Homeschooled student David Gibson shares his college writing experience and provides useful tips on how to write an essay.

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Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
~ E.L. Doctorow

    A Five Paragraph Essay on Writing Essays
    David Gibson

    In first coming to college I had several problems, but one that is useful to extract advice from is writing essays. Being unschooled I never had to write reports, write essays, or answer essay questions on tests, save for the SAT. When I got to college that changed and I was unprepared for the essays I was regularly required to write. I was so off base that I couldn't really know how wrong I was doing it; I simply tried to write a pile of words that met the word length, and when you are taking literature courses that simply doesn't cut it. In time I ended up in a basic English writing class that turned the essay from my nemesis into one of my strengths. Since taking it I have found myself looking forward to essay portions of tests and taking pride in my writing. From that class I learned how to write essays fast, how to write them flexibly, and most importantly how to write them properly.

    Firstly, writing essays fast is crucial. In tests you are always under time constraints, and on top of that if you know you can write fast enough it lets you relax and consider the topic in greater detail before starting. If you know you can't write fast enough, or are in doubt, you will be under greater stress and your writing will suffer. Cutting corners shows to a grader. If you are confident in your ability it gives you the chance to be clever, funny, or work in things you know the professor likes, all of which will make them like your work more. Speed itself isn't enough, speed and precision must go hand in hand. This isn't typing speed either, this is handwriting. Fast handwriting is something in short supply as typing becomes more prevalent, but in-class essays will be on paper, with pencil, and you must be ready for this fact.

    Secondly, you must be flexible. In an ideal world you will study for everything and be perfectly prepared for every test and paper you must write. However, sooner or later, you will be unprepared. Relatedly, you may very well be laboring within certain minimum length limits. These may seem unrelated, but the solution is the same; make things up. It sounds bad, but the truth is that if you write something you have better odds than if you write nothing. If you know a little about the topic, and in a test hopefully you'll know at least a little, you can use that flexibility to extrapolate and fill the page. I was taught that you should be able to write a structurally sound eight hundred word essay in fifty minutes about complete nonsense. Even if you never have to write an essay about complete nonsense, being able to do so will teach you the structure very well, which in itself is vital.

    Thirdly, you must be able to write a proper essay. This includes grammar, spelling, and proper citation style, but those are outside the scope of what I want to talk about. I instead refer to the particular structure and format of an essay, in particular the five paragraph essay, and I will explain this format as I understand it. The first paragraph of such an essay introduces the topic and speaks about it generally. Within the first paragraph is the thesis statement, which lays out plainly three specific subtopics that will be discussed. Following are three paragraphs, each of which starts with some transition phrase, perhaps as simple as “firstly ... secondly ... thirdly ...”. These paragraphs each elaborate on one of the three topics mentioned in the thesis statement, going into detail on each in turn. The fifth paragraph may be as simple as the first paragraph written in reverse order, first sentence last, but ideally it expands on the general topic of the essay and offers avenues for further thought, containing somewhere within it a rephrasing of the thesis statement.

    There are more particulars and variants than can be contained within anything less than a small book, but the basics outlined above would put you on firm footing to learn the rest. Someone without experience essay writing looking at a college education could do far worse than mastering them. I would recommend practicing at least daily until you can write an eight hundred word document in under an hour by hand, and then you will be in good shape. That should help you learn how to write essays fast, how to write them flexibly, and how to write them properly. You should also keep in mind that any decent institution will have some sort of writing lab where a member of the faculty can help you with assignments and even look at drafts to give you advice. Don't be afraid to use them, even just to be sure you've got it right.

    Copyright 2010, David Gibson

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