There’s power in the written word. This is something we recognize as human beings. We encounter writing at every turn – we habitually flip through magazines, we regularly pick up the newspaper, some of us avidly consume one book after another. Even those of us who don’t identify as bibliophiles are likely to be found scrolling through an article we found on Facebook, learning about the latest political goings-on or the best way to make a pancake.

Not only are we consumers of words – we’re also their creators. Many people regularly use journaling, free-writing, and other thought-logging methods. And it makes sense we would be so attracted to writing as a means of communication.

Although words and verbiage are our main tools of communication, they are not our only tools. Huge amounts of information are transmitted non-verbally. We read others’ body language. We pick up on their moods. Sometimes a meaningfully placed silence can say so much more than words ever could. With so many ways to make ourselves understood, why is it we are the only species that has a codified system with which to express our desires and intentions? What sets language apart from other methods of communication?

The main thing that makes words so exceptional is specificity, especially in writing. Word choice crafts tone, feeling, and nuance around what’s being expressed. Language allows for subtle shifts that, used appropriately, can transmit exactly what we mean in a way that body language and empathy cannot. This is what makes language our go-to means of communicating, and, more specifically, what makes words so reliable a tool for communicating with ourselves.

Most of us don’t think in words. We think in feelings, images, and impulses. So the reason many find journaling (or a similar writing practice) so helpful is that writing things down captures what our brains are telling us in a way that’s tangible. If something can be written down, it can be analyzed, dissected, and, ultimately, changed.

So, knowing that writing allows for clarity of thought, we must also acknowledge there are best practices when it comes to employing this tool. When you’re not making sense to yourself, when there’s some insight or need bubbling within you that you just can’t qualify, grab a pen. Grab a piece of paper (the scrappier the better, because then you’re less likely to get caught up in any pretences about how writing should go.) And try these steps.

Step One: Free Writing

Set a timer and write it out. Everything that comes to mind. “Laundry to do.” “I don’t know why the neighbour’s dog hates me.” “I miss my mom.” This gets everything on the page. You can focus on a specific topic, but don’t neglect to write down unrelated thoughts that come creeping in. Keep writing for as long as you want, but probably five to ten minutes is best. Shorter and you might not get enough to work with, longer and you’ll wear yourself out, mentally and emotionally. Write. Just write. No editing, this is a stream of consciousness method.

Step Two: Take a Break

Congratulations! You’ve written out your thoughts! In all likelihood, there are some golden insights in there, but you might not see them right away. So walk away for twenty minutes or even overnight, then return to your scrappy page.

Step Three: Excavate

Read through the page and identify the thoughts that are striking to you. These are probably going to be one of two things; problems or solutions. Highlight them, and make a list.

Step Four: Take Ownership

Now that you have your problems written down, you can work towards fixing them. For example, you wrote, “I hate my job.” Fantastic. That means it’s time to take control of that situation, update the resume, and scour for new opportunities. It won’t happen over night, but every long term project has a step one. Knowing the face of the problem allows you to tackle it.

Step Five: Find Solutions

Now you know what the problem is, you can fix it. If the page says “I’m unlovable,” make a list of the people who love you. ( What evidence do you have that you are in fact loveable?) If you read, “Everything in my life is terrible,” start a gratitude journal that shows exactly how not terrible your life is ( …write out or at least think about 2 questions every day, even on, especially on hard days: ” What went well today? What was it about ME that made that go so well?,… the second question is answered by a positive adjective and if you’re at a loss search the internet for positive personality adjectives) You’ve listened to the unconscious garble. Now it’s time to use your higher thinking faculties and decide, “I’m not going to think this way anymore.” You can choose to think more positively, you can choose to be proactive. And doing so is all the more possible now that you’ve turned your muddled thoughts into clear, crisp words.

The pen is your sword, and you’re your own knight. Save yourself!

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