Most people are impatient for freewriting to work like they are watching a bag of popcorn pop. It may not look like it's working right at first, but give it a minute or two. You can see the power is on, and the hear the microwave going. You may start to think the appliance is broken. Then—pop. Pop. OK, there's only one kernel in the whole bag. Then another two or three. Next poppoppop. Then they're popping faster than you can count. After that, it slows back down, and then there are the last few left. Then you cut the power off, so the popcorn doesn't burn.
The next time you freewrite, remember the bag of popcorn. Just start writing like you turn on the microwave. You believe it will work. It may not look like it's working at first, but give it a couple of minutes. Ignore the doubting voice that wonders if you're broken. Then—pop. An idea. OK, you might think there's just one idea there, but keep going. Next, another idea or three will pop. And then ideas are flowing so fast you can hardly write them down fast enough. After a bit, the ideas will pop slower and taper off. After that, you can stop.
Creatively generate the ideas first, then go back and evaluate the best ones. Also, you don't have to throw ideas or writing away (ever) just because it doesn't help with the current assignment. You're welcome to keep them in a good ideas folder.
Proofreading essays can be challenging. Editing takes time. It's tough to find all the little typos, especially the real words that aren't the right words. It's so tempting just to pay someone to proofread my essay, or in fact to just buy the whole thing to start with... but it's a bad idea. Instead, one simple technique will let you do your own work well. It will also let you feel confident that you're turning in an error-free essay without cheating. This secret technique has been handed down by grammar ninjas for generations, and I will reveal it to you here.
In case you're still wavering about buying an essay or proofreading online, keep in mind that those sites help people cheat. That's pretty sketchy. If they don't have problems helping their customers cheat, they don't have problems cheating their customers. And what could those customers do? Complain to the Better Business Bureau or the university? It's a little like going to the police to complain about the guy overcharging for a stolen car. Then there's the chance of the failing grade, academic probation, and maybe getting kicked out of college. Students who cheat usually just get panicky because they don't see other options. Enter the ninja.
Ninjas studied how the mind works, in order to hide and misdirect. They tricked their opponents into not seeing them, or misperceiving them as just shadows. They didn't have the expensive weaponry and heavy armor of the ferocious samurai, so fighting head on in plain sight was... a bad idea. This secret technique is called last line first editing, and it works because it tricks the mind.
We see mostly what expect to see. Our expectations cloud our senses. When people start reading over their essays from the beginning, they see mostly what they think they wrote. Most everything looks right because people don't really see much of what's there.
Instead, start with the last line of the essay. This disrupts the mind's assumptions. People's brains, once shaken out of their assumptions, pay more attention to what's actually there. You can focus on the characters, letters, and words on the page because your brain isn't filling in what you think you wrote.
It's even easier if you cover up everything besides the last line with two sheets of paper. Sometimes I hold the physical blank pages up to the computer screen, or print the document and slide blank pages over the document. Sometimes I just hold up my hands like framing a one-line photo. When you finish with the last line, move up to the next line, and look at what's really there. Every paragraph, you can think “moving on up”, and every page you can imagine level up music. In fact, the more like a game you make it, the better. You're a grammar ninja, hunting for the silly little typos and grammar mistakes that pretty much everyone makes when composing quality writing on challenging topics. How many can you spot?
Maybe you're thinking that you're just not very good at grammar. Most people feel that way. Truthfully, there's a lot of grammar out there to learn. Fortunately, you don't have to get it all right. You just have to get the basics right, and a little more. You're already pretty good at the basics. You know how to spell a lot of words. If you can think of what to call a thing, like fragments, or parallelism, you can find lots of YouTube videos teaching how to get it right. If you can't think of what to call a grammar thing, show a paragraph to your teacher, and he or she will give you some terms to go study.
In conclusion, last line first, if you go carefully (and playfully), will spot almost every mistake in grammar, spelling, punctuation, and mechanics that you have any idea about. If you mark the questionable things that you're not sure of, and then show them to a teacher or tutor, you'll end up learning a few more things. It won't help you spot something you have absolutely no idea about, but catching everything else is a great deal better than nothing.
You can edit more than once. You can use more than one technique. If you know you tend to have certain types of errors, like run-on sentences, you can edit one more time just for those. Oh, and don't waste any energy kicking yourself for the errors or making excuses. Just fix them.
And then you can turn in or publish your writing. You can feel confident that you've produced a final draft that is as close to free of errors as you can achieve. This will be much closer than you may have thought possible. Usually, that's good enough.
You are now an apprentice grammar ninja. Tell no one that you are a ninja. (You could tell people that you're a ninja, but then you'd have to...well, you know.) Hunt well, and remember, use your powers only for good.
Lots of high school and college students struggle with writing a thesis for their essays. I know because I also tutor online... Expository writing isn't the only kind out there, but it happens a lot for academic writing. The thesis statement probably boggles more people than anything else. So let's simplify that now, in a few easy steps.
First, what is a thesis statement? It's the controlling idea for the entire essay. It's the claim that you write the rest of the essay to support, explain, persuade, or convince your audience of. If you're doing research, it's the answer to your guiding question. And it's what you really want to say about your topic.
Find a topic. For example, animal rights. When you can, choose a topic that interests you.
Narrow your topic. If you make a claim about animal rights, you're going to need to write a book to support it. Big topic = long, long essay. So get more specific. For example, animal rights vs medical experimentation and training. OK, getting there. It may still turn out to be too big for the assignment, but I can adjust later if I want to.
Read for background. Keep track of those sources, so you can cite them. Wikipedia, while not academically credible in many cases, is good for background. If you read about JFK, it will tell you about the Apollo mission, the Cuban missile crisis, and the assassination, among other things. If you're very familiar with your topic or the assignment should use no outside sources, you can skip this.
Answer this question. What do you really want to say about your topic? You can also fill in the blank. “What I really want to say about my topic is __________________.” For example, what I really want to say about animal rights vs medical experimentation and training is... Although we should avoid any unnecessary animal cruelty, the only way we have medicine or trained doctors and surgeons is by experimenting and practicing on animals. Saving human lives outweighs saving animal lives.
Reword (sometimes this ends up writing part of the introduction as well).
Although we should avoid any unnecessary animal cruelty, we must allow animal experimentation and practice as necessary, controlled parts of the development of medicine and training of doctors.
No one wants to see animals suffer. Sometimes we imagine medical labs as Dr. Frankenstein's lair, but the truth is far from that and carefully monitored with ethical oversight. The only way to test a new medicine is to try it...and saving human lives outweighs saving animal lives. [huh, maybe I need to pick just medicine or just doctors?]
Thesis: Although we should avoid any unnecessary animal cruelty, we must allow animal experimentation as necessary, controlled parts of the development of medicine to save human lives.
Intro so far:
No one wants to see animals suffer. Sometimes we imagine medical labs as Dr. Frankenstein's lair, but the truth is far from that and carefully monitored with ethical oversight. The only way to test a new medicine or vaccine is to try it...and saving human lives outweighs saving animal lives. Although we should avoid any unnecessary animal cruelty, we must allow animal experimentation as a necessary, controlled part of the development of medicine to save human lives. Research regulations help keep it ethical, lab animals are raised and cared for specifically for research, and many dangerous and deadly health threats have been studied and counteracted thorough sensible research.
The next to last sentence is my working thesis, and the last sentence gives the main points I'll cover. Sometimes you can get all the reasons/main points into the thesis sentence, but sometimes it's too big of a sentence.
There it is, from topic to thesis in five steps. I often skip the intro and start drafting with a body paragraph. I find that I keep less of first draft that way, but that it's often much easier and faster to get started. That's well worth it. Also, you can see that I kept playing with the wording of my example thesis. It's still not necessarily the exact wording that it would be for a final draft, but playing around with the ideas also got me a decent draft of the entire introduction. That doesn't always happen, but it's a nice bonus.
Take away: The thesis is what you really want to say about your topic, or your opinion on your topic. Then the rest of the essay supports it. If you research at all, you'll probably learn a lot. Sometimes new knowledge changes or modifies our original opinion... that's growing, wisdom, and strength.
A lot of students, especially by the time they're in college, bring some fixed-mindset ideas about writing that tends to limit them. However, people can learn to think in terms of learning and growth. That is, you're not bad at writing, and you can learn some steps and tips to improve. The first step is prewriting. Permission to think of 21 silly things is a hack to unleash your creativity because it's tough to generate good ideas if you're busy judging them at the same time. Evaluating comes later. Even attempting to believe that learning is possible with practice and giving yourself permission to be creative will help you see writing more as an exciting, productive challenge... and help you get going on that next paper or report.
Most people are familiar with at least a couple of free writing techniques. They're powerful. They work. If they're not working great for you, don't worry, it doesn't mean you're bad at writing. In fact, there's nothing wrong with you. A lot of my students think they're bad at writing. OK, I've probably never seen your writing, but I bet you can improve your skills. But to do that, let's go ahead and get fixed mindset versus growth mindset out of the way.
As you may already know, fixed mindset is the belief that abilities and skills are set and even predetermined. Some examples of fixed mindset statements are, “He's good at math. She's a natural athlete. She's a terrible writer. He can't jump.” Growth mindset sees skills and abilities as things we learn and can, you guessed it, grow and improve with practice. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy in her amazing book Presence carefully walks through the science. The book's subtitle is “Bringing your Boldest Self to your Biggest Challenges”, and she offers a lot of science and personal experience in an approachable way.
Cuddy explains that fixed mindset, while common, tends to limit us as we define ourselves. It's tough for people who keep saying that they're bad at science or can't do math or too dumb for chess or whatever to improve those skills. After all, the people have already determined it's pointless, and the pragmatic human brain doesn't waste much brainpower on things it doesn't see any point to. On the other hand, people who see skills and abilities as learn-able, grow-able, or improvable tend to improve those skills. A lot. A whole lot. People mostly get the results they themselves expected.
Now here's where it gets most interesting. Psychologist Amy Cuddy has run many, many experiments about fixed and growth mindset. Her research shows over and over that people can switch from fixed to growth mindset on any topic. She divided subjects carefully in two groups. One group saw or read fixed-mindset statements, then took some kind of performance test. The second group saw or read a growth mindset statement, then took the same test. The group that read even a single growth-mindset statement did statistically better. The results are strongest when people consciously put themselves into growth mindset before they perform, but even one suggestion can lead to them doing better.
So, here are a few growth-mindset statements I tell myself as a writer. I'm learning to write better. I improve my writing with practice. I can make this draft better. The writing process helps me turn an idea into writing that achieves my purpose for my audience. Writing is a skill, and all skills can be learned and improved. I can do this. The first step is just to get some ideas. Cuddy's science consistently shows that just being exposed to the idea that writing is a skill that you can practice will improve your performance. Maybe you can also take the idea to heart. If you want more about growth mindset, go find Amy Cuddy's TED talk and then pick up her book.
Now that you've seen more than one growth mindset statement about writing, let's play with writing a little. Specifically, let's look at the prewriting technique of brainstorming. When we brainstorm we make a list of possible topics or possible ideas about your topic. One challenge is to believe that it's possible. The next challenge is probably the blank page (it scares some of your classmates). I tend to just write something down. I mean, something profound like “possible topics for the blog”. It's just a label, but now my screen isn't blank anymore. It's a trick, a hack, but it works. Go ahead, whether on paper or on screen, and label what you're doing. “Prewriting for English 111 Essay #1” or whatever. It doesn't need to be impressive. No one besides you and maybe your writing teacher will see it. (And the teacher will be most concerned that you did the prewriting, not looking for greatness.)
To really unlock the creative power of brainstorming however, may take a bit more. In fact, lots of people are so busy judging their ideas that it stifles having those ideas. For most of us, judging, analyzing, critiquing, evaluating, etc. is a habit. We do it a lot, probably most of the time. It helps with a lot of tasks. For example, suppose drivers see flashing orange lights and traffic stopped ahead. Should they stay on what's normally the shortest route to work, or take another way to avoid the wreck? That's a judgment call, and it helps get to work on time. But judging turns off creativity. We need to think creatively to generate new ideas.
The best way to brainstorm then, is to allow ourselves to be creative. The best way to do that is to give yourself permission to think of 21 Silly Things. Go ahead. As an English teacher with an advanced degree, I officially give you permission. Officially give yourself permission now, and again as you start to brainstorm. When we brainstorm, we'll think of some silly things. It's OK. We've already got permission. In fact, see if you can start your brainstorm list with a few silly ideas. Cut loose a little. Have a little fun. You'll probably run out of silly ideas before you even get to 21. Along the way, you'll think of a lot of ideas. Some will turn out later to be good ones. Don't worry about quality at all as you list, though, just make the list.
Free writing works the same, just with a stream of mostly sentences instead of words. So does webbing or clustering if you prefer. It isn't the method that's super important, though most writers prefer one or two above the others. It's the creative freedom to write down whatever pops into your head. Later, go back and evaluate, and choose the best ideas. Want more on the writing process? Check out my report on the writing process.
Some ideas, some writing is way better than others. Growth mindset does not mean no quality control. Quite the opposite. Remember that skills can be learned with practice, and writing is a skill with a process (like changing a tire). That opens up a lifetime of improving the quality of the final drafts. That doesn't have to be a chore, either. When you realize you can improve at something, that tends to take away a lot of the dislike of doing it. Most of that dislike and even hatred comes from the negative thoughts that can happen when we feel that we can't meet a challenge. And from defining ourselves from our limits. On the other hand, feeling like we can succeed, with practice and careful effort and even some fumbling around, can let us embrace activities as exciting challenges.
Cuddy, Amy. Presence: Bringing your Boldest Self to your Biggest Challenges. New York:
Little, Brown and Co, 2015.
Gregory Hanks has taught community college for upwards of 17 years. He's helped thousands of students achieve more of their potential, write better, and earn their degrees. In 2017, he left a traditional teaching role to help more people like you get better results, faster.
Copyright 2019 G. Hunter Hanks Media L.L.C.