Declutter your brain to improve your writing skills?

Christopher Paolini was 15 when he started writing Eragon, the first book in his bestselling fantasy series.

About 3/4 of employers are looking for candidates with strong written communication skills.

Harvard Business School describes how reading good writing actually impacts the circuits of our brains.

It’s easy to see how strong writing skills can open doors for people, even those who don’t plan to write for a living. But did you know that writing can help a student learn more right now? Reflective writing is a tool for laying out and examining one’s thinking. It can be helpful early in the learning process for capturing our thoughts and questions. Writing is also beneficial along the way as we start to make connections between ideas we are learning and things we have learned before. And after we master an area of learning, writing about it can help us clarify and solidify our knowledge. For this reason, writing skills are essential learning skills.

I would go so far as to say that writing can do for your thinking what a closet cleanout can do for your wardrobe.

Photo of a cluttered clothing closet with many items hanging close together. There are hat boxes on the shelf above, and other items hanging on the walls to the side.

No, wait, hear me out!

Why a closet cleanout?

I compare writing to learn to cleaning out your closet because they both involve taking things that already belong to you (sweaters or thoughts about Shakespeare), examining them, discarding the ones that don’t really work, and putting it all back together more neatly. And both processes can help you notice which things hanging around your closet/brain are useful, which need mending, and which are ready to be replaced with something new.

Oh, and both tasks can be totally overwhelming! So it helps to have help. If I don’t plan carefully, a closet cleanout could result in me turning the whole house upside down. I do my best cleaning when I have a partner, or when someone gives me a checklist to follow. One way to quickly improve writing is to give students some tools or structure. Knowing how to do the task makes it a lot easier to focus on what to write.

Examining your “wardrobe” of ideas

We think of learning as the process of taking in information. But learning is not passive. We use our existing knowledge to understand new ideas and form links between concepts. If we just keep adding new facts without organizing and connecting them, they aren’t very useful. It’s like your closet: Some old favorite items get worn all the time, but things can get shoved to the back, or buried under your winter coat. If you take some time and look at all of it, you may find some surprises!

By helping students develop strong writing skills, we give them tools to get their own thinking organized independently in the future.

One writing activity that can help us to clarify our understanding, or find out what we think about a topic, is a freewrite. In freewriting, you set a timer or other goal and write everything you can about the topic at hand. It may be short phrases instead of sentences. It may be repetitive. It may be missing details. Part of it might be a sketch or a diagram. But the purpose of a freewrite is to brainstorm all the things that are floating around your brain about the topic, and get them all together in one place.

I find that students can be rather stingy with their ideas in a freewrite. At first, they avoid writing things that aren’t “good.” I encourage them to write down all the bad ideas first, as quickly as possible, to get them out of the way and make room for the good ideas. We don’t have to worry about running out of ideas when freewriting. Learning when to write quickly and when to write slowly and carefully is an important writing skill that helps students prepare for a variety of writing tasks.

By laying out all the ideas in nice neat piles (I mean, paragraphs), you can see what still fits, what you have too much of, and what you might need to put on the shopping list.

Some things don’t fit

One hard truth of cleaning out the closet is that sometimes we have to let go of clothes that don’t fit right, even if we love the items!

The same is true for writing. Writing ideas about a topic makes it easier to see which ideas don’t fit in. Students might see that some details don’t fit the topic. Others might turn out to be ideas that are too small to get their own sentences. Some ideas can be combined into more complex sentences, and other ideas can be discarded. Knowing when to edit out weak ideas is one of the writing skills that takes time to develop. Deleting sentences they worked hard on can be difficult for students, but with practice they will see that it helps the best sentences stand out.

Some things are nice, but not useful

Getting rid of the clothes you like but don’t wear can be the stressful part of a closet cleanout.

In writing, getting rid of useless but lovely ideas is hard work! Maybe it’s something you thought was true, but when you look at it with the other facts, it doesn’t work anymore. Maybe it’s an idea for another time and place, better suited to a letter to the editor than a history essay. Or maybe you just don’t need to write that one idea 4 different ways. Just like your closet, your writing will work better if it’s not full of duplicates. (Except sweatshirts. One can never have too many hoodies!)

Go shopping!

There comes a point in most closet cleanouts where you say, “If those clothes won’t work, then what am I going to wear tomorrow?” If you are writing to clarify your thinking, you have to collect enough information to work with. If you try to write about something and realize you can’t explain it, it’s time to go back to your notes, or the original text, or your teacher, and learn more. For some students, audiobooks and text-to-speech technology can make this much easier. If your students need it, it is quick to set up tools to help.

It’s easy to think we understand what we’re learning when we are listening to someone else explain it. It all sounds great, and we don’t feel confused. When we sit down and try to write the explanation ourselves, we can see gaps in our understanding that we still need to fill. We fill the gaps with more learning. When you reread, or seek out new sources, you can ask more specific questions based on what you already know. You shop for more information discerningly, looking for new ideas that match, or complement, your knowledge wardrobe.

Putting together outfits

One really cool thing about a closet cleanout is it’s a chance to see different pieces of clothing together. Maybe you’ll get inspired to wear a different outfit!

In writing, placing ideas next to each other can reveal discoveries, metaphors, and sometimes glaring errors. Laying out our ideas, even in a quick, informal way, lets writers try out different combinations and connections. One way to create this type of writing opportunity for students is to use an open-ended writing prompt as a warm-up or closing activity.

Before a group discussion, writing can help students rehearse ideas and come up with examples to share later. After a discussion, students can capture their best ideas, including those they didn’t get a turn to say out loud. They can also adopt ideas they hear in the discussion and connect them to their own in new ways. Each type of writing has its own goals, and its own “rules” for structure. Students benefit from lots of practice with different writing skills within different parts of their day.

Why we write

We often think of a writing assignment as an alternative to a quiz or test, a way for teachers to collect information about what students know and evaluate them. But that’s not all it can be! Writing can be a valuable learning activity any time. Instead of thinking of writing as a final product, consider it a form of thinking. And, hopefully, we are thinking and learning every day, not just when it’s time to write an essay.

Writing for different purposes, throughout the learning process, can be instrumental in helping students develop bigger ideas and explain them more fully. For all those reasons, being able to write efficiently can make students better learners.

Want some checklists to help your child revise and edit their writing at home? I have those! Request them below.

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