Writing to Learn: From WAC Principle to Life Practice

As anyone who has spent much time around the Writing Across the Curriculum program is well aware, those working in WAC have a near religious devotion to the inclusion of low-stakes informal writing assignments in every curriculum. These exploratory writing exercises which we call “writing to learn” include activities such as journaling, free-writing, and reflective in-class writing. Following WAC philosophy, “Writing to Learn” helps develop the students’ critical thinking skills and fosters a deeper engagement in thought surrounding the course content.[1] While writing to learn has proven to be a very successful tool in the classroom, its benefits carry over into non-academic settings.

I recently took a graduate level course taught by a former WAC fellow. One of the requirements for the course was to join the website 750words.com and develop a daily writing habit by writing at least 750 words five days out of the week. There were no guidelines beyond the simple stipulation- 750 words, 5 days a week. We were required to generate a monthly report through the site which stated the days on which we wrote and the word count for each day. The words themselves remained private.

I admit, I was resistant to the idea at first. What could I possible have to say that would take up 750 words everyday; however, it didn’t matter what I was writing—it only mattered that I wrote. So I began. On some days I was inspired by the course reading for one of the classes that I was taking and I used my time and 750 words developing my thoughts on the readings. Some days I developed research problems; or thought through other course material that I was struggling with. But some days I was stuck. There were days that I didn’t want to write, days that I could barely get out of bed. But I forced myself to sit down in front of the computer. On these days I wrote about not wanting to write. I wrote about the barrage of personal problems that blocked me from wanting to get work done. Often I would pose a question to myself and write until I was able to answer my question.

Over the course of the semester, I found that the days I began with my freewriting were vastly more productive than those which didn’t begin with writing. The morning writing helped me jump-start my brain in the morning, work through problems that I was having, and organize my day. It allowed me to get all the mental junk out of the way so that I could focus on the day’s tasks with more focus and clarity. By the end of the semester I had been converted and to this day continue to use writing as a way to start my productive days and to work through problems.

As we encourage students to utilize various writing techniques and tools in our classrooms, it can be helpful to point out that these exercises are not merely classroom tricks or ways to take up their time. Writing is an integral part of thinking and organizing. We should help our students see that a writing practice can extend beyond the educational setting and help them live fuller and more


[1] For more information on the philosophy behind “writing to learn”, as well as example activities, see John Bean’s Engaging Ideas chapters 2 and 7.