Essay Writing 101

This wraps up our series on essay tips no one else will give you, and it’s probably the most important one. A lot of what I’m about to say here today, I learned from two people, epistemologist Rachel McKinnon and professional writer Chuck Wendig. Heed their words, and mine.

The key to having a successful essay is this: write. That’s it. Just write. Don’t quibble about what the words will be, or how they’ll relate to your topic. The other six steps I’ve discussed can all happen in editing. But you can’t edit nothing. Your arguments have to be on the page before they can be honed to razor sharpness for your essay. There are many good reasons to write first and reason later. First, it will make you better. Writing is like anything else. The more you do it, the better you get. The more comfortable you’ll become with looking at your own work, and the easier it’ll be for you to put your ideas on the page. If you’re in third year, think about how hard your first year essays seemed, and how difficult they’d be to write now. You are learning things. You’re getting smarter and better.

Second, it will make you feel better. We all know the stress of staring at a blank page. Fill it with words. Even if they’re crap, you’re releasing your frustration. You can look at the pages you put out and be happy that you have something. You have words that you can edit, which is more than you had before. Let that stress go, and begin the new, more interesting stress of the editing process. But there are things that get in the way. I have anticipated them.

I don’t know what to write

Go back and focus your thesis. Think about your question. Now imagine you’re explaining your question to someone who’s incredibly stupid. They just don’t get it. They keep asking why it matters to you. How is your thesis a real answer to that question? Don’t be afraid to get mad at them. If your imagination has atrophied, find a good friend and ask them to be stupid for you. Record whatever you tell them, and write that down. It’s the start of your paper. It’s also probably most of your arguments. Improve them, write them for a smarter person, and you’re good to go.

It won’t be good

I don’t care. Neither should you. Good isn’t a component of the writing process, it’s part of editing. Ask your professor and they’ll tell you the same thing. All those brilliant scholarly works you’re reading in class? All edited heavily to be better. Every great work of literature? Edited. This isn’t to say you can’t write something good straight away, but you shouldn’t feel any pressure to. The important thing is to write. You have a deadline. You have to get this paper done. Perfect is the enemy of done, so it should be ignored, cast aside, or outright gunned down in the street. I know you want it to be good, but it’s easier to perfect it on the page than in your head.

I have writer’s block

No, you don’t. What you have is an excuse. Writer’s block is for that person who wants to write the great American novel some day, or that blogger who writes whenever they feel moved by the muse. It’s a masturbatory fantasy that lets people feel like a tortured writer without actually having to write anything. You are not one of these people. I know this, because you are a student. You exist in a world where you have deadlines, and there are consequences for not meeting them. You want to be there. No one dragged you kicking and screaming into the halls of the academy. One of the things you are here to learn is how to get past these kinds of blocks. If you feel like you have writer’s block, go and imagine your stupid person again, and explain things. Make them as stupid as you need to. Eat some food, sleep a bit, and then come back to it.

And that’s it. Follow this advice and you should notice a definite improvement in your essays, and in your grades. Unlearn the things you learned in high school. Learn to skim effectively. Start your research early, and remember that you live in a citation nation. Make sure you focus your thesis, and that the paper is paced appropriately. Finally and most importantly, write. Best of luck on your essays and finals.

Jim Tigwell has written a hundred essays and believes in your ability to finish yours. He has spoken with your profs, and they do not secretly hate you. Find out more about his conversations with them on his Twitter.

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