Essay writing guide: where to start

Here’s a question: how do you feel right after you find out you have an essay due next week? Good, or bad? Most students answer with the second choice. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Most students who hate essays do so because they don’t know where to start. And while they’re far from the only writers all too familiar with the terrors of staring at a blank page, writing an essay can in fact be far easier than you’ve been led to believe by your students and professors.

Ernest Hemingway once said that when he couldn’t write, he’d get himself going by writing a single, true sentence. Even if that was as simple as “the sky is blue.” It got him started, and getting started is often the key to finishing. Once you’re on a roll, you often forget how difficult you made the starting process on yourself, and you can (yes, you really can) start to have fun.

So how does one go about getting started?

Of course, since you’re writing an essay, there are a few things you absolutely have to have.

  • Topic: if you’re a normal student in a normal high school or college sometime in the 21st century, your teacher or professor probably picked your topic for you. If not, you’re probably in a creative writing class. This guide is not for you. But if you do have a topic, congratulations! This is often one of the hardest things for other writers to cope with. You know what you have to talk about.
  • Research: profs and teachers love research. Many will give you some kind of research requirement, in the form of “include at least three cited sources,” or something like that. Make sure you have your research handy when you begin. Researching while writing is a good way to have to start over.
  • What you want to say: this is the result of your research, and it’s the easiest part of all. Before you start worrying about a Works Cited page, or what the first sentence will be, or if you’re going to need help placing commas in the right places, just decide, in everyday language that your baby sister could understand, what it is you actually want to say.

Now, bring back that scary blank page. We’re going to conquer it.

Hemingway may have started with a single true sentence, but he was writing fiction. So we’ll start with a single, organized outline. At the top of the outline, put your answer to the question of what you want to say.

Below that, using just a few bullet points, write down a few reasons why you think what you do. Why did you want to say that thing you wanted to say? Three is a good starting point, but far from a rule.

Now, it’s time to fill all that in. Keep expanding your bullet points, starting with the top one (which becomes your thesis). Eventually, you’ll find an essay emerging from your outline naturally, rather than having to be written from top to bottom like you’re Tolstoy. It’s much easier this way.

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