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Essay Writing Basics: Getting Started on an Essay
A previous piece lays out some of the history and introductory considerations of essay writing. Knowing the beginning of a thing is not the same as doing that thing, although knowing helps doing.
Knowing that essays exist to advance ideas, it follows that starting an essay requires knowing what ideas to advance. This can be a daunting task; the blank page is intimidating, and essays themselves are sites in which self-doubt runs rampant, as Phillip Lopate points out in "The Essay, An Exercise in Doubt." Such doubt, however, produces the kind of instability that drives the generation of ideas. While it can at times be a challenge to find solid footing, there are some methods that help writers to meet that challenge.
Questions, Questions, Questions
When faced with a writing assignment, students often open with "What am I going to write about?" It is a good place to begin, actually, as it is only through questions that the prospective essayist can begin to uncover new ideas. Asking questions is one of the best tools, if not the best tool, for finding new ideas that can be tested out in the process of putting together essays.
Not all questions are equally useful, however. Some (such as the initial "What am I going to write about?") are entirely too broad to be helpful. There are too many answers to the question for a few likely candidates to emerge for consideration. More focus in the questions is necessary (and this is true whether the essay to be written is an in-class sort with a predetermined topic or a more open one such as appears in opinion/editorial pages or blogs). It is also fortunately easy, as classroom experience has shown me.
The first question I have asked my students when they have come to me with questions about what to write is "What is important to you?" It is a commonplace in writing that the writer's interest in a topic is a major factor both in how diligently the writer will pursue the writing task and how good the writing will be (when writers are enthusiastic about their writing, they tend to do much better work). Those things which are important in a person's life are likely to be of interest to that person, so it is easy to find things to say--and thus to write--about them. Too, the old adage, "Write what you know," applies, at least in part.
The "in part" comes from two things. The first is that the writing of what a person knows all too often suffers from an inappropriate level of emotional involvement. Frequently, the writing becomes a bland recitation of data--which can be useful, but does not make for particularly entertaining reading. Even a flat list of "facts" (what counts as a "fact" is contested at times) can prompt useful questions for an essay, however: "What patterns emerge from the data, and what do they mean?" The emergent field of digital humanities often works with these questions, as I have discussed in another venue, and my doctoral dissertation spends a lot of time with similar concerns, so I know that much work can come from looking in that direction.
It also happens that the writer is too involved in the topic, and the writer's passion gets in the way of effective writing. Being able to test out an idea, as an essay demands, requires admitting that it may be wrong, and that is a hard thing to do with something deeply loved. Just as with too little feeling, there are questions that can be used to work with an over-abundance of emotion: "What emotion is provoked, what provokes it, how does it provoke the feeling, and how can this be shown to those who have not already felt it?" Writers who seek to answer such questions will still have to combat the tendency to get so wrapped up in the passion of the topic that they lose track of how to test the idea, but the questions offer at least a beginning.
The other issue that makes the adage only partially useful is that a writer learns nothing by staying entirely with what is already known. Since essay writing is testing an idea, it will necessarily involve the development of new knowledge, going beyond what the writer knew to what the writer--and the reader--will know. Good writing begins with what the writer already knows, yes, but nothing can move ahead that remains at its beginning.
If something is interesting and important to a person, it follows that the person will want to know more about it. The desire suggests another question: "What do you want to know more about regarding what is important to you?" Asking the question exposes the gaps in knowledge that can be usefully filled, so that putting together the essay becomes a self-teaching experience. As I have taken many classes and written many essays, I can say that I have learned more from writing the essays than from taking the classes themselves (although without the classes, I would never have found many of the things in which I am interested, and I would have no idea where to look to begin to develop my own answers to the questions my essays have sought to answer).
I can also say that answering the question of what to learn about leads to other questions that help frame an essay: "What can I say about this, and how can I prove that what I can say is worth saying?" Answering those at some length has helped me to write my conference papers, the articles I have out in academic journals, my master's thesis, and my doctoral dissertation. Answering them has helped my students write passing papers for me and for other instructors, as well as passing essays on exams that determined whether or not they would have to repeat classes. Answering them has helped people earn money, whether through scholarship and grant applications or through putting forth insights about the world.
They would seem to be good questions to ask.
One other note needs to be made: The questions should generally not appear in the essay. They exist to guide the writer's thinking rather than to be themselves the material of the essay; they lead to the material instead of comprising the material. They are like scaffolding on a building; the scaffolds are used to help in building the building, and when the building is built, the scaffolding is taken down. Similarly, the questions exist to help frame ideas; once the ideas are in place and supported, the questions usually should be removed. Asking a question implies a lack of knowledge, and showing that lack in what ought to be a finished essay can be counterproductive. (Admittedly, professional essays sometimes deploy questions in text. Reading many and looking at how the questions function gives insight into how they ought to be used when they appear in text. It is well worth doing; until a given writer does the work, that writer will do well to abstain from leaving questions in the essay.)
And If a Topic Is Already at Hand...
It does happen, and fairly frequently, that the writing task that prompts an essay does so with a specific topic already in mind. Maybe an instructor is asking for an essay to respond to some piece of writing. Maybe an exam asks after the best means to execute some process. Maybe an employment application asks after an applicant's greatest strengths and weaknesses. Maybe lawmakers have asked for public comment about some proposed policy or course of action. Maybe something else is at issue.
Providing a topic can make beginning an essay easier. The topic, after all, is determined by an outside agent, meaning that the writer does not have to work to develop it. The focus of the writing task is narrower from the outset, so that there is in some sense less work needed to prepare for the writing.
Often, though, it does not. Frequently, the topic that an outside agent determines is one in which the writer has little expertise or interest. The writing still must be done, however, and many people who have faced such tasks seek to slog through them, to treat them as barriers to be bypassed. They are also often disappointed in the results of writing efforts undertaken through such treatment. Students fail papers and therefore classes. People fail exams and have to either repeat a class or pay once again to sit for a licensing exam. Applicants miss out on job opportunities. Prospective recipients lose their chances at grants.
In such cases, questions still offer ways to get started on essays that will not falter and fail, but will instead succeed at what the writer is trying to do. The individual task will determine many of those questions, but with each such task, the writer can ask "What can I learn about this?" Approaching each essay--even if the prompt is banal and boring--as an opportunity to learn about the self and about the world, and as an opportunity to develop new knowledge and show it to the world, does much to make the task more engaging and therefore more likely to result in success.
The Most Important Thing
Asking the questions outlined above leads to a topic (or to a more specific topic), but the topic is not the point of an essay. That point is something about the topic, something which may be revealed in the process of answering the questions: the thesis. The thesis is the idea that the essay seeks to test and to prove is valid. As such, it is the single most important statement in the essay, and because it is so important, it deserves its own treatment.
If it is written well, the thesis will show something of the questions it seeks to answer without the need to announce those questions just as a well-placed throw implies the many, many practice tosses that precede it without having to show each and every one. The practice may not be entertaining to watch, but it is absolutely vital to creating that which is compelling. The same is true for the questions and the thesis; the answer commands attention, but it can only come about if good questions are asked.