Mike Gemmell is the founder and president of Restore Our American Republic (ROAR). Prior to founding ROAR, he was a geologist specializing in groundwater resource development, a technical writer, and a freelance writer addressing environmental and other cultural issues. For more information on his professional background please see: https://www.linkedin.com/in/michaelmgemmell.
How to Write An Essay
Few things frighten students more than the prospect of having to write an essay. Although I am a professional writer, in my college days I did whatever I could think of to to avoid writing essays.
In my judgment, the primary reason that so many of us feel this way is that not enough writing is incorporated into the educational curriculum during the primary grades through high school. However, fortunately, there are techniques available to help overcome this omission in most curriculums. And the rewards are great for making the effort to develop this skill. One of the most sought after skills by business managers is the ability to write. Managers are desperate to find people who can write reports, proposals, and other kinds of business documents. Developing the ability to write will help you to develop these types of documents, and bring you favorable attention from management.
The Mission of THIS Essay
The mission of this essay — on the subject of writing essays — is to make writing a more enjoyable process. Also, I hope to show you that developing skill in the craft of writing is a way to: organize and crystallize your thoughts and to objectively communicate them. Gaining these skills will greatly increase your confidence in your own mental abilities.
Let’s first ask and answer a question: Why is writing so hard? My answer is this: writing is the expression of a form of thinking that forces us to organize and crystallize our thoughts. If we do not have training or skill in the process of mental organization it will make us want to avoid the activity until we can gain that skill. Lacking confidence in our ability to organize and express our thoughts is probably the single greatest obstacle to effective writing.
Step 1: Starting An Essay
The first step in writing an essay is to establish a clear idea of what you are writing about by writing a mission statement. The mission statement establishes what you are writing about, and developing an additional statement about the purpose of the essay establishes why you are writing about the selected topic.
These two steps may be the most difficult part of the writing process, and you may have to rewrite them several times until you are satisfied with them. Do not continue with the writing of the essay until you are satisfied with the clarity of these statements! These two statements summarize the various elements of the essay and will help you to begin to understand the relationships of the supporting ideas to the overall topic of the essay.
After you develop these two statements with as high a degree of clarity as you can manage, the following steps of writing will be easier. If you do not write a clear mission statement and a statement of purpose for the essay, your essay will probably be unfocused and as a result unpersuasive.
Step 2: The Data Dump
Things get easier after you have developed your mission statement and statement of purpose. Step 2 is a data dump, but dumping that needs to occur in a somewhat structured or organized fashion. A technique that has worked well for me is one where I write the mission statement or subject of the essay in the center of a blank piece of paper. Then for each idea that supports the subject of the essay, lines can be drawn from the center of the page and labeled with the supporting ideas. As more and more ideas or placed on lines radiating from the center of the page, it begins to resemble a bicycle hub with spokes radiating outward from the hub1. This is a method of outlining that helps you to more easily see the logical relationships between the ideas you will be presenting in your essay. Let’s see how to use this if our essay topic is: How to write a business plan.
Ex 1: Developing a data dump for your business plan
First, you will want to identify the main ideas that will help you support the overall essay topic of writing a business plan. Using the technique described above, place the most important concept, i.e., the topic of your essay, in the middle, or hub (the hub concept in this case is “business plan”). As you think of supporting concepts, you can place each of them on their own spoke connected to the hub of the wheel. Let’s say that you come up with the following supporting concepts:
- Having a product or service to sell.
- Having a sales/marketing plan for that product or service.
- Composing a competitive strategy to help you develop an ever-increasing revenue flow.
- Developing a financial plan for your business.
- Developing a vendor strategy for products or services needed to create your product or service.
Place each of these five concepts on their respective spokes. If you have additional ideas to support those concepts, show them as lines coming off of those spokes (subsidiary ideas or concepts would be perpendicular to the original five spokes). For instance, the financial plan might have subsidiary concepts coming off it such as: managing cash flow, balancing accounts receivables, estimating revenues, etc.
This sort of summary outline can be developed on a single piece of paper so you can quickly see all of the basic supporting ideas for the topic of your essay. Seeing the material like this will help you to more easily identify the relationships between the different concepts. For instance, developing a vendor strategy will be affected by your cash flow and other financial issues.
Step 3: Rapidly Write the First Draft
After listing the various topics to be covered, it is time to rapidly write the first draft. The key to writing a first draft is not to try and edit while you are writing. Editing and writing are separate functions that need to be done at separate times. If you try and edit while you write it will greatly slow down the writing process.
The topics listed in your “structured outline” can serve as the topic sentences for paragraphs within your essay. Remember: write first, edit later.
Step 4: Edit by Reading aloud, and Checking for Active Voice
When it is time to edit–ideally the day following the writing of the first draft–start by reading aloud the essay. This will help you to identify areas that are not clearly expressed. If it doesn’t sound right, it almost certainly needs to be edited for clarity.
In addition to clarity of expression, try and use the active voice as much as possible. It will add energy and vitality to your writing, which, in turn, will make readers much more likely to invest the time to read your writing. If you’re not terribly familiar with the use of the active voice see the example shown in the following two sentences:
The task was performed by him correctly.He correctly performed the task.
The second of the two sentences above is written in the active voice, while the first is written in the passive voice.
Writing is a skill that can be learned like any other skill. Put a significant effort into developing your mission statement and statement of purpose and you will be well on your way to improving your essay writing. See the following section for other references containing an in-depth discussion of the craft of writing.
- The technique of putting the main idea in the center of the page and using radiating spokes comes from the Evelyn Wood Reading courses. Any of their materials from the mid-1990s onward such as Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics on book or tape (pryor.com) will present the “Structured Recall” technique for improving retention of reading material. It is being used in this context to help organize the elements of an essay.
If you would like a more in-depth discussion of the craft of writing, I highly recommend the following two references.
- On Writing Well, by William Zinsser, 1998, 308p. Zinsser’s book is a very readable, yet comprehensive, treatment of principles, methods, types (forms), and attitudes used in non-fiction writing. The book and the Table of Contents are well organized allowing you to quickly find what topic is of most interest to you.
- The Art of Fiction, (edited informal lecture course on writing by Ayn Rand), 2000, ed: Tore Boeckmann, 180p.
The Art of Fiction by novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand is also an excellent reference on the craft of writing. Although specifically about fiction writing, much of the material applies to non-fiction writing as well.
Although best known for her novels such as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, Rand wrote extensively in the area of non fiction on everything from art to epistemology (Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that addresses how we can objectively validate our knowledge.) In contrast to some of her more theoretical non-fiction works such as The Romantic Manifesto and An Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, The Art of Fiction is much more accessible to readers who are not accustomed to her philosophical perspective.
If you are only interested in non-fiction writing, be sure and read at least Chapter one: “Writing and the Subconscious.” Additional valuable information is presented in Chapters 9 and 10 on descriptions and writing style. For those who want to delve more deeply into her insights on writing, consider reading the entire book. You will not be disappointed. In addition to learning ways to improve your writing, you will find that understanding more about the principles of writing will greatly enhance your enjoyment of reading as well.