You know the feeling: you have to write an essay, and you’re stuck. You stare at the assignment sheet, which seems impossibly long and confusing and full of strange demands. You stare at your blank screen. You look back at the assignment sheet. You look at the blank screen. Inspiration strikes! You write your name, the date, and “Essay Title.” Now you’re stuck again—a little voice suggests it’s time to look at Facebook…
All writers feel these “blank-screen blues” sometimes. Today, let’s talk about ways to fight them. They won’t necessarily make writing feel simple or easy, but they are guaranteed to banish that blank screen and get you on your way to revising and finishing your assignment.
Step #1—Understand the prompt
This one might seem obvious, but it can also be tricky. Prompts, like professors, come in many shapes and sizes. As such, they can pose a variety of challenges—some overwhelm with details, others seem vague about what the professor really wants. Here are a few rules to follow, regardless of the prompt:
1) Read, and re-read, every word carefully. Chances are, your professor has tried to state his or her expectations as clearly as possible. Highlight main points, number or order the instructions. Make it into a list of smaller tasks.
2) Put the assignment in your own words. “My paper should first do this, and then this,” “I must avoid this,” etc. This is an important step in mastering an assignment. Make sure you study the prompt closely before you paraphrase it, so that you don’t misunderstand it and head in the wrong direction.
3) If there are still things you don’t understand, ask your professor for clarification.
Step #2—Consider your topic
Almost all essays have two key parts: a question and a claim. Questions can be interpretive or research-based (or both), but they are always the “unknown” that your thesis will answer. Sometimes the specific question is built into the assignment for you—all you have to do is answer it. But quite often, you will be required to narrow the question, to define it in your own terms, or even to discover your question for yourself. Maybe it’s one of cause and effect--Why did something happen? What caused it?—or maybe you have to decide how something happened, or what something means. Whatever the assignment, take time before you write to carefully consider the question your essay will answer. Then you can start thinking about your thesis.
Here is where we set caution aside. A lot of the time we don’t know what we think until put some words on paper! It can help to gather your class notes, readings, professor’s comments, etc. Look them over to refresh your memory about your subject. Then start writing down thoughts. I like to use a separate bullet-point for each idea, and then decide later how they fit together. Don’t worry whether your ideas are good, or grammatically correct—just get as many thoughts as you can on paper. List things you could discuss, claims you might make, questions you have, related ideas—the more the merrier.
Step #4—Organize your ideas
Once you’ve broken down the assignment and have some ideas on paper, start reviewing what you’ve written. Underline, highlight, or put stars next to ideas you can use. Put an X next to stuff that looks like fluff. Pay particular attention to patterns or recurring ideas in your brainstorming. What points fit together? What ideas come up in different ways? These things can be “clues” pointing you towards a more specific, focused idea than you knew you had.
You’re almost ready to draft! The final step of preparation is to gather up your useful brainstorming ideas and organize them. There are different ways to do this:
1) An outline. The best way to organize is often to number your ideas in an order that makes sense. It’s good to experiment with different orderings, so that you can find a sequence of ideas that forms a clear argument. You can organize from strongest point to weakest, or from “most general” to “most specific,” or chronologically from “first” to “last.” The important thing is that you have a reason for your organization.
2) A storyboard. Some people prefer to draft from storyboards, because they allow more flexibility than an outline. In a storyboard, you put one main idea atop a blank page, and then fill that page with related points, evidence, quotes, etc. You can even leave some pages blank apart from the heading, if there are parts you know you are missing. As you develop your storyboard, you can move the pages around into whatever order makes the most sense. Because it doesn’t lock you into a specific order, a storyboard can be especially good for research papers.
Whatever form of organization you choose, the important thing is to think about how your points fit together to make an argument. Try writing a sentence explaining how two ideas are related to each other (i.e., how they are similar, different, connected, etc). That’s a transition! See which transitions make sense, and which feel forced. This way, you can start to consider the “big picture.” Your paper is already taking shape!
-Iain Bernhoft, Tutor