Ever notice that while advancing through the grades, such subjects as science and mathematics grew increasingly complex, while English on the other hand seemed repetitive, almost like you were marching in place. There was activity but with little perceivable forward movement. There are two explanations for this. The first has to do with the tension between objectivity and subjectivity; the second with the power of habit.
From childhood we all have memories of being hauled before Aunt Jenny to show off our multiplication tables, but were never asked to do the same to highlight our skills at verb conjugation. We learned how to talk through mimicry. We learned our multiplication tables more formally. Two plus two equaled four a hundred years ago and likely will a hundred years hence. But words and language and their rules of usage are ever-changing.
Language and grammar are more subjective in nature, and even though the rules of grammar appear objective, their applications may not be. How many times did we hear “the exception proves the rule?” Exceptions prove nothing other than some fallibility of the rule. Thus the rules of grammar and usage may appear rather prolix and, at times, contradictory. The problem is that we use language well before we are exposed its underlying rules so by the time the rules come along they frequently collide with our habits of usage and we struggle to unlearn the old habits and replace them with new rules. After six years, those habits have become so ingrained that we’re still struggling to break them at the end of our secondary education careers. When you think about it, education is not so much a process of learning the rules of proper use as unlearning the habits of improper use. We all know how hard breaking an old or bad habit can be.
In math there is only one correct answer, so we start by memorizing correct answers. Simple enough. By the time kindergarten rolls around, we’re well on our way to knowing our “numbers.” Grammar and word usage on the other hand have a rather wide range of applications and situations that can equally produce the “wrong” answer as well as the “correct” one and without advising us which is which. It is not always a matter of correctness or wrongness either, but a more subjective measurement of good, better, and best, and then what constitutes good or better or best can be debatable.
There are two general classifications of habits: good ones and bad ones. The process of memorizing our multiplication tables is a good one. Not having a formal initial learning procedure for the rules of English, however, opens up infinite opportunities to pick up bad habits—you know, the ones extremely hard to break. By the time we start school, we have a well-developed high-speed automaticity for our English and that’s why we literally spend much of the next 12 years unlearning old and bad habits.
The educational process hampers the unlearning process. We learn math through the application of its rules to solve practical problems. When it comes to English, the rules are typically presented—like black letter law—followed by examples and then the completion of exercises to prove we learned the rules. The more objective the measurement of performance, the easier it is to grade. Worksheets can be quickly graded; essays not. And, although we write English in whole sentences collected into whole paragraphs, we learn it mostly by studying its segments. Like a jigsaw puzzle, we need to learn and practice how the pieces fit together to make a whole. That’s what writers have to do.
Like learning to play a musical instrument, practice grows confidence, competence, and facility with the written word. The problem is that although we understand the need for practice and rehearsal to learn music and the instrument we play it on, we think writing a single essay in a school term is sufficient to master the art of communication. That’s akin to learning brain surgery in a summer school session.
Writing requires practice to develop and sharpen our skills with its use. It doesn’t have scales and keys, but presents an ever-changing set of circumstances to which our general understanding of the rules is applied. Each new application is just that, a new application. Practice certainly enhances the turning of a rule into a usage habit, but writing additionally requires flexibility in applying general rules to ever-changing situations and circumstances. I had to practice my trombone daily. Why would I think writing would not demand the same? Absent that constancy of commitment and practice is to doom oneself to the highest level of mediocrity rather than advancement.
I always liked the idea of presenting a list of facts and having students write a short story based on them as well as an objective news story. The exercise requires an engaged and creative brain and that is how the brain learns. Or, what would happen if a classroom of students were instructed to write a paragraph about something, then the teacher dutifully guide them through an analysis of a few selected samples and discuss in depth what worked or didn’t and why, and from the discussion deduce some basic rules of grammar and writing? This is not a revolutionary concept. It’s been tried and with great success.
That’s how mechanics learn to repair automobiles—they get their fingers dirty. When you think about it, the structure of sentences and paragraphs from which we learn, are, in their basic forms, pretty mechanical in their operations, yet we avoid getting our fingers sufficiently dirty to really work with them to learn from them. What we do in education is to read a bit about something, then apply the rules via exercises, and then grade the exercises and assign a competency level. We do not adequately assure that everyone becomes truly competent. Do we really care? We merely classify their level of incompetence. Learning to write doesn’t end when you hand in an exercise or an essay. That should be the beginning.
What to do to resolved the tension between old habits and new rules so the new can transform into habits? According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, habits are used by the brain to increase its efficiency. Once something shifts from the learning stage to the automatic stage, the brain frees up space for other tasks. “This process,” writes Duhigg, “in which the brain converts a sequence of action into an automatic routine is known as ‘chunking,’ and it’s at the root of how habits form. There are dozens—if not hundreds—of behavioral chunks that we rely on every day.”
It’s important to realize this is what you’re dealing with as you try to become a more effective writer. You’re not just learning new concepts and approaches, but replacing old, and, usually bad habits, with new and better ones. This requires that the old habits be unlearned. Unlearning has a process all its own. By itself, unlearning is insufficient to rid yourself of an unwanted habit. The old habit that is getting in your way needs to be replaced and the new one learned to the point of becoming a habit.
To establish a habit, says Duhigg, involves a three-step loop that consists first of a cue, second a routine, and third a reward. Remember that: cue, routine, reward. It’s the reward that transforms the cue (prompted usage or action) into a routine (repetition) that ultimately becomes a habit. The need for a reward is why mere repetition won’t make a new habit. Your brain needs to enjoy and look forward to the reward. The reward has to be . . . well . . . sufficiently rewarding. Duhigg puts it this way:
“Countless studies have shown that a cue and a reward, on their own, aren’t enough for a new habit to last. Only when your brain starts expecting the reward—craving the endorphins or sense of accomplishment—will it become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning. The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come.”
How can you make writing do that? The concept of reward is a bit tricky when applied to writing. You can spend a great deal of time writing and at the end of your effort not be satisfied, or worse, be totally disappointed with the outcome. You get that feeling of rejection and dejection and walk away from the effort until something rekindles the spark, even if it’s a gnawing feeling of guilt. That’s why it is so darn difficult to turn your writing efforts into a consistent routine that becomes a habit. You don’t get the same satisfaction as shaving a few seconds off your run time with each new effort.
Rather than thinking that writing will become a habit, you have to start with the physical effort to sit down and write as the first step to establish a basic routine. Initially, that might sound like a nuance of distinction, but mentally it’s an important one. Daily writing is not unlike the exercise that turns a runner into a champion or a wimp into a weight lifter. Each time you sit down to write you are writing something new and different. That’s why it’s important to strive to make the physical act the habit. The best way to do that is to establish a reasonably consistent schedule—the fundamental repetition factor necessary to form a habit. Put another way, the process of habit generation for a writer is not the mental process of writing but the physical act of consistently sitting down and doing it.
The distinction carries a risk. You can’t allow yourself to get bogged down in the emotionality about what you’re doing. Make the physical act the focus of your efforts, at least initially. Biceps don’t pop up after an hour of exercise. It takes effort over time to build muscle, and writing consistently is the exercise that builds muscle. It’s when you start to notice the muscle that your commitment to the exercise becomes habit.
Like many physical exercise programs, you might first consider some sort of writer’s warm up session to shift gears from your daily routine to your writing routine. If you find that you’re having difficulty doing this, try copying a few paragraphs from one of your favorite author’s work. Open his or her novel to a place of reading enjoyment and start typing. This interjects an additional process between you and the printed word and that process forces you to think about the words you are typing in a different way. At the end of each paragraph or few sentences even, review what you have “written” and think about why it works. You are not only warming up but giving your brain a writing lesson and forming the habit of writing.