Expert writers and speakers spend considerable time composing, thinking about what they want to say, and tailoring it to a specific audience. They spend time in preparation, doing research, going through a drafting process, getting feedback on ideas, and refining their work. Accomplished speakers often spend time practicing, getting a look at a venue before they start, and reviewing notes or outlines. The bottom line? What separates experts from novices is investment of time and effort.
Students may not know this. Starting a writing or public speaking project even a week in advance of the due date is probably devoting more time to it that they think necessary. In their world, experts already know what they’re doing, so they need less time to produce something good.
As a faculty member, you can build time into your syllabus that will help students practice more mature composing habits, but what else can you do?
1. Make writing a regular habit. Spend 20-40 minutes a day on a commonplace book (journal). The commonplace book will help you develop fluency—that easy transfer of words onto paper—and ideas. “Commonplaces” (also called “topics”) were, in classical rhetoric, where orators would look for ideas. This is the place to be creative, jot down observations and ideas, and keep track of thoughts. A good communicator is always observant, and writing down what you see and hear will develop your powers of observation. You should be recording the details that make something distinctive and attending to the topics of the day, so that you can relate to an audience.
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2. Start from the end. What will the end product look like? You might have to do some research. First, check any parameters you’ve been given—calls for proposals, assignment instructions. Second, look for a model in the same genre. You’d be surprised how many people start writing a dissertation without ever having looked at one. If you have been invited to speak, do you know enough about the venue, the timing, and the audience? You may be planning on using slides, but will a projector be available?
3. Break the whole task into parts. The goal is to have a realistic idea of how much time the task will take, not to decide in advance exactly what to write. Start with larger chunks, then break them down, too. For a dissertation, larger chunks may be the parts of the document such as chapters, while for a paper, it might be sections or the thread of an argument. Break sections down into sub-sections. It’s not always necessary to break sections down by paragraphs, however. Think of the paragraph as a flexible unit. A section might contain one long paragraph or a series of short, related paragraphs. Finally, create an outline or a visual map and plot it on a calendar with estimates of how long each part will take.
4. Use your writing time wisely. Most of us work effectively in 20-minute blocks, so set your timer for 20 minutes, work, then take a break and come back for another 20. End each session with a specific idea of what needs to be done next, and write that down so that you see it when you sit down to work. That decreases wasting time getting started. Check out the Pomadoro technique from more ideas on how to plan writing sessions (http://www.pomodorotechnique.com/).
5. Don’t edit when you need to write. Don’t write when you need to edit. Separate the drafting process, the revising process, and the editing process. Drafting should be messy. Explore ideas on paper, and write until you reach a dead end. Ideas often develop during the process of writing, so don’t skimp or shut down just because you’re making errors or writing inelegantly. This is the time when you can forget your audience and focus on content. Once you feel like you have exhausted the drafting, start to revise. During revising, come back to thinking about your audience and bring order to the chaos you may have created in the draft. Focus mostly on logic, coherence, and organization. Make sure you have said enough, and cut out what seems redundant. When it’s the best you can do within the time you have, you’re ready to edit, that is, to polish, preen, and correct. Go through editing and proofreading as many times as possible, again in 20-minute segments. For speeches, use this time to get the visuals looking great, check the facts, and practice.
6. Banish perfectionism. We have an inner monitor that sometimes interferes when we compose or practice our speeches, correcting grammar, criticizing ideas, and just getting in the way. Don’t listen to it, especially during the drafting stage. You’ll make mistakes. Use feedback as a way to identify them and editing as a time to correct as many as you can, but know that most writing is not perfect.
7. Make use of feedback. Find people you trust to give you feedback, and listen to their advice. But do not just accept it. Hear it, think about it, and decide what to do about it.
A version of this article first appeared on University Writing Center.