“Where do I even begin?” is probably the most common question students ask me about writing—and understandably so! Many writing projects can seem almost impossible to visualize, much less to get started on. So what to do when facing that blank screen?
Know your audience
An opening question that helps me and that I often share with students is some permutation of “Who is going to read this, and what do they want?” Are we working on a history essay? In that case, its audience probably wants to know what your sources tell us and why what they tell us is illuminating or important. Are we writing an essay about Shakespeare or Milton? What can we say, then, about their works, or what in them is noteworthy and why? Does your friend need a letter of personal reference because he’s trying to sublet a condo in Bronxville? In that case, the audience probably wants to hear that he’s responsible with money and that he doesn’t have pets, and it probably wants to hear that in the first paragraph. (If that last example sounds oddly specific, that’s because I myself once wrote exactly that letter. My friend did get to sublet the condo.)
So let’s say that we’re working on a paper about Shakespeare that’s been assigned in a literature course. Our audience is likely the teacher or professor who assigned the thing, plus, perhaps, some other students. So what’s desired? To begin with—unless we’ve been specifically instructed otherwise—almost certainly not a book report. The person who will read (and grade!) the assignment has read Macbeth (or Hamlet, or whatever) before. So plot summary or bland generalizations, while they’d most certainly fill up pages, would also make the reader’s eyes glaze over. You don’t want your reader bored in the first paragraph. First impressions are everything!
One of your goals in writing a paper about literature is to demonstrate your ability to read carefully. Conversely, whoever assigned the paper would surely want to see that work done in class that demonstrates how to read closely has hit home. Have you seen your teacher talk about examining word choice? Try that yourself. Remember learning in class what a seemingly odd image of turn of phrase was doing on the page? Try to perform such an analysis on a similar moment yourself. Here’s a tip: if you see something that seems odd or noteworthy, have a go at analyzing and explaining it.
Imagine yourself as the reader of your writing
Another tip I suggest to students who are writing is to imagine themselves in the role of the reader. When you, as a reader, sit down to take in an essay or an article, you probably find it helpful if pretty early on in the piece it tells you what it’s arguing. That way you know, from the outset, why you’re reading it.
This exercise will not only help you sharpen your thesis, but can also help you identify whether your argument is novel, specific, and interesting. As you’re imagining yourself as the reader of the piece, does the thesis of the paper excite you? Does it make you want to read more? Does it state something obvious, or has it changed or challenged your perspective?
Flip your thesis into a question
Finally, when you’re formulating an argument or thesis statement for a paper, you may find it useful to rephrase that claim as a question. If you find that your question has multiple possible answers, you have a good claim. (The alternative would be self-evident. For example, say your thesis is that “Hamlet is a very interesting character.” As a question, “Is Hamlet an interesting character?” evinces the response of yes, probably, or almost certainly, since you’re in the umpteenth generation of students to have to write an essay about him. So this is not a contestable proposition that would make a compelling argument of an engaging essay.)
These are just some general tips. I’ll share more about different types of writing in future posts.
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