Smiling student reading sticky notes on glass wall in creati “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper.” – Anne Lamont How many times have you, or your teen, sat down and tried to start writing an essay…but ended up simply staring at a blank computer screen, with absolutely no idea where to start? For a lot of students I work with, writing essays is like pulling teeth!  Getting started is excruciatingly difficult and, even once they have begun, each paragraph they write can feel like a monumental challenge.  There are many reasons why writing is so difficult, but I suspect that many of them are due to unrealistic expectations and assumptions about how the writing process is “supposed to” work. We often expect that we “should” be able to sit down in front of a computer and have our writing flow out onto the page (or the screen) in perfect, beautifully formed sentences.  So, we dutifully sit there, staring at an empty word document, and wait for the brilliant ideas to start.  Unfortunately, most of the time, nothing comes to mind.  Then, when an idea finally does come to mind, it somehow doesn’t sound as great when we write it down as it did in our head….so we end up rewriting and editing each sentence so many times that after an hour we’ve produced a grand total of one paragraph. Sound familiar? No wonder we procrastinate on our writing projects!

Why the “normal” approach to writing don’t work

It’s not engaging Staring at a blank word document is not engaging in any way…kinesthetic, auditory, or visual.  It’s also very passive, so it’s extremely easy to get bored or distracted by other things. Our expectations are too high Putting a lot of pressure on yourself to sound brilliant is one of the fastest ways to guarantee that you will have absolutely nothing to say.  The truth is that most first drafts sound bad, even if you’re a great writer.  The trick is to get yourself to write it anyway.   We’re trying to tackle too much at once Trying to sit down and “write an essay” is simply too big of a task.  For most students, this feels so completely overwhelming that they either end up with no ideas at all, or they have so many ideas that they have no idea how to organize them or where to begin writing. There’s no time for creativity Creative ideas don’t come to us when we are sitting and focusing very hard on something – they appear at unexpected times, often when we are engaged in something else…showering, walking to class, washing dishes.  When we leave our writing until the last minute, and try to work through them all at once in one mad rush, our brains don’t have the space and time they need to come up with creative ideas. Clearly, we need a different approach! There are lots of ways to make the writing process easier, more fun, and more effective.  One of my favorites is post-it planning.  Here’s how it works…

The Post-it planning process:

  1. Post it planning exampleChoose an aspect of your essay to brainstorm. For example: “Potential thesis statements,” or “evidence I could use to support my thesis.”
  2. Set a timer for 5 minutes, and write as many ideas as you can, putting one idea on each post-it note.  Don’t censor or judge your ideas – just write down everything that occurs to you. Your goal is to generate as many post-its as possible!
  3. At the end of the five minutes, spread out all the post-it notes on a table, or post them up on a wall.
  4. Organize the ideas in order of preference, with the best ones you like best at the top of the list.
  5. Choose a “cutoff” point based on the number of ideas you want to keep (For example: One for a thesis statement or opening line, 3-5 for main ideas or supporting evidence). Take all of the ideas below that cutoff and throw them in the recycling bin, or set them off to the side in a “discarded” stack.
  6. Organize your remaining ideas. Group similar ideas together, and arrange main ideas in the order you’d want to discuss them.

Then repeat the process for the next level of detail, and continue until you have your whole essay outlined!  You can do this in any order, but it’s often helpful to start at the broadest level and then fill in the details.  For example:

Round 1 – Brainstorm potential essay topics

Round 2 – Brainstorm main ideas & group them into paragraphs

Round 3 – Brainstorm supporting evidence for each main idea

Round 4 – Brainstorm potential opening lines

Round 5 – Brainstorm potential closing lines

If you have multiple colors of Post-it’s, it can be fun to use a different color for each step!

Depending on the nature of your essay, you may need a bit more time for some of these steps, especially in Round 3 when you’re generating supporting evidence.  Rather than 5 minutes, you might give yourself 20 or 30 minutes to do some research online or in your textbook and write out a Post-it for each new idea you discover. Once you have a pretty good outline in place, come back to it a few times over the next day or two (or – if you’re short on time – at least the next hour or two!) and walk through it step by step to see if it all makes sense.  Speaking the sequence of ideas out loud or explaining them to someone else is a great way to test this.  When you find sections that are unclear, update your outline by adding, moving, or discarding post-its until the flow of ideas makes sense to you. Once you’re happy with the organization of your post-it outline, you’re ready to write your essay!  One of the easiest ways I’ve found to translate the outline into an essay is by using the text-to-speech function on your smart phone or tablet to transcribe yourself explaining the ideas from the outline out loud.  If you don’t have a smart phone or tablet with a voice to text function, consider asking a friend, parent, or sibling if they would be willing to transcribe your ideas as you talk through them.  Or, if you’re more comfortable writing than speaking, you can write down the notes from the outline in a word document, and then fill in the remaining details.

Benefits of post-it planning

It’s more fun and engagingIMG_0173b

Most students find that racing the clock to jot down as many thoughts as you can, or organizing a bunch of colorful post-its into groups, is a whole lot more fun than typing text into a blank word document.  Since you’re more actively involved in the process, and have the option of standing up and moving around while you work, it’s easier to stay alert and engaged.   Grouping ideas together spatially is also more interesting, creative, and visually appealing than the linear organization of a conventional word document.  Overall, post-it planning is often significantly more enjoyable, and feels less like “hard work” than typical approaches to writing.

Lower expectations

When you’re scribbling down ideas on post-its, there’s less pressure to make your ideas “sound good”.  In fact, you wouldn’t have room to write a brilliant sentence, even if you wanted to!  Instead, the focus is on producing as many ideas as possible, and it’s easy to add and discard ideas as you go, so there’s less opportunity to get stuck sitting around and waiting for a “great” idea to come to you.

Each step in the process is very clear and specific

As opposed to sitting down to “write an essay,” the post-it planning process is composed of very clear steps.  During each brainstorming interval, you’re setting a specific intention for the type of ideas you want to generate.  Once you have written down a number of ideas, there is also a discrete set of steps to selecting the best ideas: Arrange your post-its in order of priority, discard the extraneous notes, and organize the ones you have left. Separating the brainstorming from the writing process also helps keep you focused on exploring and organizing your ideas before you begin writing, as compared to starting the writing process in a word document which creates the temptation to start writing before you really know what you’re writing about.

More time & space to come up with creative ideas.

Another nice thing about this process is that it can be divided into a number of discrete time periods.  You can spend 10 minutes choosing a thesis statement one day, come back the next day to brainstorm main ideas, and spend 10-20 minutes the following afternoon to coming up with supporting evidence for the first paragraph.  Over the course of several days, you can create a substantial and well-thought-out outline.  And once you have that, it’s relatively quick and easy to turn it into a draft…especially if you use voice transcription. Since each chunk of work can be completed in such a short period of time, it’s often easier to get started with post-it planning than it is to make yourself sit down and “write an essay.” Lowering the “barrier to entry” in this way can help encourage students to begin their writing projects sooner, rather than pushing them off until the last possible moment Working in short bursts, with breaks in between, also gives your brain an opportunity to process this information in between your work intervals…so the next time you go back to your outline, you are able to see it from a new perspective and often have new & creative ideas about ways to improve it.  This often leads to a much better final product than if you tried to complete all of the work in one sitting.

Your turn!

I would encourage you to try out the post-it planning process on your next writing assignment, and see how it works for you! It has been a really valuable tool for a number of my students, and is also something I use personally to reduce perfectionism and make the writing process quicker and more effective. I can’t wait to hear how it works for you! Please email me with your thoughts, and comments, or post a comment on the blog.

Thanks so much for reading!

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