Harrison Middleton University

Writing Lab

Writing Lab

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


April 30, 2021

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Many of our students also teach their own classes. So, in addition to being students, they also lead others in the practices that they learn and utilize at Harrison Middleton University. Since so many students (young and old) struggle with the writing process, I wanted to dedicate today’s blog to some creative ideas.

First of all, the path to writing is never easy or direct. Even seasoned writers struggle with where to begin and what to edit. For this reason, today’s writing lab offers tips that can be used at any age or stage of writing. These are unique ways to entice and trick young students into the process without even knowing what they are doing. For the seasoned writer, this might provide a reminder, or perhaps a new idea.

At HMU, our end of course essays ask for a thorough investigation of a primary text. We ask the student to find a spot in the text that they loved, hated, or did not understand and begin from there. The most important (and often most basic) question can often be the best place to begin: What draws you to this passage? In order to answer this question, we suggest that you free write. Simply journal a response.

There are many benefits to a quick five minute free write prior to beginning your essay. Hopefully, once you have an idea of why you chose the passage, you will be better able to know what direction to take the essay. Also, writing without restriction sometimes transitions into the writing process itself. It acts as a warmup stretch, granting freedom to the hands and brain. Furthermore, a simple free write allows you to move past the events of the day and begin to focus on the topic at hand. Allow for freedom of thought. The idea of editing often restricts thoughts, but free writing will loosen and perhaps remove thoughts of imperfections, agendas, schedules, regrets, duties, and other demands of the day.

Some people, however, struggle to begin even here. Casual writing, though liberating, can still be intimidating to those who do not write often. In order to generate energy and concentrate thoughts in the right direction, here are a few techniques that have been adopted from creative writing.

Blackout text is one of my favorite ways to get started. Throughout our courses at HMU, we ask students to write and submit their own questions. Ideally, places with questions will be the best places from which to generate essays. However, sometimes the student may not know how to get to their exact question. In this case, I would suggest blackout text, which can be done in the following two ways. First, the student can type a paragraph or two of the text and print it out. On the printout, circle the words or phrases of importance, and black out everything else. This will leave the student with a visual phrase or series of words that may help generate ideas. Follow this technique with a few minutes of free writing. Do not worry about complete sentences, grammar, or answering any direct questions. Simply write. The second option for blackout text is to select important words and phrases from the text and write them down. This will lead to a list of words or phrases that will guide the student to their own writing.

Another idea for generating essay topics is to draw. This technique helps with the visual learner who struggles to move into language. Instead of immediately asking for free writing, rather ask for a picture. For instance, if the student is reading The Metamorphosis by Kafka, ask them to draw either a comic strip of the changes, or a picture of the most alarming section of text. What image grabs the student? Think in basic terms. For example, an image of furniture piled up in Gregor’s room is very discussable and can be quickly followed by a discussion of the family’s avoidance of the room. Once the most alarming, concerning or striking images are on paper, ask for labels. Applying language to image often opens up connections that were previously closed.

The third and most straightforward activity is outlining. However, in order to use an outline, one must already have a question or an idea of the direction of the essay. The outlining stage arrives when one is ready to find evidence to support an answer. Therefore, these creative writing techniques can be used prior to that. Think about this as a creative process, rather than another step in the writing process, which will free the mind from expectations and preconceived notions.

Obviously, it is best if these techniques are done in a single sitting, but that is not necessarily the case. Depending on age, comfort level, and endurance, the student should attempt to move into the essay. Once a draft of the essay is written (ideally), then they can set it aside for another day. It might be best to step back from the essay, get some space, and return to editing when the mind is fresh once again. Editing requires high levels of concentration and focus, and therefore, is subject for another day.

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