What I Wish I Knew About Writing When I Was In College

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Photo by Charles Deluvio 🇵🇭🇨🇦 on Unsplash

Last week, I came across a stack of old essays that I had written in college. I graduated from undergrad over a decade ago, so reading through my old writing was a trip down memory lane.

As I read the essays, I remembered how difficult I used to find writing. Putting together a decent paper felt like pulling teeth. I’d struggle for hours on just a few paragraphs.

Looking through the finished papers, I can see that I wasn’t a terrible writer. I’ve certainly improved since then, but the essays are all clearly written and almost all of them got As.

My problem wasn’t with the finished product — it was with the process that I used to get there. I’d try to plan, write, and edit all at once, instead of breaking my writing down into steps.

When I had a writing assignment in college, I’d start by opening a blank document on my laptop, and then jump straight into writing the essay itself.

I didn’t do any written brainstorming, preferring to just think about the topic in my head. I didn’t use outlines either, except in the rare cases where a professor required it.

My first draft was also essentially my final draft. After finishing an essay, I would only do basic proofreading. Instead of saving the editing for the end, I’d edit each sentence and paragraph as I wrote.

I remember thinking at the time that brainstorming, outlining, and rough drafts would all just slow me down. The truth is, skipping these steps actually made writing way more difficult for me than it ever had to be.

Just a few minutes of planning can save hours of writing.

My aversion to planning my essays and writing rough drafts wasn’t just stubbornness though. It came from a basic misunderstanding of how to perform these steps of the writing process.

Sloppy Planning is Still Planning

When I was in college, I thought of written brainstorming and outlining as extremely formal processes.

For example, I thought that each paragraph of an essay had to correspond to a roman numeral in an outline. Each sentence had to correspond to a letter. My thesis statement needed to be clearly stated, and every source had to be placed in its final location. This is how I had been taught to outline in high school, and I never realized there was another way to go about it.

To be fair, for high school students, having a formal method for writing an outline can be useful. It forces a clear, solid structure on an essay, which is something many high school students struggle with.

As our writing develops though, we don’t need our tools to be so formal. Our outlines and brainstorming can become much more casual, and therefore easier and faster to write.

When I write now, I use outlines, but not with roman numerals or any other type of numbering. I embrace sloppiness and focus solely on getting my main ideas into a clear structure.

Spelling mistakes, sentence fragments, and poor grammar are all okay. Even a single word is sometimes sufficient to represent what will eventually become several paragraphs in my final draft.

By narrowing my focus to the main purpose of the outline — structure — I can get through the entire outlining process in just a few minutes (at least for short essays). These sloppy outlines still serve their purpose just as well as the formal outlines do. In the end, the outlines actually end up saving me time in my overall process.

Rough Drafts Can Be Very Rough

Aside from skipping outlines, my other big mistake in college was only writing a single draft of each paper.

My problem here was that I didn’t understand that writing and editing each work best when they are completely separate processes.

I always tried to edit my writing as I went. With each sentence, I’d work on finding the best wording possible. I’d change a single sentence several times before moving onto the next. I’d do a similar process as I finished each paragraph, making sure transitions worked and the sentences flowed.

By combining editing and writing into a single step, I was making things way harder on myself than they needed to be.

Writing and editing involve two completely different mindsets. Writing is an inherently creative process, while editing is a critical, judgmental process. Forcing my brain to keep switching back and forth completely interrupted my workflow.

It wasn’t until law school that I finally learned to separate the processes. During one of my internships, a reporter-turned-lawyer walked me through his writing process and explained to me that rough drafts should be very rough.

He helped me understand that a rough draft is not the place for worrying about grammar, wording, spelling, or transitions. It’s just about getting ideas on the page and fleshing out the outline.

It’s only time to start editing after the entire rough draft is in place. Then you can switch your mindset from creative to critical, and polish your writing much more easily.

I was skeptical about making the switch because it felt like I’d just be forcing myself to do twice the work. As soon as I tried it though, I immediately realized that I should have been doing it this way all along. My writing comes so much easier and faster now that I don’t interrupt myself with edits along the way.

Writing an essay in a single draft might sound like a shortcut, but in the end, it just turned writing into a miserable process. Taking the time to plan each thing I write, then create a rough draft, and finally to edit, actually ends up making the entire process easier and faster.

If you’re still trying to plan, write, and edit all at once, I highly recommend making the attempt to break your writing process down into steps. You’ll see the results immediately.

I’m a lawyer and teacher from North Carolina. I write about sobriety, mental health, running, and more. Buy me a “coffee” at ko-fi.com/benyaclark.

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