On Writing that #@%& Essay

2am

We’ve passed the halfway point in the semester (wait…what?!), and your Final Essay is due soon (wait…WHAT?!). You’re starting to feel the burn…you have nothing to say…but you have to say something. The mere sight of a blank screen puts a knot in your gut and makes your palms sweat. You try to put it out of your mind; it’s not due yet, so maybe you’ll just procrastinate on it until $#@% it’s due TONIGHT!!!1!@!! And then you’ll spend that last-minute panic attack hating yourself, convinced you completely deserve the F that you just know you’re going to get on this utter disaster that you didn’t even spell-check before submitting because holy crap it’s 11:59. Sound familiar? Yeah. Me too.

I’m not the world’s foremost composition-and-rhetoric expert—not by any stretch of the imagination—but I do have an MFA in writing, and I am a guy who sometimes writes 5,000-word essays for fun (yep, I’m a nerd). I’ve learned a few things in pursuit of that hobby that you may find helpful, so here’s some unsolicited advice.

1. Start early. Better yet, start now. If you don’t know what you’re going to write about yet, you won’t know what you’re going to write about at the last minute. The difference is that if you start it now, you have time to figure that out and you don’t have to do it in a panic. Also, the earlier you start writing on your essay, the earlier you’ll start thinking about it, and the longer it has to marinate in the back of your head. Not all of the writing process happens at the keyboard. Once you’ve started working on a project, it will be there running in the background while you’re doing other things, and that eureka moment is likely to come while you’re doing something completely unrelated. Walking to the cafeteria or driving to pick up your kids. As an example, this point came to me while I was cleaning my cat’s litter box (it’s also my third point #1).

2. Let It Suck. Your first draft is going to be bad. That’s okay. First drafts are always bad. We’ll get back to this later (and you’ll fix it before you turn it in), but for right now, just write. Just write. No matter how bad it is, if you’ve got something on the page, you’ve got something to fix. A blank page is just that: blank.

3. Keep It Simple. You’re not going to write a successful 8-page essay on “imagery in Tess of the d’Urbervilles.” Entire books have been written on that topic. Books. Plural. You might, however, get a successful essay out of that image that shows up in chapter 47, of her hair falling loose dangerously close to the grinding machinery of that steam-powered threshing machine. You might get a successful essay out of examining how that image works as a metaphor for the precarious position of a poor woman in Victorian England, and how that is one of Thomas Hardy’s dominant themes throughout the novel. Or you might choose to take a different approach to that same chapter and write about how the one person offering to take her away from that precarious life is her wealthy rapist. Either way, keep it focused on something small enough to manage in the space you’ve got. And eight pages may feel like a lot when you’re just sitting down to write it, but it’s really not all that much room. Remember, the opposite of focused writing is vague writing, and vague writing doesn’t tend to get the best grades.

4. If you know exactly what you’re going to write, you’re (most likely) wrong. I have seen far too many times when someone wrote a beautiful introduction to their essay, then proceeded to shoot themselves in the foot trying to stick with what they had written in that introduction. Writing projects have a way of getting away from us—of turning out differently than what we sat down to write—and the best way to deal with that is to expect it from the beginning. To that end…

5. Write your introduction last. Sometimes you’ll also see this phrased “write it backwards,” but I don’t like that because it’s not really accurate. In my experience it’s something more like this:

  • a] Notes and rough ideas (see below);
  • b] Rough body paragraphs;
  • c] Essay structure/outline;
  • d] Refined body paragraphs;
  • e] Transitions between the paragraphs;
  • f] Conclusion;
  • g] Introduction.

Sometimes c and d can be reversed. Some people prefer to start with an outline; there’s nothing wrong with that as long as you remain flexible enough to rearrange your essay if it becomes necessary. This list also only talks about the first draft. Immediately after that, you’ll start reading through the whole essay for flow and continuity and language issues.

6. Start with notes. Use index cards. While you’re doing your research (or reading what you’re planning to analyze), write down the important stuff on index cards. And by “the important stuff” I mean both the relevant details you’re finding in your readings (quotes and such) and your own thoughts about your subject. Be sure to jot down the relevant sources (the bibliographic data) and page numbers on those cards so you can go back to your sources later, and so you have that information when it’s time to write your works-cited list.

Index cards have two primary advantages: one, they force you to keep it short, and two, you can easily shuffle them around while you’re figuring out your structure. Also, according to cognitive scientists, handwriting notes (as opposed to typing them) tends to be better for learning and retention.

7. Write your body paragraphs as mini-essays. Each of your body paragraphs, as you get it closer to finished, should resemble a mini-essay detailing a specific element of your argument (e.g., why X-character or Y-event relates to your main topic). For each element, your goal is to introduce it, analyze what is significant about it, and conclude with why it is relevant to your greater argument.

8. Eschew the thesaurus. (See what I did there?) As a student, you’ve been exposed to a lot of overwritten material. It’s entirely possible you’ve even had teachers encourage you to mimic that sort of writing, because it’s “what academic writing is supposed to look like” (or some such nonsense). Don’t. Seriously. Just don’t. The best writing is simple and direct, and gets its point across without a lot of effort. I like to say write like you’re explaining it to a smart high-school student. Ineloquent applications of unnecessarily obfuscatory verbiage and etymologically arcane esoterica render the trajectory of any presented suppositions virtually impossible to disambiguate. That’s not good writing.

9. Be prepared to rearrange at any point. As you get your body paragraphs more refined, you may find that the most logical progression of your argument isn’t exactly what you expected it to be. Usually it’s going to follow the organization of the book you’re discussing (e.g., chronologically from beginning to end), but sometimes a better structure will present itself. Sometimes you may discover that the most interesting thing showing up in your body paragraphs isn’t even what you planned to write about. Sometimes your intended conclusion will totally implode (I’ve had this happen on a major assignment, and it’s really disturbing). That’s why I put outline/structure so late in the process up there, with the option to move it even later, because your ideal structure isn’t always clear from the beginning.

10. Be prepared for your conclusion to change. Obviously, if your body paragraphs start leading to a conclusion other than what you thought you were going to write, then you need to be ready to adapt your conclusion accordingly. When this happens—and it does happen—it’s a lot less painful if you haven’t already committed yourself to a specific conclusion.

11. Now that you have written your conclusion, go back and write your intro. Because it would have been pretty hard to write an effective introduction to an essay when you had no idea what it was going to end up talking about, but now that you know what’s going on inside, you know how to set your reader up to ride along with you.

Pro tip: In the introduction, when you mention the things you’re going to talk about in your essay, list them in the same order that they’re going to show up. If your introduction says you’ll be discussing how Tess was wronged by John Durbeyfield, Alec d’Urberville, and Angel Clare, your readers will expect you to discuss the characters in that order.

12. Proofread! Proofread! Proofread! Read it aloud to someone. Or at the very least record yourself reading it and listen to that recording. If you can, have someone else read it back to you. These exercises will help you discover the rough spots, such as awkward language, or unclear analysis, or non-sequitur transitions. Also, depending on how seriously you took “Let It Suck” up there, this stage may involve several passes (even dozens of passes) as you take the raw material of your rough draft and mold it into a finished essay.

13. When you’re satisfied that it’s finished, it’s (most likely) not. First-year undergrads tend to start with this notion that you can hammer out a good essay in a couple of hours, in the middle of the night after staying out too late with your friends, before it’s due in the morning. More advanced students realize that it takes more time than that, and more preparation. Graduate students often spend most of the semester working on the final essay for that 600-level class (or the essay is the cumulative result of that semester-long project). Graduate-degree candidates work for multiple semesters under the supervision of thesis advisors, who read every word critically, usually through several revisions. Professional-grade writers go through numerous revisions (often dozens of them), first on their own, then with feedback from colleagues, then with feedback from agents or editors, and then with feedback from publishers. When you read that story or essay that is just sublimely written, you can rest assured that the first draft looked absolutely nothing like what you’re reading. In fact, likely as not, the first draft looked kinda hopeless.

I say all this not to discourage you as you’re writing your essays, but to emphasize that, as with any creative endeavor, writing is never—ever—a straight-through, beginning-to-end process. It’s more of a process of continuous growth and refinement. The more open you are to that process from the beginning, the more you open yourself to the possibilities of what you can create.

—Jay Parr

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