I write a lot. I rarely publicly share what I write, but I write a lot anyways, and I consider it one of my most important habits. However, I know many people don’t write, and many who want to write don’t know what to write about. This blog post intends to change that!

Why write?

To cope and reflect

I write because writing helps me deal with life. Talking to friends is always helpful for getting through hard times, but sometimes friends are busy, or I don’t want to bother them, or I don’t feel comfortable talking about something in particular. In an especially difficult time, I might not feel I even have close friends to begin with. This is when writing helps; a journal will never not listen to you. I can vent on paper without fear of being judged, and as I vocalize my thoughts and feelings, I can begin to make sense of things. My words might be a barrage of nonsense and emotion as I first begin to write, but once they’re on paper, I can begin to organize my thoughts. What’s ticking me off? Why? What can I do to handle the situation?

This kind of thinking also helps me maximize my time. In reflecting often, I’m quick to identify what’s most meaningful to me, as well as what’s just wasting energy. Instead of blindingly following life for a decade and then wondering where the time went, this helps me be more intentional in what I do.

To remember

I write so I have something to look back on. I’m all for moving forward and not getting stuck in the past, but I also like to be able to see where I’ve been. It’s good to remember what the happy times felt like, and, likewise, it’s good to remember what it was like to struggle. It’s good to be able to see what I’ve done and how far I’ve come. It helps keep life in perspective.

I also write to keep memories alive. When I’m an old fart and can only eat, poop, and tell stories, I better have some damn good stories to tell.

To make decisions

When at a crossroads, I write. For example, when I was a high school senior debating on which college to attend, I wrote to help myself make up my mind. I wrote down all of the factors I value in my college experience and ordered them by importance; then I wrote down all of my options, and wrote down how well each option would achieve what I value, and the problems I might have with each option. (For what it’s worth, I’m pretty satisfied with the route I ended up choosing.) Not only does this help me make well thought-out decisions, but having my decision on paper helps me make up my mind and move on, instead of changing my mind every day.

To practice

Writing helps me become a better communicator. That may be obvious, but it’s worth saying. In writing – whether that be journaling, venting, pontificating, or anything else – you practice shaping abstract feelings and ideas into concrete words.

Writing enables you to share experiences with others in a powerful way; through your words, others can connect with you and come to understand how you feel. Think of your favorite books and movies; often, what makes these powerful is that a reader or viewer can connect on a deep level with characters and really stand in a character’s shoes. It may sound sappy, but I think there is something to be said for learning to show others your world. How does it feel to deal with rejection from the job you wanted so badly? To reject the most qualified applicant to a job posting because of company politics? How does it feel to manage the disappointment of parents? To be a disappointed parent yourself? How does it feel to struggle in a class where the material is foreign, the professor can’t teach, and the TA is rude? How does it feel to TA for a class where the material is challenging, the professor can’t teach, and you’re so overwhelmed with life – your own grades are suffering and a parent just passed away – that you feel like you’re snapping at everyone?

You might write many narratives that you don’t or can’t share with others. However, in writing them, you improve in your ability to channel emotions into words and help others understand how you feel.

Even if you aren’t interested in narratives, practicing writing can help you express your thoughts and convince others of your opinions. In writing, your first few words might be, “that political view is stupid.” Then, as you continue to write, you figure out how to vocalize precisely why it is wrong. You move past saying “I don’t like that guy,” introspect, and figure out why exactly you don’t like him, and whether anything could be improved. You learn to express yourself, share your perspectives, and work with others more constructively than you would otherwise.

To help others

Structured writing can often be of use to others; for example, I write this blog in the hopes that someone might find a tutorial or explanation useful. However, your ramblings and rants about how life is going can be helpful as well, even if you don’t share them with anyone!

Unstructured ramblings help later on when you are giving advice to someone in a hard time that you previously went through. It’s often unhelpful, or perhaps even dangerous, to give advice when you don’t remember what it was like to be in that situation. Generally, you either know what it’s like to be in the situation (because you are in it) or you know how things turned out afterwards, but not both. We don’t usually remember (in detail) hard times; theories of motivated forgetting suggest we tend to forget difficult memories, and studies on “rosy retrospection” find that we often remember the past as more positive than we experienced it. When someone asks for advice on a tough situation that we went through in the past, we often can’t do much more than offer our thoughts in retrospect, just as anyone might do – unless we wrote down what it was like to go through that time!

In high school, I struggled a lot with self worth, deciding where to go to college, connecting with other people, and plenty else. When someone asks me for help with these things, I always first look to what I wrote. What did it feel like to go through those times? What helped me? How did I eventually make it through? What do I wish someone told me? Because I wrote, I remember what it was like to go through those times, and, perhaps more importantly, I remember what it was like to make it out.

What should I write about?

Anything you want. Any writing can be helpful writing. However, these are some things to get you started:

  • Write about your day. As I mentioned, I do this often when I’m going through a hard time. I’ll just write down something that happened, and then I’ll write down my thoughts as they come to mind. These often end up as long rants. That’s okay. I try to write about happy days as well, but I usually have less motivation to do that :)
  • Write about something you read. Are there any new or notable ideas? How do you feel about it? What’s your response? Last night, I read an article about some folks teaching a CS 101 class as an actual music class that also covered CS fundamentals. I had never heard of this, so I wrote down some key takeaways and my opinions on the approach.
  • Write about an idea that has been bugging you. Sometimes I write about politics. Sometimes I write about philosophical ideas that have been on my mind. Sometimes I write about an idea related to computer science education, or I write about my brothers, or I reflect on how I feel life is going in general. It could be anything I’ve been thinking about. Sometimes I’ll write down what I was thinking about in the shower.
  • Write a story. Pick something that happened recently, and then describe it in vivid detail. Who was there? What did the expressions on their faces look like? How did it feel to be there? Who was wearing what? Was it a beautiful day out, with the wind blowing and the sun shining just the right amount? Or did things happen indoors? Was the room well-lit, or dim and musty? Try to write such that someone else could live the experience through your words.

How should I write?

Some people prefer writing with paper and pen. Some studies indicate that writing by hand may help you to be more creative. Personally, I much prefer typing; I have hyperhidrosis, which makes writing on paper difficult, and I can type over 3x faster than I can write by hand. (Yes, I actually timed that… ¯_(ツ)_/¯) Try both, and do whatever works best for you. I use Day One on my Mac and Google Keep on my phone.

People also have different opinions about whether or not you should listen to music while writing. If I have a lot in my head that I’m bursting to get on paper, then I’ll often write without music, but I find that if I’m tired and don’t feel like writing, listening to music can help me get into the zone. I always choose music without lyrics – simple electronic or orchestral music with a strong beat but without anything distracting seems to work best for me – but your mileage may vary.

Sometimes outlining helps. Sometimes I don’t have time to write things out in full, so I’ll write down points I want to talk about, order them, and then expand them into full writings. Other times I just dive in.

A common excuse is “oh, I don’t have time to write.” If you’re a busy person, set aside just ten minutes each day to write. Just ten minutes will make a difference! If you can’t even spare ten minutes, you might want to think about how you’re spending your time…

I think the most important thing is to simply find a place where you won’t be disturbed, silence your phone or disable notifications on your computer, and just go at it. Don’t worry about what anyone thinks. You don’t need to share your writing; you write for you. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t sound good. It doesn’t matter if there are spelling and grammatical mistakes all over. Just write!