Going back to school after the holiday break means lots of great things: stocking up on school supplies, reuniting with friends, and sharing stories about your winter vacation. Unfortunately, it also means homework. Even though teachers don’t actually enjoy grading essays or term papers any more than you like writing them, chances are, you’ll be writing several this semester.
Planning is the single best way to make writing essays less painful. It seems like more work in the beginning, but once you’ve focused your ideas and organized them in some kind of framework, the rest is just filling in the blanks. Planning is essentially a two-part process. First, you must decide on a topic, a thesis, and an audience. Then you need to engage in prewriting to get your thoughts in order. Your topic will often be determined for you, but you’ll usually still need to narrow it down. Thus “Historical Figure from the Civil War Era” is narrowed down to “Clara Barton.”
The length of your assignment will determine the specificity of your topic; you can cover a lot more ground in a twenty-page term paper than you can in a five-paragraph essay. Once you’ve figured out what your topic is, decide on a position or focus. For example, you might want to focus on Barton’s work as the “Angel of the Battlefield” during the Civil War or her founding of The Red Cross. For an argumentative or persuasive paper, you’ll have to take a stance on your topic, as in “Peanut Butter: Crunchy is better than creamy.”
Next, you’ll need to get your ideas and research in order. There are several different prewriting strategies that appeal to different styles of learning:
Visual learner. For the visual learner, a mind map or word web is the best strategy. To create a mind map, you begin by writing the central theme or topic of your essay in the center of a blank page. From there, write related ideas or sub-topics around the central hub, connecting them with lines. Continue in this fashion, adding support statements and research to each of the sub-topics, until you’ve created a complete visual outline of your paper. This strategy also works great on a whiteboard with different colored markers.
Auditory learner. For the auditory learner, consider using a voice recorder or speech-to-text program. Many of us think best while talking out loud, so harness that strength and use it to your advantage. Talk your ideas out while speaking into a microphone; later, you can listen to the recording as you write or simply use a speech-to-text program, such as the one built in to Windows, to dictate your notes.
Free-thinker. Free-thinking students may prefer to brainstorm. This process gets all of your thoughts down on paper before trying to sort them into categories. Make a list of everything that comes to mind regarding your chosen topic, and don’t be afraid to explore surprising associations or intuitive leaps. Once you’ve created your list, go back through it and organize it into logical sequence.
Traditional learner. Finally, some students may prefer to use a traditional outline. Using bullet points, write the topic or thesis of the paper at the top of the page and then list the subtopics for each paragraph with 2-3 supporting statements for each.
Make your notes however you like—on a whiteboard, on notebook paper, or on the computer. My personal favorite medium is oversized index cards, which have the perfect amount of space for outlining a paragraph. No matter how you decide to organize your thoughts, planning in advance saves time and effort—and helps you write stronger, better-organized essays.
Which prewriting strategy is your favorite?