds in 30 days
- 10 habits of highly successful people
- Three ways to live a longer, healthier life
- 17.6632173333333 quick tips to becoming a smarter, stronger, better looking, wealthier, more well-liked human being
I resist trying to make writing advice fit this mold. While I think we can take measures to improve our writing, I’m afraid the goal of simply “being better” at writing sometimes eclipses the importance of writing itself.
But in the university, where students often equate writing with assessment, a goal-oriented approach to writing seems nearly unavoidable, perhaps even natural. I often hear things like “I want/need an ‘A’ on this paper” from writers I work with. To be honest, I think the same thing while writing my own papers, even as I tell myself grades aren’t the point of writing. As writers in the university, we are writing in what we perceive as high-stakes environments where, for better or worse, assessments and credential-getting come into play. We value GPAs as means to keep scholarships, advance professionally, and measure our performance. However, I would like to suggest that by writing in situations where we can suspend quantifiable goals, we might give ourselves a better opportunity to grow as writers at a more organic pace.
Give up goals of becoming better to become better? How does this work? While my suggestion is admittedly based on personal experience rather than extensive research, I will venture to defend my suggestion by showing what writing in a journal—a venue divorced from assessment—has done to help me progress as a writer.
I’ve kept a journal, writing with varying degrees of regularity, for years. Outside of required writing for school or the odd freelance job, journaling represents my most consistent writing and has generally been the writing I’ve enjoyed the most. Over the years, keeping a journal has given me the chance to write about whatever I’ve felt like writing about, free from the pressure of formality or worrying about an audience. My entries tend to be pretty mundane, often just recordings of a day’s events, but I think writing routine journal entries has helped me become a better writer over time. To explain my thinking here, I’ll try to draw an analogy between writing in my journal and playing soccer. There’s a connection eventually, I promise.
Growing up, I loved to play soccer. I spent hours each week in the backyard kicking the soccer ball around. These hours were unstructured time spent doing something I liked to do. I had no clear goal and generally was not consciously striving to get better, but as successive soccer seasons rolled by, I began to see that my time spent playing soccer in the backyard was helping me become a fundamentally better player in organized games.
When I think about the journaling I’ve done over the years, it occurs to me that in many ways my journaling parallels my time playing soccer in the backyard. I started writing in my journal simply because I sometimes felt like writing something down. Beyond that, I had no real goal. For instance, I might take an evening walk, and there would be something special about the walk—something in the cool air, the way the sun sank behind a nearby ridge, some memory that came to me as I experienced everything—that would make me want to write about the moment, that would inspire me to try to find the best words I could to describe the experience. I might return home and write a short journal entry about the walk, not as a conscious exercise in writing, but as an attempt to pen down an experience I wanted to remember. Writing would, I hoped, help me find the words to do some glimmer of justice to the experience. Trying to write about various events in my life in short journal entries turned out to be a fair amount of writing practice and helped me become more comfortable with writing in general.
Journaling hasn’t turned me into Shakespeare, but the practice has helped me grow little by little as a writer over time. My journal is a place where I’ve tried on different hats as a writer, a place where I’ve recorded funny episodes, random thoughts, or events from perfectly unremarkable days spent working and running errands. I’ve written through times of happiness, melancholy, frustration, and transition. I’ve written simply to write. Free from the fear of assessment or judgment, I’ve experimented and played with writing for years outside of any formal writing assignments.
As we continue to negotiate new genres, assignments, and challenges in academic settings, perhaps something as simple as journaling at night before bed could go a long way toward making us more practiced writers. Journaling offers us the chance to get to know our own voices a little better and, just maybe, can make us a little savvier in our writing when we meet the next writing project coming down the road.