Huntington Beach

In my last post, I discussed the value of regular writing throughout the school year.  And if you want to produce any sort of reasonable quantity—especially necessary if you’re creating a portfolio for college scholarships or supplementary materials (more in a later post)—you need to be regularly producing material.

The problem with this method, however, is that it doesn’t speak to quality.

It would be nice if improving at writing was a linear process, with each hour of effort yielding a proportional return in quality.  Instead, however, it is a jerky ride, one alternating between quick, intense leaps and plateaus.

Productivity guru Scott Young describes it like this:

In chemistry, there’s the idea of an activation cost. This is the threshold of energy you need to surpass to start a chemical reaction. Dynamite, for example, contains a lot of energy. But unless a spark or lit fuse pays the activation cost it won’t explode.

This explains why, for all of your routinized effort, you aren’t seeing meaningful improvements in the quality of your work:  You haven’t paid your activation cost.  This doesn’t mean that your regular effort is meaningless; it just means it’s not enough.

What, then, can get you over these writing slumps?  During the school year, you’re bogged down with AP assignments, extracurriculars, and all the other stresses of student life.  There just simply isn’t a way to create a schedule intense enough to get you to the next level.

That leaves summers, your only free period.  Writes Cal Newport of Study Hacks in his book How to Win at College:

Summer is a great time to explore your interest free from the burden of academics….   Summer vacation is not really a vacation.  Instead, it should be viewed as an annually occurring grace period where you get to put classes aside for two months and fully focus on nonacademic ambitions and experiences.

Writing alone in your room, however, isn’t going to produce the best results.  In isolated environments, you lack regular, immediate feedback about your work—in other words, you’re flailing.  This shouldn’t be taken to mean that isolated writing time isn’t important; it is—for production.  But improvement of the radical, meaningful variety is unlikely to happen without feedback.  It’s like taking a high school course with absolutely no instruction.

And there’s evidence to back this philosophy up.  Researchers at CSU Fullerton studying Singaporean undergrads found that:

Participants receiving training and practice combined with feedback outperformed participants who received only training and practice… This improvement in performance was based on a short feedback session, suggesting that effective feedback can have a demonstrable impact in a short time.

So where to find this effective feedback?  During the year, a mentor can work, but the intensity of having many hours to work is lacking.

Summer programs are my answer.  It was my two summers at Interlochen Arts Camp that really matured my writing, that provided me not only with time to write but with constant feedback from professional writers.  It’s no surprise that the majority of my award-winning work was produced during this time or immediately upon returning home:  I was in a process of persistent revision, of constant illumination with help from educated instructors and peers.  (An added bonus:  If you keep in contact with those instructors and friends, you maintain that feedback network into the year.)

Of course, for some students, it’s simply not possible to spend that sort of money—you need a job to save for college or just, like most Americans, don’t have a few grand lying around.  Remember, though, that friends and family are always willing to pitch in a few dollars when it’s for something that matters, and remember too that scholarships exist for students with need.

For those of you that can’t sacrifice working weeks, consider taking a class at a local university or community college, or contact a local professor or writer who might be willing to meet regularly to discuss your work.  Any way you can work regular feedback into your writing schedule is a good thing for your work.

An upcoming post will detail the specifics of different writing programs.  I’m still collecting information on non-Interlochen programs, so if anyone has attended one, please comment or contact me at cplangfo@Princeton.EDU.