Six Writing Techniques That Will Increase Your Creativity and Your Ability to Learn

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Why do so many people hate to write?

Many of us have a strong fear of writing. Memories of red marks covering our papers still evoke feelings of shame, and the mysteries of grammar and spelling continue to drench us in cold sweat. Such feelings are easy to understand because they connect directly to our experience at school, to grades, and to (often unfair and erroneous) evaluations of our self-worth.

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In Teaching with Writing, Toby Fulwiler presents the findings of a 1981 study of writing in American schools that I believe is still valid today. It found that the majority of assignments involved transactional writing?the kind used to communicate information.

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The second most common type of writing was mechanical?the kind used to fill in the blanks, copy information off the blackboard, and take notes. In fact the study found that mechanical writing represented 24 percent of all classroom activity! Imaginative writing?the kind used, for example, in writing poetry?came in a distant third and only occurred in English classes.

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It is these kinds of writing?copying down what our teachers “teach” us; regurgitating the information in boring, pedantic essays; filling in the blanks on worksheets; and taking tests?that most of us think of when asked to put our words down on paper. This is one reason why such a task so often fills us with dread and resistance.

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Schools ignore the most powerful use of writing

Unfortunately, the study also found that a fourth kind of writing?expressive?was almost completely absent from the classroom. Expressive writing is the kind you do for yourself. It is when you write your own thoughts down in order to play with an idea, look at it from different angles, explore relationships, or analyze and synthesize.

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In other words, the study concluded that “writing was taught almost exclusively as a means to communicate information rather than as a means to gain insight, develop ideas, or solve problems.”

Such an educational system does us a great disservice, because expressive writing is one of the most important tools we have for learning?whether or not we understand what a split infinitive is or where a colon should go! According to Fulwiler, “writing is basic to thinking about, and learning, knowledge in all fields.”

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Writing has a remarkable power to foster learning

When we express our words on paper, we slow our thoughts down and separate them from our greater Self. This enables us to generate ideas we never would have thought of if we had not first written them down. It also enables us to play with ideas, move them around, and analyze them from different angles.

Writing helps us acquire new knowledge from other people and synthesize it so it becomes part of us. It helps us discover what we really think and feel about a subject, and it helps us come up with new insights that would otherwise have remained unconscious due to the fleeting nature of oral speech and inner thought.

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In other words, expressive writing is one of the most powerful tools we have to foster learning.

Try these!

So how can you take advantage of this wonderful tool to achieve your own purposes? Below are a few suggestions for how you can tap into writing’s power to help you learn. I hope you have fun playing with them and seeing which ones work best for you.

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I. Prewriting & Brainstorming

Before you begin a new project, enter a classroom/meeting, or begin composing a complicated written document, your mind needs preparation. Your thoughts are likely miles away from the task at hand, so it helps to find a way to reign them in and engage them.

One way to accomplish this is to prewrite. To do this, choose a subject and immediately start writing about it. Record everything that comes to your mind for a certain length of time (maybe 3 to 5 minutes) without stopping, analyzing, or judging.

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Brainstorming is similar to freewriting except that you just make a list of words/phrases/ideas as quickly as possible for a certain length of time.

The brain naturally creates associations

One of our brain’s most important functions is to associate one idea with another. For example, if you think of the word mountain, your mind will immediately begin associating other ideas with it. (The first words that came to me were: snow, cool, blue, sky, pine trees, fresh, streams, ferns and shade. What about you?)

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Prewriting and brainstorming are wonderful ways to use your brain’s ability to associate in order to energize your mind, connect with your task or event, and awaken your interest in it. If you are writing a docum
ent of some kind, they also generate numerous ideas that you can then select from and organize into your major thesis and supporting points.

II. Summaries & Reflections

As soon as you have listened to a speech or lecture, or read a passage in a book, write down a summary of it. If you can put something into your own words, you probably understand it and will remember it. However, if your mind feels like it is in a soupy fog when you think about what you have just read or heard, it is a sure sign that you haven’t understood the material and will soon forget it!

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Writing a reflection is even more effective than simply writing a summary because when you reflect you weigh the pros and cons of what you have just learned, link what you already know and care about to the new material, and evaluate its relevancy to you.

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In other words, a reflection engages both your mind and your emotions. This is important because if you are not interested in something?and cannot see how it is relevant to your life or what you are trying to accomplish?you will soon forget it.

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III. Storytelling

If you have something complicated to learn, try creating a story out of it. Human beings love to tell and listen to stories, and the images created by the characters, plot and setting can remain in our minds for a lifetime.

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Before the invention of writing, our ancestors used rhyme, meter and repetition; larger than life characters; and traditional plots and themes (the hero, the quest, the journey) in order to memorize their communities’ traditions and pass them down orally to new generations.

Such methods still work for us today! So whether you are trying to remember the rules of punctuation or the names of all the muscles in the body, turn them into a story replete with fun, interesting characters and a strong plot. (If you set your story to music and act it out physically, your memory will soar!)

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IV. Self-Dialoging

This is another great way to find out what you truly know about a topic, to generate ideas, and to look at a subject from different angles.

When you self-dialog, you take on two roles. For example, write down a question you have, then listen for the answer from inside yourself and write that down, too! This can produce some surprising results that are quite accurate. This is because we frequently have the answers to our questions inside of ourselves–even if we aren’t conscious of it.

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You might also want to take on both sides of an issue to help you understand it completely. For example, first write down several sentences in support of the issue, then write down several sentences against it.

V. Annotating

Annotation requires you to read actively by consciously thinking about what you are reading and then writing your thoughts down as you go.

When you annotate, it is as though you and the author were holding a conversation. You ask questions, connect ideas, think about what is missing, compare what the author is saying to what other authors have said, and so on.

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In contrast to reading actively, many of us pick up a book and read it passively, without engaging our minds or emotions. The problem with this is that our minds often turn completely off. For example, have you ever had the experience of finishing a chapter in a book and suddenly realizing you don’t remember a word that you just read?

You can avoid this by reading actively and making notes as you go along. You might want to emulate scholars by highlighting important passages in a book and writing your comments down in the margins. Alternatively, you could write down key ideas in a notebook and then evaluate their strengths and weaknesses.

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Questions to consider include:

  • What is the purpose and scope of the reading?
  • Do you disagree with something the author said?
  • Is the author biased? Did he leave something out or fail to consider something important in order to make his argument convincing?
  • Does a passage remind you of something else that is similar or relevant to the topic?
  • Do other authors/research corroborate this author’s thesis?

VI. The Learning Log

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After a meeting or lecture, spend about five minutes summarizing and evaluating the most important points. Write down the answers to such questions as:

  • What was the meeting’s purpose?
  • Which ideas were most interesting or relevant to you? Why?
  • What still confuses you?
  • How would you summarize the major concepts?
  • Did the discussion build on or relate to your prior knowledge?
  • As a result of this meeting, what steps will you take next?

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Experiment with these to increase your learning succes

In order to engage your intuitive faculties more deeply when you are experimenting with the above techniques, try listening to music. Baroque and Classical pieces by composers such as Bach, Vivaldi, and Mozart work especially well for this.

If you want to energize yourself (as when you are freewriting and brainstorming), try listening to the faster (allegro) movements. If you want to calm your mind down so you can truly absorb what you are reading, try the slower (adagio and largo) movements.

You might also keep a small notebook handy so you can jot down thoughts, freewrite or brainstorm on a particular topic as it occurs to you throughout the day. Some people get their best ideas in the shower, some just as they are waking up, and others while they are commuting to work. (Mine occur when I am walking, especially if I am in the mountains or at the beach.)

Clarice Kyd Dankers, M.A., offers editing and coaching services to business and academic clients around the world. Her work incorporates eight years of experience in business communications with extensive experience in linguistics, publishing and university teaching. For more information about her services?or to sign up for her free monthly newsletter?go to

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