Thursday, September 8, 2011

Where to Begin? Starting an Essay in the Post-Outline Age

In a series of posts, William Hatheway, adjunct professor of English at ELI, will shine some light on writing in the 21st century. Below is just the beginning…

So, you are facing a writing assignment and you don’t know where to begin. Textbooks suggest, as they have for ages, to try writing an outline, but if you don’t know what you want to write about – or, even if you do, and you are not sure how everything will develop, such advice may only prove to further frustrate you. Others suggest freewriting, where you free your brain from contemplation and just go, go, go with mad strokes of your pen (or, more likely, keyboard) spewing out a stream of consciousness that ultimately, literally, shows you what you are trying to say.

Of course, we are trained to carefully calculate and to self-edit, both of which serve to shut off such freeform brainstorming; this is a shame, as I actually think letting yourself go is a wonderful way to break away from writer’s block. The problem with this is that most of us don’t have the time to sit still until the perfect word emerges in our consciousness--as Gustave Flaubert, a 19th century novelist, famously did.  Flaubert pursued the principle of finding "le mot juste" ("the right word"), sometimes spending a week in the completion of one page.

Allow me, then, to offer a couple of suggestions for freeing your mind so that the ideas will begin to flow. First, turn off your monitor. That’s right, you heard me! If you can’t see what you wrote, you can’t dwell on whether you put (or spelled) it right. What we are after here are thoughts, not the perfect transcription of them, and by literally blinding ourselves to how they appear on the page, we enable ourselves to focus on the process of idea generation itself. Another writer’s frustration that really cuts against the grain comes when you know what you want to write about, and how it will develop, but just can’t find the eye-grabbing opening line. Or, perhaps you are struggling to articulate your thesis statement. In those cases, do what I do and start in the middle; that is, pick a piece of your subject (a specific argument, a bit of evidence for which, whatever…) and start writing about and around it. Then, move onto another piece, and another, not worrying whether each follows directly from the one previous. At the end of the day, all you have to do is cut-and-paste, edit a little bit, and then surround what you’ve already come up with an introduction and conclusion (which are so much easier to do once you’ve already nailed down just what they are introducing and concluding).

Especially in the age of e-texts, tweets, and the internet, we are not trained to tackle things in a perfectly linear fashion, so the bottom line is that you should allow yourself to embrace the chaos that informs how the impression of the world is brought to you, including when you have to write an essay for class. Hope this helps!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for this advice. I have gotten stuck on an essay so many times--especially when the paper won't 'go' where my introduction and conclusion say they should. I already use free-writing to get past writer's block, but not on such a scale. I am definitely going to try these strategies in the more rigorous way you have recommended!