Every year, when my journalism course at Colorado College starts, I e-mail students a personal letter about the course — and about my background, always including some missteps to make myself vulnerable and approachable.

I ask them to write a reply telling me about themselves — not a laundry list of activities, but describing something that has had a significant impact on their lives.

The replies from my 16 students this year were all written in relaxed, conversational language.

That excited me, because it promised easy markups of their papers in the course.

No such luck.

Once they tackled assignments, they reverted to writing in a stiff, academic style, the kind they learned in high school.

I constantly implored them to write the way they talk:

“When you come back to your dorm and say to your roommate, ‘You’ll never guess what happened today’ — and your roommate says, ‘Tell me’ — you have no trouble telling her. So, write that way.”

This challenge reminds me of my freshman year in college, when I tried out for the track team.

Our coach asked why I was running with fists clenched and forearms tense.

I said I was trying hard.

He suggested that I unclench my fists, lightly touch my thumbs to my forefingers and relax.

I tried it, and it felt unnatural.

“Be patient,” he said. “All that energy you’ve been pouring into those clenched fists and tight arms is wasted. It steals speed from you. If you stop straining, that energy will go into your legs, and you will run faster.”

The next day at practice I tried it, and he asked how it felt.

I said it felt great, as if I’d been doing it all my life.

A complete makeover, and in just one day.

Not that you can master conversational writing in just one day.

But if you give yourself permission to relax — and to try — you will succeed.

By the end of my course this fall, all 16 students had moved a long way toward success.

And for that I give thanks. 

Twin Cities writing coach Gary Gilson, winner of an Emmy Award, teaches journalism at Colorado College. He can be reached at www.writebetterwithgary.com.