I never was very good at academic essays. Even while I slowly chipped away at earning my undergraduate degree in English, I constantly got caught up on the title or finding the perfect first line before I’d have a chance to explore the topic I was trying to write about.
Moreover, while many of my friends seemed to breeze through essays, even writing “A” papers in the hour or two before the deadline, I often got so stuck that by the time I caught a first line, my deadlines had passed.
But I’ve developed a theory.
We Americans are taught to produce essays rather than develop a writing practice in which we might explore topics of interest. The five-paragraph essay is a handy structure that, when executed to its full potential, does make for an easy-to-read experience. However, it’s also quite utilitarian in nature: Tell the reader what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you just told them.
I fear that, early on, we learn to fill in this structure rather than to develop a structure based on content. In its nature, this way of writing essays is, in fact, an invention of the U. S. Utilitarian (maybe even Puritan). It strips an essay—both in writing and in reading—from the very definition of an essay.
In fact, even at the university level, we’re often asked to provide a thesis statement and an outline in our first “drafts” of an essay so that professors can identify that we’re on the right track. Though some essays do come to us quite clearly, with easy to identify bulleted headings or topic sentences, many do not.
I’ve seen far too many smart, capable students, including myself, become completely bewildered at how to proceed when this happens. We weren’t given the tools to work through writer’s block or develop essays organically.
If you find yourself frequently stuck when an idea strikes, or if you find yourself short of ideas altogether, there’s a dead-simple way to shed those internalized production-based writing methods and free-write your way through writer’s block quickly and consistently. Follow these steps to make that happen.
“Essay” comes from the French verb assay meaning “to try, endeavor, strive; test the quality of.” In other words, to assay is to explore, search, examine. Still, the American way of practicing essay writing insists that we should both know all the details and structure before we even get to writing and that the final product should not include surprises for the reader.
This process defeats the very purpose of the essay and puts undue pressure on our younger selves, especially when paired with that dastardly red pen marking up our spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
As entrepreneurs and blogging enthusiasts, our writing must sell what we’re offering—even if we’re not literally selling our writing for income. That means regular posts are essential to keep readers, followers, or customers engaged with our brand; we can’t afford to get tripped up or stuck on an essay.
Developing a writing practice is the number one thing you can do to release yourself from the anxiety and block that often comes with writing.
We talk a lot about craft in the writing world. To craft requires an already established skill. To craft an essay implies an existing working draft in which the writer can further shape, or worse, that a relatively well-drafted essay should fall easily from our brains through our keyboards and onto the blank page. At best, it feels like an ambiguous directive when it comes to developing writing.
Artists, on the other hand, talk about practice. At the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), one of the most prestigious art schools in the US, near-daily studio time is written into students’ schedules. They are trained to make it a habit to show up, using the techniques they’ve learned in workshops, and play, paint, sculpt, photograph, etc., repeatedly in order to further hone their skills.
The practice of en plien air, also from French, is an art practice that literally translates to “open-air,” and involves going outside, setting up an easel or opening a notebook, and drawing or painting whatever you see.
The idea is that, to develop your skills as an artist, you play; and from that play, with the help of crafting, carving, and manipulating, comes finished works.
Outside of writing stories and making books in third grade, I remember producing quite a lot of essays in high school and through undergrad, but I don’t remember engaging in a lot of play or practice in writing.
Even in creative writing classes and workshops, if those instructors tried to teach play, it was too late for me, and the expectation that I must produce pieces of writing within the school setting was so deeply rooted, I didn’t understand there was any other way.
So how do we bring a playful practice into the realm of writing?
Last year, as it became clear that the pandemic had us in its grips, I was working toward a graduate degree in the book arts and feeling incredibly stuck. Going to the studios where there was much-needed equipment to work on my thesis caused massive bouts of anxiety, so I started to rethink the work I was doing in the hopes that I might develop an at-home practice. To get myself unstuck, I pulled Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way off the shelf.
The book was originally published in 1992, and it was based on courses Cameron had been running for a number of years to help creatives of all kinds and at all levels get unstuck. The purpose of the book is to guide readers through a twelve-week program meant to get them practicing.
Each chapter, meant to be read at the start of each week, explores different aspects of what holds us back as creatives. Meanwhile, the weekly activities encourage us to explore our hang-ups, challenges, and internalized notions of what we believe we’re capable of and our internalized ideas of what it means to be an artist (or writer, or entrepreneur, etc.).
Among the different weekly challenges, she insists that readers engage in what she calls Morning Pages. A meditative writing ritual of filling three notebook pages of whatever gobbledygook comes out our heads and through our pens as one of the first things we do in the morning. It is important to do this by hand unless incapable of doing so, as our brains work differently on screen than they do on the page.
Cameron insists that this isn’t a writing practice; she doesn’t want to scare the painters and photographers and mix media artists who have been terrified of writing since childhood. Still, to me, this kind of writing is key to creating a judgement-free writing space that leads to a confident writing practice.
Because one needn’t worry about spelling or punctuation—in fact, forming coherent sentences isn’t necessary—it frees us from some of the hang-ups a production-based practice gives us. In this practice, one must simply write with little to no breaks for three pages. She even says that the practitioner can write “I hate morning pages” over and over and over again for the full three pages, and the result would be the same: clearing out the brain clutter.
The idea is to take away the pressure to produce a piece of writing, and it’s achieved through engaging in a free-form daily writing practice that isn’t meant to be published or shown to anyone.
Doing so releases the practitioner from fears of doing it “wrong” and makes the writing that is meant for publication come with more ease. Intuitively you’ll begin to play and explore while writing your content.
You may even find that writing the topic of your next blog post or a question at the top of your notebook page allows you to free-write through a topic you’re stuck on. Before you’re finished with your three pages, you may have a draft and ideas for three more posts. At least, this is what quickly happened to me when I started practicing Morning Pages.
Here I was meant to be designing a book project (rather than a writing project), but as I moved through The Artist’s Way, my Morning Pages were filled with essay drafts and ideas. On top of that, essay ideas were coming to me at random throughout the day. I was more prolific than I ever remember being.
Writing Morning Pages every day, regardless of whether or not you need to publish every day, is the best way to keep fresh content coming. And if you do publish frequently, the process itself can lend to an intuitive drafting, revising, and editing schedule that could keep you publishing with ease every day of the week—but I implore you to please ensure you’re getting enough rest.
Let’s now take a look at the three-day guide to using Morning Pages that will help you create consistently solid content.
Draft Morning Pages content, however disoriented it might seem. If it helps to guide your stream of consciousness, write a topic, question, or working title at the top of the page, but don’t let it restrict your exploration and don’t get caught up in finding the perfect title before you’ve started. Then let the pages sit.
There’s no need to work immediately on that draft unless you’re really excited about the content and want to get rolling or have a deadline. Whatever your blogging schedule, you can come back to this draft with fresh eyes. From here, you may move to a previous drafted essay or on to other work for the day.
Note that using pen and paper is ideal. Using tech that automatically transcribes handwriting—though convenient for searching and typing faster—causes the way you interact with the text in the next step to be less effective.
Transcribe your Morning Pages draft from the day before. The ideas should still be fresh in your head, which will make reading your handwriting a lot easier—unless you don’t have the same problem I have with my illegible script.
Though I often feel when I’m writing first drafts that they are coming out oh so perfect, I find giving them a day or two to rest and typing them from the handwriting, that I instinctively begin to flesh ideas out, rearrange sentences, and find better words to make my point.
Here too, is where structure, if it wasn’t clear in the handwritten draft, will begin to materialize. Group similar information together and arrange it in a way that flows logically between paragraphs and sections.
Have a good hard look at what you’ve written and if a sentence or a paragraph is completely off topic from what’s around it, pull it out and save it for another essay. You don’t need to get everything into one post. Take your time and spread things out. You have many more essays to write.
In effect, I find my first draft wasn’t actually that great to begin with but did have a solid set of bones to work with. As you can see, if you’re using handwriting transcription tech, this part of the process will be different, and simply rereading the text will prevent some bigger changes you might have made in the transcription process.
Day three may or may not be necessary if you feel confident the draft at the end of day two is ready to post, but I like to let things sit another day and give my brain the opportunity to again consider the content freshly.
I do tend to get rather cross-eyed staring at the same draft for too long in a day, and in an ideal world, a draft might have at least two or three days to breathe in between edits, but as it is, we live in a fast-paced, content creating culture. Therefore, day three is meant for final edits.
Maybe whole paragraphs are rewritten, as I did today with a draft I was working on for my Medium blog, or maybe it’s just tidying up punctuation and spelling, making sure embedded links where necessary are all in place and working properly.
Finally, it’s time to write or revisit the title. It’s great if the working title still captures the tone and direction of the piece, but it’s much more likely that as the essay has developed, a new or, at minimum, an edited title will fit the piece better.
Using this essay as an example, the original title I pitched was “Don’t Stress About Titles: Building Structure Through Content,” but as you can see, the essay I’ve written is focused more on developing a writing practice and thus, “Building a Writing Practice: What They Didn’t teach Us About Titles at School,” became a more appropriate title.
Pro-tip: Use a word processor (Word, Google Docs, etc.) and change the font type, size, and margins of your document to do the last read-through. This seemingly innocuous shift can actually help your eyes read the text differently, and errors you’d been reading over—as we all do—will stick out at you more obviously.
I’ve often heard, even probably said it myself, that writing is hard. I have certainly been there, before I found Morning Pages, staring at a blank screen, waiting for inspiration to strike, or sometimes even worse: struggling to jot down disconnected phrases and words that vaguely relate to an idea I’ve had but can’t quite find any kind of flow with the writing.
And surely writing is work: It takes time and, most importantly, practice to develop the craft of making strong sentences and finding our “voice,” but getting drafts down on paper doesn’t have to be difficult. By using the practice of Morning Pages and free-writing through troubling topics, even the most inexperienced content creators can easily begin to draft solid essays.
From there, typing up, fleshing out, arranging, and editing should come relatively easily. The small things we all worry about when drafting an essay, like the title or the first line, will come from the content you’ve drafted, and if you’re still struggling, why not do some free writing that will undoubtedly lead to finding the titles that really pop and work with the content well.
Libby Walkup has abandoned the academic world for the north woods of Minnesota where she plays with paint, lights fires, and writes about slower living and creative practice. She holds advanced degrees in creative writing, library science, and the book arts. She spent four years working with a variety of students in the University of Iowa Writing Center. You can find her newsletter here and follow her on Instagram.