Writing an essay can be so difficult: sometimes your mind is blank but you have an assignment to do. In high school, you have to write essays for class. Some of them are timed (in-class essay tests!) and some aren’t (essay homework, whew). For those who take the SAT, the very first section is a 25-minute timed essay question! So of course, I practice timed essay-writing with all my students. But WHAT do you write??? Everyone has the same problem…
“I DON’T KNOW HOW TO START!!!”
- Brainstorm. Put your topic at the top of the page, center, wherever. Underline it, circle it. Jot down the important things about your topic. If there’s a prompt, do you agree or disagree? Write down some examples why, even if you don’t think they’re good. This is brainstorming–that’s a STORM from your BRAIN. It’s okay if it’s jumbled and messy. Just put something down, preferably on a scratch piece of paper.
- Make an outline. Outlines are useful in organizing the information you’ve just written down. This is where you put things in order. Use some or all of those things you wrote down during brainstorming. If it’s a take-home assignment, you don’t necessarily need a thesis yet. Locate your main thought first, and arrange the pieces that support it. Find your other thoughts and their supporting pieces. If the essay is timed though, it’ll help to come up with the thesis statement first, before you pick the things to support it.
- Write your essay using your outline. Once you have an outline, the writing part is much easier. As you write, you can add new pieces that support your topic, or you can take out things that no longer belong.
“What if I freak out and freeze?”
That’s what practice is about. The more you practice, the better (and more relaxed) you will be. Just like a sport, you have to practice to become better. Figuring out how to catch, kick, or hit a ball takes practice, and writing does too. Really though, you just have to start writing, especially if you have a time limit/deadline!
- Freewrite. If it’s a take-home, just start writing. If you’ve already done the research or reading required, you should have the information inside you. It doesn’t have to make sense at first. The physical act of writing will get your brain going. This will lead to a brainstorm and your outline almost magically appears in the right order. If you’re preparing for a timed essay test, freewriting (brainstorming, outlining) beforehand will get your mind ready to take the timed test.
Every November isNational Novel Writing Month (orNaNoWriMoas it’s affectionately called). The challenge is to write 50,000 words of a new novel in the one month. Many people who do the event admit it’s to jumpstart their writing because they freeze all the time. They use the event “to write something, anything.” That’s the idea behind freewriting. If you just write anything, soon you will have something.
“But everything I write is terrible!”
Probably not. We all have filters inside our heads–prejudgments that block us from writing. It is difficult to let those go, but with practice, you’ll write first and…
- Edit later. You have to let the ideas and sentences out of your head first, before they can be terrible, awful,… or good. If you wait for “the perfect sentence” to come, it’ll be hard to see it if it’s not compared to something else. So yes, some of the stuff you brainstorm or freewrite won’t be stellar, but it’s not all designed to be. You need to write before you can edit.
Many of my students are afraid of writing because they think the idea or sentence will be permanent and they won’t be able to change it. However, editing is PART OF writing. No one writes a perfect draft on the first run-through. That’s why they’re called rough drafts. Then you edit them and make them better. So edit AFTER you write, not before.
Every week, I help my students practice their writing skills. If you need help with practice, let me know. Otherwise, JUST START WRITING!