The College Essay Means Thinking for Yourself

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Just as the formal papers described in the first half of this book are different from informal papers, the writing process for formal papers is also different from what you used to do to create informal papers. It’s one thing — and a good thing, by the way — to understand what formal writing is. It’s another and more important thing to understand what formal writing requires you to do. If you try to create a formal paper with informal methods, you will be frustrated by the papers you create and the grades they receive. It will feel like a waste of time, and in fact, it will be.

The Humble Essay by Roy K. Humble, front coverIn this chapter, we’ll start by looking at what not to do — those old, insufficient strategies that keep you from thinking for yourself. Then we’ll move on to a brief introduction of a three-step writing process that will help you write effective formal papers and live a more satisfying life.

How Not to Write: Youthful Rituals

Whenever I ask a new class of writing students to explain their process for writing essays, the answers as always the same. Most respond with a striking combination of ignorance and confidence. For these writers, the writing process is essentially a mystery, but it’s a mystery that they have conquered with various rituals. Here’s one typical explanation:

Whenever I have to write an essay, I sit in my room and turn off all the lights except for the computer monitor, which goes to a screen saver of traveling through the universe, like on Star Trek. I light a candle to help me relax. Vanilla is good. After that, I wait for an idea to come to me. Usually something comes to me within five minutes. I never question what it is. I just go with it. I write until I get it all out and onto paper — or the computer, actually. Then I stop. If there’s time, I come back later to check spelling and stuff, but I almost never change anything.

Good luck with not changing anything, student writer.

A second common method is just as magical, but it’s less overtly so. This process relies on the subconscious mind:

When I need to write an essay, the first thing I do is get online and just read about whatever the topic is for like an hour. Sometimes I take longer, but only if I’m into it. Then I just write about whatever I’ve read. The information all kind of flows together onto the page. I go over it once to smooth things out, but if I spend more time than that, the process starts to break down.

The process starts to break down, semiconscious student writer, because it’s not a process. You’re relying on your subconscious mind to piece together whatever information is floating around in your brain. When you spend more time on it, you realize that you have no idea what you’re doing.

A third approach depends less on magic or the subconscious mind and more on other people. This isn’t plagiarism because the students aren’t passing off someone else’s ideas as their own, but it does rely on something other than the student writer’s ability to think. Here’s an example:

Whenever I have a paper assignment, my mother and I sit down and talk things through, and she lets me know when I have something that seems like it would be a good paper. Then I go off and write it on my own. That might take an hour. Then we work on revising it together. She was a teacher for many years, so she knows about how to write papers. She’s the one who taught me that an essay should have three supporting paragraphs, which I still think is the best way to do it. None of my previous teachers have had any problems with it. In fact, I have always gotten excellent grades in all my English classes UNTIL THIS TERM. I used to enjoy writing — A LOT.

Sorry for ruining your life, student writer! It happens.

What you see in all the examples is an abdication of the writers’ responsibility to think for themselves. Instead, they let their moms or their subconscious minds or mysterious forces of the universe do the writing for them, as if the writing process is more than they can handle on their own.

However, writing the college essay is just one more set of actions that can be learned and improved upon. No magic is required. Mothers are entirely optional. Learning this process might feel awkward at first, but for humans, awkward is normal. Awkward is a sign that you’re getting somewhere. You’ve done this a hundred times before with a hundred other new skills. It’s not like you left the womb knowing how to tie your shoes or drive a car or find a moderately priced Thai restaurant.

Another problem might be that at some dark moment in your past, a teacher actually told you that you were just a bad writer. If you took that teacher seriously, you might be clinging even more desperately to whatever rituals seem to work. But here’s the real story with an incident like that — your teacher was just a bad teacher. You might not have had the skills you needed to be an effective writer at the time, but your teacher was blaming you for his or her failure to teach you how to improve. What a rotten teacher! I’m sorry for your terrible luck. However, that doesn’t give you a pass. You need to forgive that lousy teacher, set down your rituals, and get back to work.

People may naturally be more or less comfortable in their ability to use written language, but everyone can learn how to write the college essay. All you have to do is start out simply and get better with practice. You might not become a professional writer, but with enough practice, you can become competent and comfortable and able to use a more thoughtful writing process.

How Also Not to Write — The Knucklehead

A fourth inadequate process is also fairly common, particularly among informal writers who have a way with words. For them, it’s the hardest bad habit to leave behind because it’s worked so well for so long. Here’s one student’s explanation:

The way I write a paper is to figure out what I want to say and then look for information that will support it. I usually know what I want to say right away. Ideas just come to me like that. I’m not opinionated, but I have a lot of good ideas. If I can find enough stuff to support my idea, then I just start writing and put it all in the paper. If I can’t find enough information, then either I start over with a different idea (hardly ever) or I use common knowledge to explain what I mean.

This process reminds me of waiting for my first swimming lesson to begin — hanging out in the wading pool with the other Pollywogs. I was intensely afraid of drowning in the big pool, so to convince my mother that I didn’t need swimming lessons, I laid on my belly in the wading pool and flopped around. “Mom!” I yelled. “Look! I can swim! I don’t need lessons!” My mother looked up from her magazine. “That ain’t swimming, Roy,” she said. “That’s just being a knucklehead.” The other mothers laughed. I felt like an idiot, but she did have a point.

It’s the same point I make to students when they use the knucklehead process for writing the college essay. That ain’t the college essay, student writer. That’s just being a knucklehead. Yes, that thing you turned in looks like a college essay — you’ve got your own main idea, and you’ve found information to back it up — but it’s not a college essay because you’ve reversed the two central steps of the writing process.

The knucklehead writing process looks like this:

  1. Decide on an idea. It’s probably a hunch because you don’t know much about your topic, but it might also be some idea you found quickly on the Internet or that Uncle Larry told you when you were forced to visit him last summer.
  2. Examine the topic for information to back up that idea — and ignore any contradictory information or ideas.
  3. Present the idea and the information that supports it.

You see how that’s different? Knuckleheads come up with an idea first and only then look for evidence — and only to back up their idea. Do you know where that idea came from? It came from the pile of ideas that were already sitting there in their knuckle-like heads, not from all the new ideas and information they could have studied.

This is the writing process of conspiracy theorists. They start with a suspicion: The mob assassinated President John F. Kennedy. The 9/11 attacks were an inside job. Barack Obama was born in Kenya. Paul McCartney died in 1966. Then they use that idea to judge whether information is credible or not. If a piece of information supports their idea, they say it’s credible information. If anything refutes their idea, they say it’s just part of the conspiracy and quickly reject it. Knuckleheads then use the information they accept to demonstrate to themselves and others that their suspicion is a really good idea — just look at how much evidence supports it!

It’s possible, of course, that a suspicion is also true, so it’s possible that a knucklehead’s idea could become the main idea of a pretty good essay. However, that will only be an accidental outcome. Knuckleheads won’t actually know whether their suspicions are good ideas because they won’t have tested those ideas with a humble and honest look at the information. Instead, they’ll have tested the information proudly and dishonestly with their existing suspicions. The idea they started with — good or bad — only becomes a more strongly held prejudice.

Thinking for yourself means being thoughtful about all of your ideas — no matter where they come from. It means educating yourself about a topic and then using that information to find the best available ideas. It means testing your ideas to make sure they’re worthy of acceptance.

How to Write the College Essay

Learning how to write the college essay may not be a lot of fun at first. It’s hard work, and hard work tends to be frustrating more than rewarding until you get the hang of it. I hated swim lessons — and not just that first summer, either, but for the next two summers until I finally graduated from Pollywogs by swimming the width of the pool, no small feat. It might be that kind of a struggle for you.

Or you might be like my sister Nadine, who passed Pollywogs on her first attempt. You might have a strong aptitude for using words. You might have had a high school teacher who expected you to think for yourself and use information to form and test your ideas. Don’t worry about how quickly you succeed with this process. The point is to push ahead, whether or not it comes easily. With practice you get better, and all we care about is getting better.

Here’s how the college writing process breaks down into the three main steps that were mentioned at the start of this chapter. I’ll use a hard-hitting local news story to briefly illustrate how the process works. Then we’ll look more closely at each step in the chapters that follow.

Step 1: Educate Yourself About Your Topic

In college, the reason you’re assigned essays is so that you will have to deal firsthand with new topics and, in this way, educate yourself well enough about that new topic that you can then write a thoughtful essay. The essay is actually a byproduct of the more important self-education that’s required. That’s why you so rarely get to write about yourself or topics you already understand and care about. Whether you intended it or not, you’re paying your professors to give you new topics to understand and care about. Whining to be allowed to please, please write about something you already care about will get you nowhere. That’s not how this works.

The first step toward writing a good essay, then, is to embrace whatever topic has been assigned and then begin to educate yourself about that topic — whatever the topic might be. You don’t have to fall in love with a topic. You just have to accept the work at hand for what it is. This is more of an arranged marriage. Love will come later. Get to know your topic with general sources of information — reference books, textbooks, talking to your professor, visiting credible websites. As you become more educated about that topic, you will start to notice surprising or odd or challenging bits of information that spark your interest or make you uncomfortable.

The second thing to do is to narrow your focus to one of these more engaging points and dig deeper into the topic with more professional and scholarly sources of information. They will give you more detailed and reliable information. Your closer examination of information will lead to your own conclusions about what that information means, and one of those conclusions can then be used as the main idea of your essay.

Early in the term, I tell students to find an article from a local newspaper and develop an essay in response. Suppose, for example, that the city council has voted to impose a fifty dollar tax on citizens who raise chickens within the city limits. Those hipster, urban chicken owners don’t like the tax, but the city council says the tax is needed to pay for someone to oversee chicken raising operations. The only alternative would be to ban chickens entirely.

With a topic like this, you might start the writing process by getting to know the issue through the newspaper article. That gives you the basic information. And any kind of tax is sure to generate debate, so you can use the newspaper to find those complaints in the letters-to-the-editor section. What do the chicken owners have to say? Is anyone in favor of this tax — or opposed to chickens?

As you get to know your topic, you might quickly develop an opinion of your own. If so, don’t be a knucklehead about it. Treat that opinion like the annoying cousin who’s been sleeping on your couch for the last three weeks and shows no signs of leaving. Don’t encourage it. In fact, challenge it whenever possible. You need to keep an open mind at this point, and that means testing any hunches about your topic rather skeptically. A hunch tends to limit your focus to information that’s relevant to that idea, and you need to consider all the information you can find so that your idea will be as thoughtful as possible.

To dig deeper into the topic of raising chickens within city limits, you can do three things — the same three options you’ll have with any topic. First, you can deal with the topic firsthand. Talk to the chicken owners. Talk to the chicken haters. Talk to the chickens. If you’re a shy person, you might read what these people have said by reading a transcript of the city council meeting to get the exact words of everyone.

Your second option is to see what the experts have to say. With most topics, experts have been there before you and have written down their own conclusions about a topic. Just go to your college library and find what the experts have written. And trust me, there are experts writing about every topic.

Your third option is talk to people who can help you find the information you need. Talk to your professor. Talk to the reference librarians in your campus library. You might know someone whose job is related to your topic — the retired chicken inspector who moved into the apartment downstairs, for example. She seems nice enough.

Once you start exploring a topic, you will be shocked and amazed to see the complexity of your topic expand outward in a dozen directions. That brings you to the second phase of self-education — narrowing your focus to examine one smaller and engaging aspect of your topic. By narrowing your focus, you’re able to invest more time in a smaller range of information — to do more with less. This allows you to become a mini-expert on that subtopic, and that’s what you need to be in order to write about it.

Many student writers aren’t happy about this kind of commitment to an assigned topic. They think they have more important things to do than educate themselves. To them, I say welcome to the rest of your life, unsuspecting student writer! The only thing you’ll need to do from now until the grave is educate yourself about one new topic after another. It’s not just college, either. Life itself will assign you all sorts of unexpected and unwanted topics. It will often be fun work, but even when it’s not any fun, the alternative — letting other people do your thinking for you — is far worse.

We’ll look more closely at how to educate yourself in chapter 7.

Step 2: Identify and Improve Your Main Idea

At some point, even with a topic as straightforward as urban chickens — and even if you narrow your focus to some smaller subtopic, such as the rich, emotional bond between chickens and owners — you will run out of time for educating yourself about your topic. When that happens, you have to decide which of your ideas to write about. Your decision should be based on a few things — the assignment, your interest in the idea, and your honesty.

You need to show proper respect for the assignment by living within its boundaries. If you end up with an idea you love that’s outside those boundaries, then at least talk to your professor about getting a waiver to make sure your idea will be acceptable. Your professor will probably go along with your plan, and if he or she doesn’t, then at least you won’t have wasted your time writing a paper that would probably fail to do what was expected of it.

As much as possible, keep yourself amused and engaged in the process, too. You do that by writing about an idea that you find engaging. If you have taken the time to educate yourself about your topic, you should have several to choose from. Pick one that comes with interesting information that you can share with readers. It’s more rewarding to work with one of your own ideas than it is to write about some quick, knuckleheaded idea that you didn’t discover yourself. Your readers will find it more engaging, too.

The honesty part of the equation comes from letting the information you have found guide you toward the best idea available. People usually focus on parts of a topic that are debatable or controversial. With chickens, you might not be personally invested in an idea. However, if you’re writing about something that matters to you, and if the information pulls you toward an idea you didn’t expect and don’t like, honesty can be a challenge. Be honest anyway. Don’t be a knucklehead. Make sure that your idea is accurately founded on real-world information and reasonable thinking.

Your idea needs to be precise, too. Until you define your idea precisely, you’ve only kind of decided what you think. That’s not good enough. A vague idea is just a hazy cluster of potential ideas and will often lead to a reflection paper rather than an essay. To define an idea precisely, you need to translate the idea into actual words and then tinker with those words until they define your idea exactly and accurately. Regarding chickens, you might end up with a thesis statement like this:

All chickens should be banned from within the city limits because they make noise outside of the normal hours for quiet and because most people find their smell offensive.

You could do worse than that. This sentence states your opinion and supplies two reasons. That’s pretty good. Writing your thesis statement becomes a sort of pivot point for you. Your self-education brings you to this thesis statement, and the same thesis statement becomes your starting point for Step 3 in the writing process.

We’ll take a closer look at Step 2 — including a few tricks to make the process more effective — in chapter 8.

Step 3: Carefully Present Your Idea

Now it’s time to share your thinking with others by presenting this new opinion of yours as the main idea of an essay. This step in the process typically breaks down into three stages: planning, drafting, and revising.

Planning: To effectively explain a complex main idea, your essay needs to lay out your thinking in detail and present readers with plenty of information. To make sure that happens, you must carefully plan  your body paragraphs — figuring out what your supporting ideas will be and how they will be broken out into the actual paragraphs. Using the thesis statement from Step 2 as an example, you see that you have a least three things to talk about:

  1. Chickens should be banned from within the city limits.
  2. Reason: They make noise outside of the normal quiet hours.
  3. Reason: Most people find their smell offensive.

If this were to be a five-paragraph trainer-essay, your planning would be done. But you’re not going to go there, student writer. The five-paragraph trainer-essay is dead to you. You’re writing college essays now, so you need to get into more detail, and that means looking at the evidence you gathered and figuring out how much of it you will need to use to explain your thinking.

Idea 1 for the above list — ban the chicken! — is the biggest idea to explain, so you may need to divide your evidence into several paragraphs:

  1. The chicken situation — who’s raising them and where
  2. The chicken ban — what you mean by the ban
  3. Enforcement — how you would make sure the ban was obeyed
  4. Effects — how the ban would make things better

If you follow that with your two reasons for the ban, that leaves you with these six supporting ideas for the body of your essay:

  1. The chicken situation — who’s raising them and where
  2. The chicken ban — what you mean by the ban
  3. Enforcement — how you would make sure the ban was obeyed
  4. Effects — how the ban would make things better
  5. Reason: They make noise outside of the normal quiet hours.
  6. Reason: Most people find their smell offensive.

That looks promising.

Now it’s time to organize these paragraphs. The more clearly you organize your information into meaningful patterns, the more likely it is that your readers will see how all those details work together to explain your main idea. When someone throws a lot of disorganized information at you, you become confused. You don’t see what all the information adds up to — if anything — and you gradually stop paying attention. You don’t want to do that to your readers. It’s mean.

So how might you organize these paragraphs into a pattern? You have plenty of options, as you saw back in chapter 2. For this focus, you could try a problem-and-solution pattern:

  1. Problem: Chickens in town
    • The chicken situation — who’s raising them and where
    • Problem: They make noise outside of the normal quiet hours.
    • Problem: Most people find their smell offensive.
  2. Solution: The chicken ban
    • What you mean by the ban
    • Enforcement — how you would make sure the ban was obeyed.
    • Results: How the ban would make things better.

That makes sense. And really, that’s all that matters, that the parts add up to a whole — make sense — in the minds of your readers. Any pattern of organization will do that.

We’ll talk more about organizing your essay in chapter 9.

Drafting: This is where you put onto paper the actual words that will transfer an idea from your brain into the brains of your readers. Some writers can draft entire essays in their heads and then type them out as final drafts. These writers are so rare, however, that the federal government pays scientists to study them. I’m serious. If nobody’s studying you, then you are probably not one of these writers, so plan on writing more than one draft.

It’s a good idea to start by drafting the body of your essay. Student writers often get hung up on achieving the perfect opening paragraph. However, to write the perfect opening paragraph, or even an okay opening paragraph, you need to know what’s in the body of the essay. So write a full paragraph for each point in your paragraph outline. If you have to expand more important or complex points into multiple paragraphs, then do so. You’re the boss of that outline. Once the body is done, drafting a good opening and closing is much easier.

Drafting often leads you to unexpected discoveries about your topic or your main idea. Drafting relies on the subconscious mind to gather up the right words, and the subconscious mind, once activated, is creative and unpredictable — kind of like a four-year-old. You might discover a new wrinkle in the information, and that might lead you to an even better main idea. You might also see that a big chunk of information in your essay isn’t actually relevant to your particular idea. You might have to dump it. If drafting shows you that you have to make changes, then make changes. Don’t fall too deeply in love with what you’ve written. It’s the idea that matters most, so go with the best idea.

There’s more to drafting that just putting your own words together. With formal writing, you must share the information you gathered to explain yourself. Doing this honestly and accurately requires you to carefully show your readers which ideas or words are yours and which come from others. You have to give credit to those others, too, and usually by following pretty stringent, formal guidelines. Using the ideas and information of others without giving them credit is called plagiarism. That’s one of the high sins of formal writing, and it’s also unprofessional, so there won’t be any of that.

We’ll talk more about drafting in chapter 10, and we’ll look at how to handle outside information in chapter 11.

Revising: This word can be used to describe any point in your writing process when you stop to look at what you’re doing and try to do a better job of it. Revising in its broadest sense means “re-seeing,” so that can apply to stepping back and re-seeing your thesis statement, your planned organization, your drafting — anything. I have no quarrel with that broad use of the word, but for our purposes, revision is mostly a matter of stepping back from your draft to polish it up so that your audience won’t be distracted from your ideas.

So you might revise by introducing your chicken ban idea with a more colorful opening. You might add or subtract bits of information within the body paragraphs to more effectively explain your supporting idea about how much chickens stink. You might remove that paragraph about your ingrown toenail as a fairly distracting metaphor for chicken raising. You might find that one paragraph has so many supporting sentences that you divide it into so subsets of support.

Revision includes working on the sentences of the essay, but save most of that until after you are confident of your paragraphs. You don’t want to spend time worrying about how to spell “defecation” or where to put a comma when the entire paragraph needs to be plucked from the essay like an illegal chicken — or like the feathers of an illegal chicken, I suppose. I may need to revise that illustration, in fact. My point, though, is that you shouldn’t spend lots of time polishing up the punctuation in sentences that may need to be deleted. When you invest a lot of time in polishing garbage, the garbage starts to look pretty good. But it’s still garbage. Make sure the sentences are helping to present your idea first. Then polish them.

Feedback is an important part of revision. Because your essay is trying to move from your brain and into the brain of another human, it helps to try out the essay on other humans, such as your professor, an editing group, a smart friend, and so on.

Student writers sometimes find it difficult to open up to feedback. They think that criticism of something they’ve written is criticism of their intelligence. But it’s not like that. What you’ve written is just that — something you’ve written. It’s not you. It’s not your intelligence. It’s just an essay, a tiny artifact of where you are right now as a writer. And even if it is pretty good, it’s not as good as your essays will be with more practice. Once you understand that your essay is just this thing you did, like the plastic ice scraper you made in eighth-grade shop class — which by the way was a pretty decent ice scraper — it becomes a lot easier to accept and benefit from the feedback of others.

We’ll look more closely at revision and proofreading in chapter 12.

How to Make the Process Work for You

In the end, and in seeming contradiction to the start of this chapter, you will have to discover a writing process that works specifically for you. This is the work of your brain, after all, and no two brains are alike. Brains, in this regard, are like snowflakes.

However, you do have to work within the three-step process of educating yourself about your topic, identifying and improving one main idea about that topic, and presenting your idea to others. This is how formal writing works. It’s been working this way for thousands of years, and there’s no reason to think that will change in your lifetime. As you get comfortable with this process, however, you should adapt and refine it so that it works best for your particular situation and habits.

You might find that the hardest step for you is narrowing your focus to one small part of your topic, and that talking to your friends — regardless of how little they actually know about your topic — is a great help. So be it. Good for you. I’m always happy to see that other people have friends. Adapt the process to include them if that’s what it takes to get you moving forward.

You might find that having your own special writing place is important, or that noise is a factor. You might need complete silence. You might need music that sounds like someone being killed by an electric guitar. You might need to turn off the television. You might need to boldly reclaim those vanilla-scented candles if they really do help. It’s good to figure these things out. Respect those discoveries and revise your writing process to include those conditions and precautions — but only if they don’t get in the way of you thinking for yourself. Use them, but use them within the three-step writing process and not in place of it.

If you try to use this three-step writing process and it doesn’t go anywhere at first, don’t panic. Above all, don’t go back to any inadequate processes from the past. Instead, talk to your writing professor. Most writing professors collect tricks for jump-starting writers at various stages of the writing process. It’s a hobby they picked up in graduate school.

And if you don’t have a writing professor, no worries. You can always search the Internet with this key phrase: “the writing process.” A lot of what you find will be junk — it’s the Internet, after all, where any idiot can put up a website — but you might also find just the right trick to get you going.

The Big Ideas

This chapter provided you with an overview of the process for writing formal papers. Here are the big ideas from this chapter:

1. What not to do: Do not give control of your paper to others, including mystical forces of the universe. You have to be responsible for your own ideas.

2. What also not to do: Don’t be a knucklehead. Don’t start with an idea and then look for evidence to back it up. Even though your final paper will look like an actual essay, you will not have learned anything, and you won’t know if your idea is actually worth taking up space in your or your readers’ brains. Instead, educate yourself and then make up your own mind about what makes sense.

3. What to do: A successful college writing process consists of three important steps:

  1. Educate yourself about the topic.
  2. Find and improve your main idea.
  3. Present your idea carefully — by planning your essay, drafting it, and then revising it before you share it with others.

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