Thursday, August 17, 2017

Post 1: Flow

Too many of my students get stuck in their writing. The words just won't flow out their fingers and onto their screens. All writers suffer from writer's block from time to time, but novice writers seem to suffer more. There are ways to deal with this issue, and developing flow is one of the best. In his post "How to create 'flow' in your writing process", Josh Bernoff gives us some great practical advice. Let's review what he says and, as importantly, how he says it.

First, he defines what he means by flow in writing and tells us why it's important. Flow is that condition where you are being really productive in your writing (the words are flowing--get it?) and you are making great progress. This is also known as being in the zone. Athletes feel the zone when they are running well and show up just where the ball is without thinking about it. It's a great place to be, and writers can get there, too.

But not without some preparation, Bernoff says. He gives three steps for entering the zone and finding the flow:
  1. Do the research,
  2. create the space and time, and
  3. don't destroy what you've created.

I find his first two points particularly helpful. It's amazing to me how many students try to write documents without learning something first. It's a bit like trying to play soccer when you know nothing about it. You just look silly. You can't play well if you haven't first stuffed your mind and body with lots of physical and mental knowledge about soccer--everything from how to touch the ball to how to position yourself on the field. Likewise, if you want to write well, then you first have to stuff your head with knowledge, with something to write about. Learn something first, then write.

Then, after you've learned something, carve out a good time and place for writing. Too many students try to write at the wrong time when they are already exhausted and in the wrong space where they are likely to be distracted. It's like trying to play soccer in a crowded parking lot after you've been binging all weekend. Really? Why should you expect to find the flow? You won't do well if you don't perform in the right place at the right time. You have to own your process if you want to find the flow.

Bernoff also has a good third point about how to approach the writing that comes out of a productive flow: it's a good first draft, but it ain't divinely inspired gospel. It probably needs some revision, so let it sit for a day, then revise it. Magically, your brain will work on your document on the day that you don't attend to it, so that when you return to edit it, you'll see your mistakes better and you'll know how to fix them. This is a very difficult lesson for students to learn as they just want to get the document off their to-do list and onto the teacher's list. Bad move.

So that's Bernoff's advice. Now let's consider how he sets up his post. First, he introduces a topic: flow in the writing process. He quotes a "brilliant psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi" to capture our attention AND to enhance his own authority. After all, Bernoff is not himself a brilliant psychologist. This is excellent advice for academic writers: frame your issue early and use some authority to enhance your own lack of authority. Teachers usually assume that students don't have much authority, so student writers should be careful to find some. You should always find sources that your teacher thinks are authoritative. In English papers, for instance, you should avoid Shmoop and SparkNotes as most English teachers do not consider them authoritative. Rather, you should prefer the scholarly articles and books that teachers themselves read and respect.

Then Bernoff gives you an easy to follow thesis after he's set you up: "In this post I’ll describe three stages that lead to fluid writing: preparing ahead, writing in flow, and preserving fluidity as you edit." The rest of his post is all about these three points in this order and ONLY about these three points. He doesn't distract you with some other stuff. He sticks to his three points in his stated order.

You may not agree with Bernoff, but at least you should have no doubts about what he's writing. This is good writing--exactly the kind you should do.