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How We Write

Can taking five minutes before they write help students be more productive? 

October 17, 2013

One of the things I most appreciated about participating in the ACW Virtual Academic Writing Room over the past 8 months was the guided stretching and meditation at the beginning of the hour. For five minutes, we would breathe, visualize, stretch, or meditate in preparation for the writing ahead. I can’t tell you how productive that was for me as a writer and how I miss it now that it is gone.

One exercise asked me to concentrate on my body, how it was positioned and to listen to what it had to tell me. I realized (or rather, finally acknowledged and accepted) that where and how I was sitting wasn’t working for me; I could feel the pain in my rear, back, neck, and shoulders. I knew that my inability to “sit still” and work was a result not necessarily of uneasiness or boredom, but because I was so freaking uncomfortable. I finally rigged my own standing desk set-up and my writing productivity went up.

Another important element is the ability to shift gears and get myself mentally prepared to write, but also to give myself some REAL quiet time, just with myself. There are no distractions, no interruptions, just quiet time to reflect, prepare, and then be productive. If Louis CK is right and we aren’t able to be alone with ourselves anymore, then even just this five minutes is an important luxury to take advantage of.

I experimented doing this with my students, challenging them to write, distraction free (no phone, no internet, nothing) and just write for approximately 40 minutes after about a 5 minute guided meditation focusing on breathing and focusing on the task in front of them. They were skeptical to say the least - one student couldn’t imagine writing for that long, while another admitted it was impossible to stay off his phone for that long. It was funny, but as I was explaining what we were going to do, I busted about half of them for not being able to get off the Internet or their phones.

The five minutes of breathing and guided meditation was by far the hardest thing for them. But it was just long enough that eventually I saw them all give in and at least try it. They all already had drafts of their introductions to start with, so they could dive into the assignment. And, to most of their surprise and delight, they did a complete(ish) first draft. In a straw poll taken at the end of each class, almost every single student admitted to never having been this productive in their writing. Ever. 

So there you go. One of the advantages is that I told the students (who have spent the last two weeks of classes doing research and curating sources) that they didn’t need to worry about finding the right source (as to not fall down the internet rabbit hole) but instead to placemark where the research would go. Over the weekend, they would have to find and integrate the appropriate sources. And, we had spent the class before thinking carefully about what goes into the type of essay they were asked to write, so those elements were fresh in their minds.

I’m really glad I took a chance and experimented with spending some time on HOW the students write along side figuring out what they should write.

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Lee Skallerup Bessette

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