In the past year, I read a lot about the idea of mindfulness meditation and the long term benefits the practice can have on focus, reduction of stress, and a general state of well being. Needing a bump in all three areas, I signed up for a free online course with guided meditations and exercises. During the first week, I read all the materials and enthusiastically sat on our bedroom floor with my eyes closed. I tried to listen as a guided meditation encouraged me to be present and focus on my breathing, but I kept thinking about my posture, my back pain, arm positions, etc. My internal monologue kept coming back to the same question, “Am I doing this right?”
That question dominates my thoughts whenever I am trying something out for the first time. In some cases, the answer is obvious. When I attempted to fix the pump on my iced tea maker and the water continued to sit placidly in the reservoir, I received immediate feedback, and I could try something else like buying a new iced tea maker. In other cases though, feedback is scarce, and the answer is murkier, sometimes a lot murkier, which causes stress and doubt. During the second week of the mindfulness course, I was less enthusiastic, and that’s partly because I felt more demands were being placed on my time, but I still could not tell if my efforts were being wasted.
Writing is among those activities where feedback is the murkiest, and that’s a big problem. When I put words down on the page, I have to make an educated guess about whether they’ll have the effect I desire. Often, I’ll have no confirmation of that guess until the writing is out of my hands. Anyone who has a stake in what they are writing, be it a grant proposal, an application essay, term paper, or love letter to a prospective partner, faces the stress of trying to write creatively and accurately express who they are and what they know under a cloud of uncertainty. It’s pretty hard to put full effort and still not know whether or not you are on the right track. When a writer can’t tell, they’ll frequently produce a piece of writing that fall short of their best effort.
Frequently, I work with students who say they need help with their writing because they are a math person; they hate writing because they love knowing they are on the right track and writing doesn’t provide that. Math and other courses that focus on learning content comfort the novice because they offer a moment where you can check the right answer. That moment of getting the right answer is satisfying in two ways. Solving a difficult problem provides a burst of pleasure and a boost to the self esteem. More importantly, the student can move on to the next problem with a clear mind knowing that problem is solved.
Writing offers no solutions manual, and therefore, it’s much harder for writers to feel satisfied with what they’ve written. Novice writers especially have underdeveloped critical skills and cannot judge the quality of their writing in the moment. Each moment of uncertainty compounds on itself. Writers may question whether they are using an acceptable structure or whether they are using too much plot summary. As they get deeper into the paper, these problems pile up, and the stress they feel grows. Eventually, a writer reaches a saturation point where they face a problem that is one too many, and they stop writing, figuring they can’t move forward until they know more about what is expected of them. When writers have a string of especially bad experiences, it becomes easier and easier for them to simply give up rather than facing the hit to self esteem not knowing what to do presents to them. I’ve seen struggling writers who are so convinced of their own inadequacies that they quit a few sentences into their introduction because they are not sure whether a fact needed to be cited or not. For the writers who give up, the stress in writing simply comes down to an issue of control. The number of variables they can control seem too few and they give up hope of improvement.
Unfortunately, I think the intensity is only getting worse as technology gets better at giving us feedback in other areas of our lives. Our phones are equipped to give feedback on everything from how far we ran to how deep we slept the night before. Video games are hugely popular. They are carefully designed so that no problem comes at us before we have the capability of solving it, and most of the time, we get immediate feedback about our performance. Computers have evolved to a point where they can beat grand masters at chess and the best human players at Jeopardy, yet Microsoft Word’s grammar check still regularly marks complete sentences as fragments and confuses affect and effect.
The simplest approach to navigating this conundrum is for writers to learn to critically process their own work. Reading other works in the same genre with the specific intent of discovering how they work allows a writer to develop a more refined sense critical sense. This sense allows the writer to have a better idea how their doing while in the moment. A writer’s critical skills can also be enhanced by finding really good readers and having them analyze the paper. Student writers should read through their instructor’s comments and visit office hours to answer any specific questions you might have about them.
A critical sense alone, however, won’t lessen the anxiety, and a half-developed one could enhance it. For that reason, writers need to create a system to organize all of their thoughts. Writing is a process of making several decisions in the process of writing every sentence. When a grade, admission to a school, or another high stakes event is the desired outcome of the essay, those decisions take a great toll, and the lack of feedback only compounds as the essay gets longer and longer. As questions go unanswered and decisions remain unmade, it is easy to get overwhelmed. For these reasons, I encourage students to write with at least three document windows open. One document holds the actual draft of the essay. The second holds ideas that might go in the essay but don’t yet have a place, and the third window is a place to record any questions the writer might have in the process of writing. The advantage of this question document is that it lets a writer’s brain move on to work it can control rather than worrying about answers to questions they can’t answer. Student writers can take this question list to their professor in office hours, while other writers should develop their own pool of trusted critics.
For teachers or coaches working with developing writers, the goal should be to guide the reader towards feeling more in control. Read sample papers in class and discuss what makes them successful. Have students score their paper on a rubric and write up a justification for that score. If they are far off from your assessment of their work, walk them through where their critical skills failed. Have students process your feedback and make goals for what they’ll improve on future papers and then use those goals as a jumping off point for your comments. All of these tasks help students move improve because they encourage students to develop their own critical skills.