As we grow as writers, our writing process changes, too. After transitioning to college and navigating the constraints of COVID-19, you may find that your tried-and-true strategies no longer work as well as they used to—and that is okay!
This post explores five categories of strategies for supporting your wellbeing as a learner and writer: the body, the environment, the reading & writing process, time management & structure, and emotional wellbeing. Feel free to experiment with a few of these suggestions—and follow the Writing Center on Instagram for updates to this post and more writing tips.
Sometimes, we neglect the role of our bodies in the writing process. When you sit down to work, take a quick inventory of your body, scanning from the top of your head, down your arms, torso, and legs, to your toes. Where do you feel pain, tension, or discomfort? Try some of the following tips.
If your wrists or forearms ache while typing, try placing a rolled-up t-shirt, hand towel, or pair of socks under your forearms. If your table or desk has a sharp edge, soften it with a towel as well.
If you experience lower back pain or stiffness, try taking a break to do a seated figure four stretch to counteract the strain of sitting still for a long time. If your shoulders are tensing up, try rolling them slowly or do some gentle stretches.
Sustaining an uncomfortable posture while using a cell phone or laptop can be painful and have lasting effects, including what some call “tech neck.” Try raising your computer or laptop screen when working at a desk (I use a stack of books to raise my laptop up to a comfortable height).
When drafting a paper, try typing in a large font size. In addition to reducing eye strain, this can allow you to comfortably sit back farther from your screen.
If you are feeling tense or having a difficult time staying alert, try standing up when working on less complex computer-based tasks. Simply put your computer on a stack of books, a countertop, or a shelf at mid-torso height—no fancy desk required! One study showed that standing slightly reduced cognitive performance compared to sitting, but enduring persistent back or neck pain can also compromise your ability to concentrate.
When possible, consider the ways you can adjust your environment to support your mood while minimizing discomfort, distractions, and strain.
Select your scentscape.
According to an article by Dr. Rachel Herz, smelling odors that you associate with positive memories can boost your mood and even reduce stress. When you sit down to write, consider using something with a scent you enjoy, whether it be a beverage, citrus fruit, lotion, perfume, or candle (unlit, if you’re in student housing!).
Check the temperature.
Evaluate the room temperature and adjust accordingly. If you feel chilly or overheated, you may be less productive. Bundle up or shed a layer to maintain a comfortable internal temperature.
Adjust screen brightness.
Long hours at the computer can lead to headaches and eyestrain for many people. Consider reducing your screen brightness, adjusting the blue light, turning on a nearby lamp, and taking breaks to close your eyes. On a PC, try using the “night light” settings. On my Mac, I use f.lux to automatically adjust my screen lighting according to the time of day and ambient light.
Try “dark mode.”
There is a Google Chrome browser extension called Dark Reader that allows you to toggle websites to a dark mode. This also allows you to view Google Docs in dark mode as well. While it’s not perfect, it can be helpful if it’s easier on your eyes.
Modify page color.
Some people find black text on a white background irritating or difficult to read. In Google Docs, you can change the page background color to a less stark background color by going to File > Page setup > Page color. You can also select a dark page color and change your text to a light color to simulate “dark mode.”
Curate your soundscape.
Consider listening to music while you write. If silence helps you focus, try out some reusable earplugs (I prefer ones that cancel 30+ decibels). If you miss the gentle soundscape of a coffee shop or busy library, check out this free customizable ambient mixer site (desktop only). They have sounds ranging from a summer evening bonfire to Sherlock’s apartment.
The Reading & Writing Process
There is only one expert of your personal experience: you! If the conventional method of “sitting down in silence to read and write for hours on end” is not working for you, feel free to experiment and mix it up.
Move to learn.
I recently discovered that I comprehend complex texts best when I am walking (and, therefore, less likely to zone out, fall asleep, or get distracted by my phone)—so I go for a walk and read most days, using sticky-note flags to mark things I want to come back to or write about later.
Need to talk out your ideas alone? Head out for a walk, start a voice note, and speak your ideas into your phone. At first, it may feel strange to brainstorm aloud in public, but to others, it just looks like you are on a phone call. (And you are—you’re on a phone call with your future self!)
Check out audiobooks. Whether purchased on your own or borrowed from a library, audiobooks can be a great resource for auditory learners. Some Kindle ebooks come with an audiobook function so you can listen, read along, and annotate as you go.
Use assistive technology to read print materials aloud. As a Wheaton College student, you can use Sensus through the library to convert PDFs and word documents into accessible files or mp3 files. Programs like Natural Reader can read aloud uploaded PDFs, Word Documents, or pasted text. Check out more assistive technology on Buswell Library’s page here.
Talk it out.
Dictate your ideas into a Google Doc with the speech-to-text function (in a Chrome browser). This can also be a great way to brainstorm aloud while your computer “takes notes.” Outside of Google Docs, you can also use the speech-to-text function on a Mac, PC, Chromebook, iPhone, Android, or Samsung device.
If you like to process your ideas out loud, call a buddy or ask if a roommate is willing to discuss your ideas with you for a set amount of time.
Originally described by programmers David Thomas and Andrew Hunt in their manual for programmers, “rubber duck debugging” is the strategy of explaining complex material to an inanimate object (in their case, a rubber duck) in order to detect “bugs” or errors. Consider explaining your essay outline to an object of your choice to identify points of potential confusion, repetition, or missing information.
Time Management & Structure
Struggling to wrangle your ideas, time, and motivation? Try out some of the following strategies for support.
The Pomodoro Technique.
The Pomodoro Technique can be a useful tool for balancing focused work time with frequent breaks. Set a timer and work for 25 minutes without stopping; then, take a 5-minute break. Repeat this sequence as many times as you’d like, taking a longer 15-20 minute break after a few cycles.
Try breaking up your writing assignment into separate tasks that take 10-30 minutes each. By making this detailed plan in advance, you can trust the process and make incremental progress on your assignment without having to start from scratch each time you sit down to work.
Some people, including those with ADD/ADHD, may focus more efficiently with another person working next to them, a concept known as “body doubling.” If no one is around to work with you, consider setting up a virtual work session over Zoom, Google Meet, or Facetime for a set period of time. Schedule a time with a friend (near or far), join a remote meeting together, and work for an hour. You can leave your cameras and sound on or off based on your preferences and check in with each other to discuss your progress at any point in the session.
Task management systems.
Consider using a task management system to track assignments, next steps, and other tasks. I use Trello because I can easily access it on both my laptop and my phone.
If you are working on a long-form writing project, try using a word count goal tracker such as Pacemaker. This allows you to set writing goals and log your progress over a set period of time.
If you are stuck, schedule a Writing Center appointment to talk through your ideas.
When faced with an important deadline, we may be tempted to postpone consideration of our wellbeing. However, as beings created in the image of God, we, too, are designed for rest.
When scheduling your classes, activities, and homework time, don’t forget to schedule time to rest, play, and connect with others. You don’t have to plan what you will do in advance—just treat it as an appointment with yourself to do whatever you need to refresh, be it napping, calling a friend, dancing, drawing, or anything else.
If you are feeling exhausted, prioritize sleep. You may find it extra difficult to focus, stay motivated, and problem solve when you are sleep deprived. Research shows that sleep deprivation negatively affects working memory—and working memory, along with other executive functions, shows up throughout the writing process. Getting some sleep and resuming work later may not only refresh your thinking but may also reduce some of your anxiety.
Get some perspective.
When you are anxious about a particular assignment, consider this moment in the context of your entire life. Will this particular writing assignment be the main thing you are concerned about in five or ten years? Probably not!
How would you comfort a close friend who was feeling anxious about their schoolwork? In this moment, try to be radically gentle with yourself. Consider reaching out to a friend or the Wheaton College Counseling Center for support.
Rest in belovedness.
Remember, your worth is not found in your work or productivity. Despite the pervasive societal messages that your output dictates your value, you are unconditionally beloved by God as you are.
Did you try any of these tips? Let us know in the comments below! Follow the Writing Center on Instagram for more strategies.