■ Random listing. Instead of shackling your thought to the rules of sentences and paragraphs, ﬁrst warm up your writing skills by generating simple lists—favorite music; worst jobs; greatest accomplishments; best vacations; traits that deﬁne you, characteristics your friends admire in you; or most unusual things about your childhood, education, homeland, international travels, hobbies, and so on. Then take these lists a step further by looking for any connections between them. Perhaps your list of deﬁning traits is illustrated by your list of achievements. Maybe certain experiences keep appearing in different lists—an indication they are important or deﬁning for you.
■ Journaling. Nothing will get you into the discipline of writing better than a daily regimen. The operative word here is daily; anything less frequent will prevent you from writing naturally and un-self-consciously. The goal here is to get comfortable with the idea of expressing yourself in words (it’s not an unnatural act). Pick a time of day when you can write uninterruptedly for 15 to 30 minutes. Record your experiences, victories, complaints from the past day—whatever you want—but do it without fail and without distractions. Avoid the trap of simply recording your comings and goings, however. Make it a practice to close each paragraph by drawing some conclusion or stating its signiﬁcance. Writing thoughtfully is a habit you can learn. If you’d like a little help, try a Web tool called 750words.com, a private online journaling tool that gets you in the habit of writing three pages (about 750 words) daily by, for example, awarding “points” for every day you reach your 750 words. A similar site, springnote.com allows you to share your journal entries with others or create entries from your iPhone.
■ Social media. If it will help you commit to the writing process to post your exercises where anyone and everyone can see them—on the Internet—by all means go for it (but maybe keep the really embarrassing stuff to yourself). Facebook friends may respond in helpful ways to an anecdote you post (or at least tell you that it sucks when it does). Likewise, tweeting your memory of a deﬁning moment or an idea you have for an essay theme may earn you some interesting feedback. But even if Web posting just gets you in the groove of thinking about your essay’s themes and stories, it will serve a useful purpose. Twitter and other social media may get you into the habit of writing (albeit 140 characters at a time) and earn you feedback on your writing all at the same time.
■ Visual mapping or clustering. Write the four or ﬁve themes that constitute your self-marketing handle on separate sheets of paper (or use a mind mapping application such as Mindo or CrowdMap for iPad; Google “mind mapping” for other visual mapping apps). Around each of your theme words, begin jotting down whatever events, skills, values, or interests these words suggest to you. Each new term you jot down will suggest other words. Follow them where they lead, and connect each new term with a line back to the related term that prompted it. If you go with the ﬂow here, you may gain insights into what you value most and the inter-connections between your themes. All these may prove useful when you begin writing your essays.
■ Stream-of-consciousness writing. Perhaps the least structured of techniques, stream-of-consciousness or “free” writing simply involves scribbling down whatever comes into your head without stopping, even if it’s nonsense. As odd as this may sound, you’ll ﬁnd that, for all the useless verbiage you generate, you may also unwittingly produce ideas, phrases, and insights that may actually wind up in your essays. Try to group these ideas, phrases, and insights into related categories. At a minimum, this technique can help you overcome the angst of the empty screen.
What do all these exercises have in common? They get you writing before you begin writing your essays, when anxiety and your “internal editor” can cut you off from the creativity and personality that will make your essays live. The mere act of translating your thoughts into words—in whatever form—forces those thoughts to the next level of concreteness and leads you in new directions, while also giving you a ‘paper’ trail to refer back to as raw material for your essays. Writing, in other words, is a way of thinking, a kind of introspection. The sooner you get into the habit of thinking on paper (or laptop, iPad, iPhone—whatever works), the sooner you’ll be ready to shape that thinking into the rigorous, ordered thought that is the essay. Crossing the great divide between your thoughts and their verbal expression in concrete language is what separates would-be writers from non-writers. It’s not easy, but these exercises can help you do it with a minimum of pain.
Paul Bodine is the author of “Great Applications for Business School“ and an MBA admissions consultant based in San Diego. This is the third in a series of excerpts from Paul’s newly revised edition of ”Great Applications,” which is on our bookshelf as essential reading for all MBA applicants. The first two articles: “MBA Essays: 10 Crucial Things You Should Never Do” and “MBA Essays: Making a Lasting Impression.” The fourth excerpt will appear next week. You also can follow Paul on Twitter and Facebook.