Many of you are probably familiar with the panic or dread that can accompany the act of having an essay topic dropped in front of you on your desk. Nothing’s been written, nothing’s even been thought of; all you have in front of you is a topic, a blank page, and the instructions to “write.” As a former high school English teacher, I’m convinced the anxiety of not knowing what to write is the reason why so many of my students wait until the last possible minute to write an essay. Under pressure, you have no choice but to get started. But by then, it’s too late to write the best essay you could.
The solution is to start as soon as possible. Check out this 5 step prep process that you can apply to any essay you write.
Step 1: Free-write
Any writing is progress. Jot down anything about the topic you’ve been assigned to write, even if it’s just questions you have about what the prompt means. Jot down anything related to the topic. Don’t censor yourself; just get your brain firing. If you are visual, you can draw pictures or symbols or a rudimentary mind map (more on that below).
Step 2: Exploratory Research
If you are dealing with a research paper or anything requiring some support to back up your points or arguments, do some initial, exploratory research so that you can get more comfortable with the topic and perhaps stumble across ideas you haven’t thought of yet. On the computer, Google Scholar or Wikipedia are good places to get started. Simply search for the topics and ideas mentioned in the prompt and spend some time doing some good old-fashioned internet surfing. If something jumps out at you as interesting, jot it down, copy and paste it into a word document, take a screenshot, or bookmark the page—you may want to use it later for your essay. If you’re into more old-fashioned research (or if your essay is about a specific book), head to the library, look up related topics in the catalog and browse the shelves where that topic can be found. When I wrote my dissertation, some of the best resources I found came from trying to find a specific book and then stumbling upon two or three even more awesome ones on the shelf around it.
The reason I suggest doing exploratory research before doing any type of serious pre-writing or outlining is that nowadays it is so easy to quickly access information on the web. In certain cases, you may want to avoid letting the opinions of others taint yours too much, but you’ll likely find the ideas of others to be valuable food for thought before you begin developing your own line of attack on the essay.
Step 3: Pre-write
Now that you’ve done some brief searching around in your own brain and the world around you, you can start planning your essay.
There are two primary tried-and-true strategies for prewriting: listing and clustering (also known as mind-mapping). If you choose the first, write down topics in a list and group related topics. If you choose the second, your prewriting will be more visual. Write down the essay topic in the center, circle it and then draw branches out to other ideas. Circle them and then keep branching out. The final result will look like a web.
Step 4: Deep Research
After you pre-write, you should have a more focused idea of what you are going to write about. Now you’re ready to get into some deeper research on the specific topics and ideas you mapped out in pre-writing. The amount of research you need to do might vary depending on the scope of the topic or the assignment. For example, you’ll have to do more research for a master’s thesis than a blog post obviously. Take notes and connect them into the concepts in your prewriting. Now’s the time to transfer your work over to a computer, if you haven’t already done so, so that you can easily move headers and content around.
Step 5: Outline
Finally, it’s time to get organized. Based on all of your brainstorming and research, come up with your thesis: the focus of your essay. Start your outline here with this major point, and then list your supporting arguments underneath (these are going to be the topics of your body paragraphs). Underneath each of these supporting arguments, list examples and reasoning to support them. For most students and most assignments, I suggest that you always get an initial structured outline down, but don’t agonize over making it perfect. Chances are, as you start writing, your thoughts may go in an unexpected direction or connect in different ways than you thought. So know this going in and don’t devote too much time to an outline that may need to be changed.
How to Practice this Process
You can find many sample essay prompts online, but a good resource to practice with (even if you aren’t a high school student preparing for the ACT) are the new ACT writing prompts. These persuasive writing prompts are great practice at any level because you can use them to either do a quick pre-write and outline without conducting additional research (meaning you can practice these skills in just a few minutes), or you can flesh them out with additional research to practice for longer essays.
Writing can be intimidating, but the longer you put an essay task off, the more daunting it becomes. Get started early, using this 5-step process, and you will get to the finish line faster and with less agony.
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