Think back to your first swimming lesson, or the first time you went to the pool. Did you jump in with both feet right away? If so, how did that go? Likely, you got in slowly, or if you decided to take the leap, hopefully someone caught you before you got into trouble. Now think of an Olympic swimmer like Katie Ledecky or Penny Oleksiak. How do they get in the water at the start of a race? When the buzzer goes off, there’s no time to use the ladder.
So what does any of this have to do with writing? This may surprise you, but writing an essay is quite similar to learning the front crawl.
Let’s go back to swimming. When new swimmers get tired in the pool, they put their feet down and stand up. Experienced swimmers, on the other hand, will keep their body at the surface for less resistance. When teaching someone to do the front crawl, the first task is to make sure that they have the body position mastered. In simpler words, can they do a front float without their feet sinking? Now think about free writing. It’s hard to get very far by stopping every time you feel resistance. If you put your feet down on the bottom of the pool, you’ll never make headway. If you stop writing, then you won’t have any material to work with. The first goal of writing is to jot down the ideas that you want to work with. There is risk involved; you will have to take your feet off the bottom, but without that risk, your ideas are stuck and your front crawl is nonexistent. The way to succeed is to jump right in and get your body flat on the surface. Your instructor, or the editing process, will catch you when things go wrong. Get your ideas on the page. It doesn’t have to be pretty. They don’t have to be going anywhere. This is just the first step.
Once the words are on the page and you can float on your own, it’s time to start moving. This is when swimming instructors pull out a fun kicking drill to move your skills from a float to a glide whereas writers use a tool like a reverse outline to help with organization. Kicking drills help with knee extension, pointed toes, and keeping the kicks small, fast, and in an up-down motion. Tools like the reverse outline are designed to make sure that the piece of writing tells the story that the writer wants to tell. It helps to identify if the ideas are being presented in a logical order or if any part of the argument is missing. It can also be useful for figuring out whether the introduction and conclusion are in agreement with what the body of the paper is saying. Both the organization of ideas and flutter kick start the movement from points A to B and then on to point C. It still doesn’t look like front crawl or a finished essay, but don’t panic. Even Michael Phelps doesn’t win with just flutter kick.
So now you’re moving, but it’s a little slow. The kick is a good start, but it only gets you so far. Adding arms is helpful for pulling you along more smoothly and efficiently. Likewise, it’s time to start working within the paragraphs. Front crawl arms circle continuously, always pulling the swimmer forward. Just as one hand slices into the water in front of your head, the other elbow is poking up through the surface behind you. In the same way, sentences need to flow together and work together to support the point of the paragraph with logical evidence. The goal is to help your reader understand where your thoughts are coming from, where they are going, and how they fit together. In the pool, adding arms creates a stroke that finally resembles what you are trying to achieve and allows you to travel where you are wanting to go with greater ease.
So you’re swimming along, you’ve got your body flat on the surface. Your legs are kicking, your arms are circling, and all of a sudden you need to breathe but you don’t know how. You stand up and your momentum disappears. In front crawl, breathing is done to the side in a timed pattern. Most people breathe every 3-5 strokes, but some breathe more or less often. Sometimes people choose different patterns for different circumstances. With writing, word choice is the equivalent of breathing. Using the right word for the context means the reader doesn’t have to stop and reread what you’ve written, similar to how a swimmer doesn’t have to pause their stroke to breathe once they have the technique mastered. Similarly, there is no one correct word or pattern. The word one person chooses may be different from the one chosen by their classmate. The chosen word may also differ in a formal essay versus a personal reflection. Overall, both breathing and word choice help the rest of the work you’ve done move along more efficiently and effectively.
So your stroke is getting you where you need to go, but somehow it doesn’t look quite like the ones you see from Olympian swimmers or even the lifeguards at your local pool. The basic pieces are there, but the technique is still lacking. Maybe you need to get your elbows up a little higher, or you’re struggling to flick your ankles just right. Maybe you’re finishing your pull phase at your waist instead of past your hips like you should. This is your proofreading phase. Have you checked your spelling? Are you using your commas correctly? Do the individual phrases flow nicely when you read them aloud? Is the formatting done correctly in whatever citation style the assignment requires? This work not only cleans up the aesthetic of your stroke or your piece of writing, but also makes your final product more efficient. It reduces the resistance of the water and helps your reader follow your thought process with ease. Sometimes at this point, you might realize the timing of your arms is wrong or the context for your argument is near the end. If you find yourself in this situation, don’t feel discouraged. It happens to everyone at one point or another. Go back and take the time to do a kicking drill or move your paragraphs around. It’ll be worth it once you come back to look at your technique again.
One final tip for both writing and swimming is to get someone else to look at it. Swimming with a buddy is always safer and writing is no different. Ask a friend to watch your stroke to see if your arms are extending in front of your head before you begin the pull phase. Ask them if they can figure out what you are going to talk about in your essay after reading the intro paragraph. You can’t watch yourself swim and similarly, you can’t look at your own writing with entirely fresh eyes, so it can be super helpful to find someone who can give you that outside perspective.
Maybe you won’t be swimming a big race while on vacation or feel like hitting the pool because of the snowdrifts outside, but I encourage you to take the plunge and give writing a try. Put your pen to the paper or pull out your laptop and jump right in.