Friday, December 14, 2012

How I Write a Passing Essay

I've been in essay mode this week. I only have a stats and a religion final. My stats one is tomorrow, but I spent a few hours studying and I'm not too worried (have I mentioned that time I kicked ass and got the class high on the midterm?), and my religion one isn't for a week. However, I do have 4 essays due this week, so that's been keeping me busy. Remember when I wrote this post about the experience of essay writing? Most of it is still true, but after a semester of college writing, I have a follow up. We'll call it "How I Write a Passing Essay" because I'm not quite confident enough to suggest I can do much more than that.

How I Write a Passing Essay

1. Writing myself in.
I can't just sit down at a computer and write away any more than I can get on a treadmill and turn the speed up and run a 5K. I don't care how tired that analogy is, it's true. There has to be a little bit of warming up, some sense of getting going. So I write a little before hand. For me, this happens in two ways. If I'm just starting a paper from scratch, I write myself in via the introduction, which inevitably later needs revising, but it's a good way to get into it. If I'm in the revisions period, I'll write a blog post (this one started as a free write) or I'll journal or free write with a prompt, or just put what's in my mind on the paper. It doesn't really matter what it is, so long as I can get the words in motion before I try to write a paper. 

2. I can't just sit down with a blank document and expect to be able to churn out a paper.
This is something that I'm only recently learning I can't do. My problem is that when I write on a computer, I expect my words and ideas to be coherent and cohesive, which is not the way to get sufficient ideas and material to write a paper with. Lately, I've been loving the hand-written pre-write. I've gotten one of those awesome 8.5 X 13.75 legal pads. So I sit down with that and an extra-fine sharpie (I love the sharpie because it helps me feel reckless and informal, and it's so scrawly, and I even like the fumes for a pre-write) and write down ideas. Usually, there's some sort of rough outline, but sometimes it's just 3 pages of bullet points. And even when there is an outline, it doesn't become the structure for the paper. This is the process of just trying to think about what I can say in the paper.

3. I can't work forever.
I've realized that I tend to write truly fabulous introductions (if I do say so myself) and totally shitty conclusions (no shame in saying it). I think it's because I insist on sitting down and just hammering out a paper, but towards the end I'm tired and brain-shocked. My latest BFF is a google chrome app called "Strict Pomodoro". It works like this: when I start the timer, for 25 minutes all the distracting sites are blocked. I get this message
But then after that 25 minutes, I get 5 minutes of fun time before going back to a 25 minute work-session. I've found that I can last longer and feel more productive and write better stuff when I work in focus bursts like this.

4. Embrace the shitty first draft. 
I will forever love Anne Lamott for making shitty first drafts a thing. There's really no shame in a shitty first draft. Getting ideas on the page is really the most significant part of writing and caring about the quality of a first draft is one sure fire way to kill all my ideas. So I use the word independence 15 times in a first-draft paragraph if it gets me where I need to be. Later I go back and put in synonyms like "autonomous" and make run-on sentences into actual grammer. 

5. Show it to someone else.
This is something I started learning my junior year of high school when I began to my drafts to my teacher for feedback, and I realized that not only was I getting better grades, but I was actually writing better papers! Imagine! Since coming to college, I've been a crack whore at the writing associate program. The first time I went it was out of fear. Before coming to college, I'd been warned (threatened) that although I always got As in high school, I couldn't expect to do so in college. Rather than admit that was true, I went to the WAs with my first paper hoping to do better. It worked! I think getting feedback is important, because there's always at least one or two glaring errors in my paper's arguments and a fresh pair of eyes helps figure that out. I don't think decent papers come out of 12 hours in the library by yourself.

6. Revise.
I learned this one the hard way. On one of my earlier English papers, I turned in a truly bad paper. When my English professor met with me for mid-term assessments, she praised my earliest papers, then added "I haven't finished this one, but I can tell it's rough. So why don't we read it together?" She then commenced to read it aloud to me. It was slighly anguishing because we both knew how bad a paper it was, and we both knew I could do better. By the end of the first page we were both making fun of it and agreed to put it away until I had a real paper to turn in (a real paper, that, for the record, I got an A on). The biggest difference between that paper and my other ones was that I didn't spend any time revising this one. I didn't even print it out or read it aloud! The sad thing was that I didn't do that because I really didn't like the paper and didn't want to spend the time to read it through all the way. Talk about a red flag! So these days, when I'm revising a paper, I think about sitting in my English professor's office and hearing her read the paper aloud. I try to think if it's BS to make fun of or if it's something decent.

7. Takeout Chinese and giving a damn.
This is my final touches point. Takeout Chinese means that I can't write if I'm hungry, and I need to reward myself when I finish. Usually it's cheap takeout Chinese with my friends. (Because anything is better than Sharples). Equally important is caring about the paper. I've realized that English is my best subject because it's the one I'm willing to spend lots of time on. I (usually) am really invested in turning in the best essay I can write, and it makes a big difference. The difference between a paper I care about and one I don't is night and day.

So there we go! Now I'm going to Sharples for midnight breakfast

1 comment:

  1. Trying all 7 of these next semester. Waiting for your book delineating the road to success cause I just don't know if I can do it on my own.