BA Contemporary Media Cultures Course Leader Jonathan Wright offers insightful advice about how to gather your creative ideas and turn them into a brilliant essay.
The art of essay writing rests largely on having a structured argument that has context, content and a narrative arc.
Do you find it hard to know where to start? Do you find yourself staring at the empty laptop screen thinking: I kind of know what I want to say, but how do I begin? And whatever I do say first, it has to be good, otherwise people probably won’t want to read on… If this is you, then you’re in good company. In my experience most people – whether university students or tutors – find it hard to start writing. Academic essays, and coursework in particular, can be the worst to get going. For some this is partly because writing essays is a new thing to do and takes practice to get right. For me it used to be because I knew that there’d be someone at the other end judging my every word (and they were). So, if you’re feeling stuck, here are just four tips on how to get started if you need to write an essay that has to be handed in soon.
1) Always be prepared
Even though this is the kind of the phrase you’d hear from an obnoxious Boy Scout, sadly this is still good advice. As the saying goes: ‘You can’t make something out of nothing’, so until you’ve done your research, background reading and thinking – which, by the way, may well involve spending time talking to yourself, a normal and intelligent activity for anyone serious about their studies – you shouldn’t make a serious attempt to start writing until you are ready. I used to make this mistake. I was so eager to begin my essays, partly on the assumption that if I started writing ASAP, somehow I would feel more upbeat about the whole process. So I would try to put pen to paper or digits to keyboard before I had a clear idea of what I really wanted to say. And I certainly didn’t know where my argument would end up. So, just to bear in mind, the reading, thinking, note making, film and TV watching etc. are all valuable parts of the essay writing process and the more you can get done the better, because this will help you know where to begin. Don’t forget, even before you attempt to write your first sentence, you have on some level, already started writing.
2) Structure, structure, structure
If ‘Always be prepared’ is one of the most annoying, but useful pieces of advice I can give, then being told to have a structure is probably the most obvious, but useful pieces of advice on offer. Nevertheless, its true. The art of essay writing rests largely on having a structured argument that has context, content and a narrative arc. I’ve often argued that the essay is a form of (traditional) story telling, because the principles are roughly the same. There needs to be a clear and smooth sequential logic that runs through. So what’s this got to do with writer’s block (which, I’ve just decided, is basically what I am talking about)? Well, one of the ways of overcoming that blank page problem is to insert bullet points/sentences/subheadings indicating the order in which you want to say things. Populate the screen with something, some kind of vessel or container into which you can pour your ideas. These bullet points, etc. can often trigger your thinking which will help you formulate that first sentence, where ever it might emerge….
3) Start in the middle and then work toward the beginning
A lot of people I know, when remembering bits of their childhood, seemed to have a similar strategy for dealing with horrible home cooked food: the family meal you really couldn’t stand, but were forced to eat. Most of my friends used to go for the least appetising food on the plate first (often over-cooked, soggy vegetables) ‘to get them out of the way.’ This would leave the nicer (or in some cases the least repulsive) food stuff left as a reward for having survived the meal. It was a bit like taking medicine. First the unpleasant stuff, then the metaphorical ‘spoon full of sugar’ to take away the nasty taste. However, when it comes to writing I would say that the exact opposite is true. Whether I am struggling to make a start, or not, I always begin with the tasty bits first – the ideas and material I feel are most interesting, exciting and engaging. In fact I wrote this tip, before the introduction you’ve just read. The reason this works, for me, is because writing is like exercising a rather stubborn muscle. You need to get warmed up in order to go full flow, so if you start with something you know you can talk about, when it comes to writing the tricky parts of the essay later on, you’ll already be in full ‘writing mode’.
4) If all else fails, just ‘splurge’
Unhygienic though this sounds, the act of splurging can actually be good for your mental health, and, as a last resort can be a very effective way of unblocking your creativity. It’s very simple really… whatever is on your mind just let it all come out on to the page. Most of what you splurge probably won’t make the final edit, but it can serve a purpose to get you going. Enough said.
What do you do to start writing? Why not share your tips?