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.
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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.
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