Start Before You're Ready: An Exercise in Generative Writing -->

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Start Before You're Ready: An Exercise in Generative Writing

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Would you like to produce better writing in less time? The key is to start writing before you feel like you are ready or certain of what to say.
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American fiction writer Flannery O’Connor famously said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” O’Connor’s quotation points to a writing process in which writers don’t wait until they know exactly what to say before writing, but rather use writing to think through ideas in different ways, helping to solve problems and clarify ideas.

Give this method a try in your writing session today by following the generative writing exercise outlined below. This exercise is similar to freewriting in that you turn off your inner editor and write for a predetermined period of time. In it, we use the process of writing to create an outline for a draft instead of outlining before writing. Here’s how it works:

-First, choose a writing project to work on. The first time you try this exercise, it may be useful to choose a brand new writing project that you’re just beginning to work on. However, this exercise also works well for projects at other stages of the writing process, including planning out parts of a project that’s already underway or rethinking a section that needs revision.

-Consider how much time you have to work on your writing project right now, and set a target length of time for your generative writing session. A great goal would be 10 minutes.

-Before you start writing, take a minute or two to pause and think about this writing project. What do you intend to write? What problems do you need to tackle?

-Then, start writing about your project, keeping it up until you reach your target. If you’ve gained some good momentum and are generating on-topic ideas, feel free to keep writing for up to an hour.

There’s no pressure to write at breakneck speed—in fact, a moderate pace is ideal—but you should keep writing until you have reached your target. Here are some prompts you might use to get started:
  • What I really want to say is…
  • I’m interested in…
  • What I mean is…
  • A problem I’m having is…
  • My faculty told me to…
  • My reader needs to understand…
  • The goal of this writing project is…

-Once you’ve hit your target writing time or, if you continued past your target, found a logical stopping point, take a break to step away from your writing.

-You might be able to return to your writing after a short break, or you may need to come back another day. The second part of this exercise can be completed whenever you have the chance to work on your writing again. Now, go back and read what you’ve written. As you do, look for main points or patterns that emerge in your writing.

-Visually organize these main points into a cluster, mindmap, or web to determine how they relate to one another. 

-Arrange the main points you’ve discovered into a linear outline. Don’t limit your outline to only topics: follow each point in your outline with a brief description to remind yourself what the section is supposed to discuss.

-Remember, outlines are supposed to be useful, which means you may need to revise your outline as you continue to work on your writing project. Move items around. Add additional ideas. Delete topics that turn out to be irrelevant.

-Once you have worked on your outline for a little while, you should have a pretty good sense of what you’re going to write! Now, consider what you need to do next. Depending upon where you are in your writing project, you may need to conduct further research, or you may be ready to start drafting your paper.

I recently found this exercise useful in helping me incorporate challenging feedback from my dissertation chair. After feeling frustrated and a bit lost, I devoted some time to generative writing, and I was astonished at how it helped me re-frame my chapter in light of my chair’s feedback. After two or three sessions of generative writing, I had a whole new sense of how the chapter fit into my larger dissertation, and I reworked my existing outline for the chapter to be much more effective. Had I not tried this exercise, I might still be trying to work through my chair’s feedback.

Even if this exercise doesn’t initially sound like it will work for you, give it a try—you may surprise yourself! We would love to hear how it went for you in the comments or on social media.

Today’s generative writing exercise was adapted from writing by Robert Boice. If you’re interested in learning more about strategies like this one, we recommend checking out Boice’s Advice for New Faculty Members.

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Cheryl Read is a Writing Instructor in the Walden University Writing Center. She loves finding strategies for writing to be a less painful--and even enjoyable--process. When she’s not helping student writers at Walden, Cheryl stays busy playing with her son and working on her dissertation.

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