We all know there is a reason students are required to write so much in college: writing is a fundamental tool for processing, mastering, and analyzing information.  In other words, for education!  Yet some of us put this tool away along with our diplomas and mortarboards.  Why? Writing can provide advisors with the same benefits it provides students.  Writing can help you be more productive, remember key information, communicate better with students, and be more creative.  You don’t have to be a grant-writer or a Nobel Laureate to do it either!  This blog will provide you with some simple ways to use writing to improve your advising.

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“Morning Pages”

In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron presents a writing exercise anyone can do.  It is called “morning pages.”  Morning pages are exactly as they sound—pages you produce in the morning.  Early in the day (maybe during your coffee before you arrive at work, or first thing in the office, or maybe in a lull between emails and the day’s walk-in rush) you write three pages.  Those three pages should be completely stream-of-conscious and unedited.  The goal is to put pen to paper for three pages, not to produce a masterwork.  Morning pages clear the “junk” in your head.  Getting your anxieties, daydreams, and just plain nonsense out on paper keeps your brain from holding on to it and revisiting it throughout the day.

In addition, the morning pages can help you be more creative.  The writing is free-flowing and uncensored.  Don’t stop to ask, “Is that idea stupid?” or even, “Is that a sentence?”  It doesn’t matter.  Morning pages give you time to think your thoughts without critique.  Most of it will be the “junk” you are trying to “dump,” but in those rambling pages might also be an idea you didn’t even know you had.  While writing morning pages I came up with an initiative for my advising site.

However, don’t be too goal-oriented when you sit down to write your morning pages. Remember that you are letting thoughts flow out of you, not intentionally brainstorming or problem-solving.  A key part of the exercise is that it gives you a chance to write about anything, useful or not.

Handwriting vs. Typing

Another helpful practice is to write with good old-fashioned pen or pencil, rather than type.  Whether it is morning pages, journaling, or conference notes, hand-writing can add value to the activity.  Studies conducted by a variety of universities (Princeton, UCLA, University of Kansas) find that students who write their notes perform better on tests that measure both retention of ideas and understanding of new ideas. (A great summary of that research can be found in The Wall Street Journal’s “Can Handwriting Make You Smarter?” by Robert Lee Hotz. April 4, 2016.)  Writing, rather than typing, seems to be more effective because it better focuses attention and transfers more information into memory.  So if you take hand-written notes at your next staff meeting, you are likely to follow along more attentively, understand others’ points better, and remember more of the meeting later.

Writing During Advising

Writing in advising isn’t just about self-improvement; it isn’t just about making you a more creative, focused, smarter person.  Writing in advising can actually build a stronger connection with your students.  A lot of us write notes about our advising sessions after the student has left the building.  Why not jot down notes while the student is there?  It silently communicates to the student, “I’m paying attention,” and “What you’re saying is important,” and, “We are going to work long-term on these issues, not just today.”

As someone who elected to work on an advising blog, I am obviously a fan of writing.  But you don’t have to be an English professor—or even a mediocre writer!—to use pen-and-paper for a simple exercise, in a meeting, at a conference, or during an advising session.  Just scribble away to keep your mind clear and fresh, and your advising relationships strong!

Content for this post was written by Elizabeth Scott, advisor for the Computer Science and Math departments.