I have a confession: I was never especially fond of keeping a journal during my school years. They always felt somewhat forced. Mainly, what I ended up doing was chronicling a given day’s experiences, and this was always seemed boring to me. Predictably, the writing turned out pretty boring. Sadly, I’m not sure I ever really understood the whole point of the exercise was for me to practice a skill in an environment where a premium wasn’t put on grammar and syntax.
Any self-respecting writing teacher will tell you that one improves as a writer through practice and by reading quality writing. The first of these should be self-evident. Why would you expect to improve in any activity without practice? For example, your golf game will not dramatically improve unless you make an effort to play more rounds of golf, or to practice specific aspects at the range. Furthermore, by reading quality writing, you will begin to take notice of the techniques accomplished authors use to express themselves. If you are diligent, you will increase your vocabulary by looking up the definition of new words that you don’t use in your everyday speech. There is no reason you can’t begin using them in your own writing to improve conciseness and eloquence.
The most common excuse that surfaces once it becomes clear that a good amount of effort is needed to make a change is that there’s not enough time. We use this excuse a lot in our lives, and it’s true that time is a precious commodity. Just be honest with yourself about the goal you’ve set out to achieve and how you intend to achieve it. If you have decided to dedicate three months to the application process, then it is possible to make very real gains in your writing in that space of time. If you attend a workshop on Business English determined to improve your writing, your lack of a pressing deadline may allow you to take a less rigid approach.
It is possible to carve out 15-minutes a day for writing. I believe you have that time, even if you think you are too busy right at this moment. Download this free timer application. I am sure you are perfectly capable of looking at your watch or even the clock on your computer, but there is something important about having this application on your desktop, literally counting down the minutes and ringing when your 15-minute block is up.
Next, the following sites provide a range of prompts, should you find yourself stuck for something to write about:
The point of this exercise, though, is to write about anything you want. So, if you want to write about your day, great. If you want to rant about a family member, go for it. This is a journal, in the sense that it is for your viewing purposes only. The point is not what you write about; rather; it is for you to begin writing with consistency.
When I do this exercise, I tend to write on the computer (rather than by hand), and the goal is not to stop your train of thought for the entire 15-minutes. If you need to, spend a few minutes organizing your thoughts before you start, and then just explode as soon as the clock starts. I think you will be amazed at how fast the time flies by. For the prompts that are more abstract or sophisticated (i.e. the argumentative prompts from the NY Times), you will almost certainly get cut off midstream. That’s ok. You are not trying to write a completed essay. You are getting used to writing freely, to enjoying the process if that’s new for you.
And there is a big difference between enjoying writing and writing being hard. This exercise strives to free you up from always feeling as though there is a disciplinarian teacher behind you waiting to attack your words with a red pen. I often suffer from this fear, and it’s debilitating. It locks you up, and you are left with nothing on the page.
There are great quotes by writers speaking to what remains after that first whirlwind session, specifically its quality. First drafts aren’t meant to be masterpieces. That’s fine. At least you have something to work with. Once you have those initial ideas down on paper, then you can start analyzing your trends, noticing common errors you tend to make, ways you can easily improve your writing.
But first you have to get the discipline down. You may feel great after doing these writing sessions for a few days, after a week. You may want more time. I would strongly encourage you to cap your sessions at 15 minutes for now. Go up to 20 minutes if you like, but leave it at that. You have to be reasonable about how much time you can give to this practice, and you want to be as consistent as you can. If you read accomplished writers, most report that they write everyday, no exceptions. Assuredly, there will be days when just don’t feel like writing, or when you just don’t feel like you have anything to say. It will be your task to stare down that computer and get words on the page. This is how the discipline is built. However, if you have ramped up your writing time to 45-minutes, chances are greater that you will get demotivated and stop doing your writing all together. Keep it manageable so that you keep it going.
Even though I have not always been a fan of journals, this practice has been invaluable for helping me generate material and more important, for helping learn to become disciplined as a writer, which is just as important. I use it to this day.