On the first day of classes at the University of Portland, I routinely asked my freshman students to free-write about a series of questions. Before I gave them the list, I’d ask the class just the first one:
What is your relationship to writing?
Our class was an introduction to college writing, yet despite this emphasis students were often surprised by the question. I’d give them a few minutes to take out their paper and pens, before I invited them to begin. Most first days looked like this: two students furiously writing, a few whispering for more instructions from a peer, half of them staring at me in bewilderment, and one student bravely raising her hand for clarification, “You want us to write about what exactly?”
If I knew this scene was likely to replay, semester after semester, you might be wondering why I continued to let students struggle. But my approach stemmed from a pedagogical belief—or teaching value—that uncomfortable or awkward discussions often lead to better thinking. It’s true, these questions often produced awkwardness itself, but I was okay with that. Because in my classes, I was after something bigger—I was after helping students locate the narrative they told themselves about writing. When students asked, “You want us to write about what?” I felt happy because I knew they were now thinking, even wondering about the meaning of specific words we say every day, like relationship and writing.
“What’s your relationship to writing?” is a tough question because we don’t often think of having relationships to things; we generally imagine our relationships are formed with other people. But if you think about it, you’ll see you have all sorts of relationships you might not hold in the bowl of your awareness: relationship to money, relationship to food, relationship to body, and so forth. These relationships have influence in our lives whether we acknowledge them or not, but if we wanted to make any long-term improvements in these areas we would first need to assess the health of the relationship.
When it comes to improving your writing or beginning a new writing project, the health of your writing beliefs will not only color the process but shape the final product. Before you dive into your next writing project, try taking my Writer's Health Assessment to learn which beliefs to keep and which ones no longer serve you.
This exercise will take you five to ten minutes, but the awareness will be far reaching because you’re likely to expose both confidence and fear, excitement and apprehension, and perhaps you’ll even catch what I call a limiting belief. A limiting belief means a story you tell yourself about what’s possible. In writing, these limiting beliefs sound like, “I’m just not a good writer” or “I am not very interesting” or “Writing takes me forever.” Get all that stuff out, so you can embrace the winning mindset I'll introduce after the exercise, designed to beat procrastination and free you to create your best work.
Write for a few minutes on each question. Narrow in on specific experiences and especially feelings.
As you check the health of your relationship to writing, your beliefs about what’s possible will affect whatever your write. Let these beliefs wash over you for a minute. They are yours, they exist, and they represent a lot of years and a multitude of experiences. In fact, writing might be one of the oldest relationships in your life.
Now, I want you to pivot and open your mind, maybe even a little wider, to the writing process that’s helped hundreds of people let go of their fear of expectations, write better and faster, and ultimately sound smarter.
It’s based on the simple premise that writing through imperfections—spelling, grammar, sounding ridiculous, uncertainty of thoughts and phrases, can help you write faster. It also means writing in timed intervals with specific benchmarks while simultaneously avoiding corrections.
If you want to write something great, this approach might sound a little nuts. But we can embrace writing quickly and through imperfections when our goal changes from correctness to creating content. We can also trust we’ll create a dynamite piece of writing because it’s revision and editing that ultimately make our writing soar (this is the write-better component). Revision and editing steps come later and go a lot faster when we hold them back instead of letting them interrupt the creative process. In the end, the mindset, or new narrative, I am sharing with you can unlock your ideas, jumpstart your writing, beat procrastination, and lead you to some of your best stuff. Are you ready?
Write Fast. Don’t let the finished product intimidate you. Write in ten- to fifteen-minute bursts and then evaluate. Do not evaluate as you go along—it will slow you down. If, along the way, you hear the inner voices questioning am I doing this right or is this even good or why would anyone even care about this, stop. Remind yourself of these rules.
Set Specific Goals. Goals should be related to time and objectives. Choose if you want to write for fifteen minutes, thirty minutes, or an hour in your writing session. The answer is your time goal. Then, choose your objective: will I draft the first paragraph or will I revise the first paragraph?
Be clear on your goals, so you don’t waste time writing and revising a paragraph at the same time. Why? Because when you read through it a day later or a week later, you may decide to rewrite half of it or all of it. Now how do you feel about your time, energy, and progress? If you’re starting over, probably not great. But if you have goals, then you can move methodically, make real progress, and avoid procrastination. Writing becomes easier and the belief that you’ll finish by following the steps becomes reality.
Trust the process. In the writing process, everything has its place. Don’t worry about sounding cliché when you haven’t even written an introduction. Don’t worry about a conclusion when the body paragraphs don’t yet exist. Don’t worry about awkward sentences when you haven’t completed a paragraph. Clichés can be fixed in revision. Conclusions manifest best when a draft exists already. Awkward sentences are easier to repair when we’re not taxing our imagination to both create and reimagine at once. Knowing you’ll address awkward phrases, vibrant language, active verbs, and mechanical errors later allows you to write without regret.
Embrace imperfection. Some of your best ideas are imperfect. But if you change them before they’ve had a chance to see the light of day, then you won’t really ever know them—in fact, you won’t have a chance to improve them because, in essence, they won’t exist. So, do not focus on perfection in the drafting process. Rather, ignore any thoughts you have about spelling, grammar, punctuation, sounding smart, or even the admission process. These thoughts come later but are unhelpful to getting started and generating content.
Remember Your Training. The reason I know you can stiff-arm both your limiting beliefs about writing and your fears of writing for an audience comes from the years of experience I’ve had helping people create their best writing by remembering these rules. When you feel doubtful, remember that your coach gave you this method because it works and because I believe in your potential.