This has been a challenging year for my oldest son. I have four kids. The eldest is in ninth grade–freshman year, when grades start to count for college admittance. My fifteen year old is exceptionally bright, but as we always tell him, being smart isn’t enough. It doesn’t matter if you actually know the material if you can’t demonstrate that you know it. It doesn’t matter that you had a great idea, if you don’t actually complete the homework assignment. Just as it doesn’t matter if I have a great blog post in mind, if I never write it.
And it’s writing that has been the problem this year. For some reason, my son (I’ll call him C) has been hitting a wall when it comes to essays, just when he’s being required to write more essays. Perfectionism is a common trait for gifted students. It’s haunting him. C has to have the perfect thesis statement for his essay. By perfect, I mean every word has to be correct. He insists that that nailing the thesis is critical.
Once he has the perfect thesis, he has to have a complete outline. By complete, I mean he has to know exactly what every paragraph is going to be about and how he will transition from one point to another. His outline is almost what other kids would turn in as the final essay. Personally, if I outlined to that level of detail, I wouldn’t have any enthusiasm to write. Half the joy of writing is watching the content develop. If I’ve thought every element through before I even put pen to paper, I’ve already squeezed all the joy out of the piece. But that just me.
The problem with needing a perfect thesis and a complete, detailed outline is that it’s overwhelming. The sheer prospect of it tends to make him freeze up. We’ve had repeated days of C staring at his laptop, then off in space, tapping a key here or there, and never even finishing the thesis statement. We had an entire weekend (and I do mean ALL day Saturday and Sunday) where he was supposedly making good progress on his paper analyzing three poems, which was due on Monday. At 5:30 on Sunday I asked if he was almost done. “Sort of,” he said. “I think I’ve almost got my thesis for the first poem.”
You can imagine my frustration.
Usually, to get through these periods, I’ve had to sit with him and help him talk through his ideas. Playing Socrates, questioning, and often typing notes for him when he reached a conclusion. Sometimes, I’ve had him dictate while I type. That way, when he got lost, pausing for long minutes trying to find the perfect word or phrasing for a sentence, I could force him to move along. “We’ll come back to that. I noted what you’re trying to say. Later, you can come back and say it perfectly.”
One of the biggest messages I’ve been trying, unsuccessfully so far, to get across to him? Sometimes it’s best to just start writing (and that’s even for business bloggers).
Sometimes, the best approach is just to start typing, letting your thoughts meander gracelessly on the page. It’s funny how often those wandering words will suddenly start to coalesce, take shape, and become a clear thesis and narration seemingly on their own.
It’s anathema to him. This approach is so contrary his nature as to be utterly unpalatable. I’m not giving up, though. I spent much of the last 25 years doing techncial writing for a living. Most often, I would start with the introduction. My editors have told me that’s unusual for technical writers, who usually do the introduction last. Sometimes, I would write the introduction last. If I couldn’t get my head wrapped around something, I’d start writing the details until the topic became clearer. Sometimes, I outlined my articles. Sometimes I didn’t.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned as a writer is that there isn’t one approach to writing–even for a given individual. You may have a certain way of writing your posts for your business blog, a way that usually works for you. If you find one day that it’s not working though, don’t be afraid to try something else. If writer’s block hits, shake things up. Usually outline? Try just writing. Usually have a clear idea before you start writing, but only a vague notion this time? Start writing anyway. If you usually begin with the details, this time begin with the overview.
The more strategies you learn, the more flexbile you’ll be. You’ll find writer’s block easier to avoid–and you’ll become a better writer. I suppose at fifteen, this is a lesson my son has time to learn. Still, I’m hoping next year I can convince him to give the Kerouac style a shot, so he can add to his writing repetoire.