From the day you enter high school, clutching your bookbag in homeroom, all anyone can talk about is college admissions. Guidance counselors, teachers, that annoying teacher’s pet—everyone is obsessed with getting into the best college and the all-powerful resume you need to get there.
Most students panic and immediately run for student council, join the Debate team, and sacrifice their Saturdays to Habitat builds. Whenever they can spare a free moment, they’re tutoring underprivileged ESL students or squeezing in French Club meetings. The kids who like to write might add to this list the school paper or literary magazine. And they end up being remarkable at none of these things.
Take my disastrous freshman year, for example. I ran for student council and spent every Tuesday listening to the student body president, a pretty pageant-girl type, talk about her weekends; I tutored local elementary school students for fewer hours a week than it took to get to the tutoring center; I jumped onto my class’s Relay for Life team and, in a desperate time crunch, donated $100 of my own money. None of that is particularly impressive, none of that mattered on my college applications, but it managed to suck away almost all of my time and energy from writing. In fact, all I wrote at the time was terrible, post-midnight poetry—the kind of stuff I cringe reading now.
See, here’s the thing about writing: It takes a remarkable amount of time. Even more so than other activities, it will require a huge investment outside of scheduled school activities. Because, unlike other activities, you don’t just show up to “writing” team for an hour a week and get credit for being there; you have to actually be good. The quality of your work matters. In order to win the contests I mentioned in the last post (or find a mentor, or get invited to local readings)—in order to be the kind of impressive that will get you into college and get you otherwise noticed—you will need to produce strong work with a strong voice. And that’s not the kind of task you can schedule into weekly meetings.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, offers the 10,000 hours rule:
When we look at any kind of cognitively complex field — for example, playing chess, writing fiction or being a neurosurgeon — we find that you are unlikely to master it unless you have practiced for 10,000 hours. That’s 20 hours a week for 10 years.
If you’ve been trying to cram your writing into small, irregular blocks of time, you’ve probably noticed how little progress you’ve made. That’s because you’re just not putting forth the necessary effort to improve; you’re not moving towards mastery. What you need is to invest significant amounts of time on a regular basis in your work.
So do what your peers are not: underschedule. (For fans of Cal Newport or Justine Musk, this will sound familiar. Musk even earned a scholarship to Canada’s best university by following this advice.) That means you should ruthlessly cull your extracurricular load. Slash and burn. Quit with abandon. Leave only those activities that will make you a better writer or will get you involved in the writing world. Because you will need not only time to write but to write well—to revise and rewrite and redo—in order to get rewarded for that work.
Once you’ve done that, you should have more free time than you know what to do with. It will feel strange. You’ll keep checking Google calendar, convinced you’re forgetting something. Resist the urge to fill this time with useless club memberships and instead find a time and a place that serve your writing best. Says author Neal Stephenson:
I did figure out that I tended to write good stuff first thing in the morning. So I had all this free time in the rest of the day that I had to occupy with something other than writing. Because if I sat and [continued to write], I’d just bury the good stuff I’d written in crap and have to excavate it later.
As a student, you’re unlikely to have the problem of having too much time to write. But the sentiment is the same: You need to write at the right time (and in the right place, with the right materials) to produce your best work. If you do that, you’ll write better in less time—leaving you with enough time to tackle your courseload and the vagaries of student life (eg, partying).
The trick of the schedule is not to break it once you’ve found the time that works for you. Follow the old workout rule: You can skip one day if absolutely necessary, but never two. Routine is key. It eliminates unnecessary distractions and mind clutter and leaves room for serious thinking. (And hey, if Stephen King can write every day except Christmas and his birthday, you can too.)
But the best part about this plan? It will take you outside of your high school’s insulated world. Because no admissions officer really cares if you’re the student body president or captain of the chess team—there’s one from every school, after all, and they start to blur together after a while, each essay about prom-planning snafus sounding like the next.
You, on the other hand, will become known in your community as The Writer, and opportunities will start to present themselves. Take my experience, for example: One second I was meekly emailing a local professor about mentoring me; the next, I was reading at every poetry event in town and meeting the state poet laureate because Dr. Tony Abbott was nice enough to spread the word.
So keep this in mind as the new school year rolls around. Quitting student council and tutoring and Relay for Life—all of the insignificant things that were taking over my schedule—was the best decision I ever made for my craft. Quit because less will mean more—more time to write, to do homework, to hang out—in college admissions and beyond.
- Quit anything and everything to carve out time in your schedule to write.
- Find your ideal time and place to write. Write in this time and place every day.
- Get involved in your community. Starting small (by, say, emailing a college professor) will earn you a reputation locally and provide you with opportunities to improve and share your writing.