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March 24, 2008 / Amy Bradney-George

On essays

The first word is hard. The document will stare back at you, white background and flashing cursor until eventually you hazard a common, generic word like “the”. Delete. Try something else. It takes a while before the first word starts to feel like it will make more sense once you write a sentence.

The first sentence is always the hardest. You can sit in front of a computer all day and still be unhappy with that fateful first sentence. It’s the one they read first (whoever “they” may be), the hook, the lead, the silver lining on a topical cloud you may not even want to cross paths with. Never fear, once done you probably won’t have to fly past it again.

A paragraph is an achievement. The first is, again, the hardest. ‘It’s important,’ they tell us, ‘to get the introductory paragraph right. You need to explain your argument, and outline the entire essay.’ They also tell us a paragraph can be three sentences long. Clearly they don’t write introductions very often.

Each paragraph is a formula. Some people write because they don’t like maths, but it’s more about numbers than you’d think. The number of words to a sentence, the number of sentences to a paragraph, the number of paragraphs to an essay, the total number of words (including or excluding in-text references depending on them, and they like to change their minds about that). And the formula.

‘Start with a topic sentence,’ they tell us over and over as if we never learn. ‘This should be what the paragraph will be about.’ Is it that simple? Maybe, but go one further and they’ll be so surprised you could get a better judgement from them.

‘The body of the paragraph should elaborate on your topic sentence.‘ That makes sense, follow on from what you last said and all will be well in the world of Essayform. But don’t elaborate too much or they may say: ‘You went off topic!”

‘The last sentence of a paragraph should sum up the topic sentence and body of the paragraph,’ they say. What they really mean is “sum up the paragraph, draw any conclusions relevant, relate back to the topic of the essay and lead into the next paragraph either with the last sentence or the first sentence of the next par.” They don’t say what they mean.

Their formula works. It works better if you use it to your own purpose. Customise it here and there with segues and clarification of the overarching topic. They don’t tell you that, but they expect it and they like it. Note that the formula for sentences is also very similar to the formula for an essay.

They may tell you: ‘The conclusion should sum up the entire essay, relating each topic back to the original question or argument and summarising it.’ They also want you to reach a final conclusion which supports your argument and leads to a greater revelation about the topic. Unlike maths, this formula can be manipulated into an artificial revelation. ‘There is no right or wrong‘ as long as you support your argument, follow the formula and come up with an acceptable revelation.

Writers block for essays is an obstacle you have to overcome during formal studies. You can’t just wait for it to go away, you have to get around it and make the essay flow. How? It all depends. Sometimes reading other non-fiction for inspiration and “voice” can help. Writing on a topic that interests you first may also counter the block. Personally, I write about essays to get in the mood to write an essay. Maybe that works too.

…Maybe not.

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