University Writing Center Blog

Posted on April 26th, 2024 by aiwitt

by Ashley Bertram

“The key is to use something that is a mystery to you, and then follow it. And let it reveal itself without too much concern for solving that mystery.” — Rob Schiffmann on improv

Throughout a typical college career, various writing projects are sprinkled into our curriculum. I have personally written multiple research essays, literature analyses, narratives, argumentative rhetoric, letters, and discussion posts—hello, English majors! In addition to those, perhaps there are other written assignments that you have also encountered in your field of study which vary in complexity and depth, with almost as many ways to get them on paper.
Unironically, I begin this blog entry by leaning on my old pal, the alphanumerical outline. The bullet-points help put my scattered mind at ease when I am preparing an assignment, but perhaps if you were in my shoes it would come in the form of clustering/mind-mapping, listing by topic, or you’re like some of the writing center consultants who like to wing it.
Regardless of your pre-writing preference, the question of “what am I trying to say” must be answered, but does it always have to be answered before we start the project? For my writing process, I have always found it easier to paste directly into a blank Word document-think about your who, what, when, where, why, or even simply pasting the questions directly from the rubric. Then I’ll do my APA, MLA, or Chicago Style formatting, including piecing together my reference page before even getting any writing down on paper. Having everything planned out helps me to feel prepared and in control of my writing, but at the end of the day, starting the writing process is what’s important.

BUT in Ashley’s world, that process was the only way to get from point A to point B. I expected to hear some similarities in the way my fellow writing consultants did their writing, but I admit I was surprised to discover that approximately 35% of participants in my survey do not outline and “wing it” during their writing. One consultant shared that they do not find it helpful for their writing process to outline. I couldn’t help but wonder if I’ve been missing out on something in my creative process by planning everything out? That sparked an interest to dive into the world of improv, traditionally a theatrical discipline, to learn about its practical uses for writing.
Improv, or improvisational comedy, is non-scripted and made up in real time. Its roots come from the 16th century commedia dell’arte but has grown into the modern conception from the last half of the 1900s (Pasulka, 2022). In essence, regardless of whether it’s “Whose Line is it Anyway?” or a local improv club, actors will begin with a general scene then build off one another until the skit has come to a natural end. This “scene” can be equivalent to writing assignment guidelines which provide us with a starting point but expect us to do the intellectual heavy lifting with the “skit” being our final written project. So, if we’re the main act, where do we begin?

No matter who you ask, the universal first rule of improv is “yes, and…” This tenet is drilled into all intro classes to prepare the actor to build on, not detract from, an idea or scene. In their NPR article, Aladesuyi and Nguyen highlight “yes, and…” advice given by author and improv aficionado, Clay Drinko, “[it] gives us a moment to pause, listen and create something new from what someone else is offering” (2022). In writing terms, practicing “yes, and…” is the guiding principle that helps us (as students) get our foot into the academic discussion, even if we do not take our writing beyond the classroom.

Another principle of improv is to lean into ourselves and use our experience, values, and ideas as a steppingstone to adding to the discussion. We all have unique experiences, traits, and ways of thinking so we “should keep reminding [ourselves] that [our] voice matters” (Aladesuyi & Nguyen, 2022). Regardless of the assignment topic, owning our individuality can feel like a daunting task when we’re reading materials that may not interest us, but our voice shines through our writing regardless. You and I may research domestic animals, finding similar source material for the same assignment, yet when the professor gets our work, we each have our own spin on the topic. In the same way, a set of different improv partners may have the same topic but produce an entirely different skit. It’s US that makes our writing.

Given the seemingly endless due dates throughout a semester, maybe you have a hard time picturing writing as “fun,” but allowing ourselves some space to play around with our ideas without the need to produce the “perfect” draft can be beneficial. Backstage journalist, Adam Peluska, reinforces that in improv we can expect to bomb (2022), which can remove a lot of pressure during the writing process. It’s okay for writers to change direction (with or without an outline) as we get deeper into our writing. It is a natural outcome as we sit with the material, ourselves, and the freedom to experiment. Aladesuyi & Nguyen reassure their readers that “it can feel selfish and unproductive to do something that doesn’t have an immediate utility. But it’s good for adults to make time to play” (2022).

The purpose of any good assignment is to see writers draw connections or create new ideas based on the material. While we may approach each one differently, there are great writing tools to help us get there. Various outlining, free-writing, and improv techniques can help us with any stage of writing. At the beginning of this project, I suspected that I would only compile a list of pre-writing exercises that could be used in the writing center, but now, I have found that there is yet another way to get the creative juices flowing. And with that, hopefully you are challenging your ideas like I am, that there are many “right” ways to write.

Written by Ashley Bertram