Before we start an idea, we don't know the boundaries of our scope. By looping through brainstorms, throw-away outlines, and short free-writing exercises, we can cover a lot of ground. By quickly discovering dead-ends, we save ourselves time from drafting the wrong ideas. Sometimes a single bullet from a brainstorm can expand into the scope of an entire essay.
POP from the Beginning
Some times we go down the path of developing an essay, only to realize near the end that we're not sure how to bring ourselves into it. Before we even start, it's helpful to write out one sentence on each pillar of POP. If we're considering 2 or 3 ways to approach a prompt, we can perform this exercises on each of them. It will help us see which one is closest to being three-dimensional.
- Personal: How will I bring myself into this essay?
- Observation: What is something new the reader will take away?
- Playful: What is an unconventional way to approach this topic?
It's hard to innovate on all aspects of an essay: a novel idea, a unique structure, an original voice. To get started, it can be helpful to isolate 1, 2, or even all 3 of these variables. Sometimes originality comes from the way you blend things that already exist. Don't be afraid to cover simple ideas, use templates, or imitate the voice of a writer your inspired by.
Concept & Repetition
Reading is work, and a reader's memory is limited. This is what separates static arts (architecture, painting) from dynamic arts (writing, music). Think of how chorus's repeat several times in a song so that a simple idea is more likely to be remembered. We want to do the same thing for our concept. Once we discover it, it's both a filtering device and an anchor. It let's us discard tangents, and we relate every relevant idea back to it. A good concept is often bold, clear, surprising, and clever. Finding our concept is often like searching for Sasquatch - huge if true, you'll know it when you see it, it'll change your world view, and it's elusive.
Give the Reader a Map
Near the beginning of our essay, we want to give the readers a map of what's up ahead. When we introduce new ideas, we typically don't want them to come completely out of left field. Imagine an essay has 3 points, that each go on for around 500 words. The challenge here is to compress those 1,500 words into a single sentence map. This sentence is a preview of what is to come, stripped of all it's detail. When the reader finds themselves amongst the trees, at least they feel oriented, and know which part of the woods they're in.
Introductions and Conclusions
Introductions have a few functions:
- To introduce the concept,
- To give a map of the essay,
- To give context into why the author is writing this,
- And ultimately, to "hook" the reader.
Think of a hook as an unresolved idea. Perhaps it's an interesting question. The goal is to make the reader curious enough to read on and discover the answer. The conclusion is the perfect place to answer your cliffhanger from the introduction. It's tempting to say exactly how we feel right out of the gate. But instead, we can ask the question, provide the "evidence," and then convey the most important thing at the end.
Imagine the reader's stamina is like a health bar. Long sentence reduces health and short ones recover it. After a few short sentences, we can throw in a never-ending run on sentence. These can be thrilling. But after an epic sentence, we need to give the reader a breather. One way to visualize our sentence lengths is to write out a sentence per line (like in poetry). This lets us "read the right edge." Additionally, there is an app called "Hemingway" that highlights long sentences for you. It also tells you the reading level of your piece (we're aiming for 9th grade and under).
Convey It To A Stranger
While our first draft can be an attempt for us to discover an idea, we eventually want our essay to be so clear that a stranger can make sense of it. David Foster Wallace has some simple writing advice. "The reader cannot read your mind." After we've written our first draft, it's helpful to immediately re-read it. Imagine how it would be interpreted by someone else. After we've done this pass, then we should actually send it to a friend for feedback. Color-coded CRIBS is a great way to understand where your pain points and dopamine hits are hidden. It gives us a visual indication of how each sentence is performing. It shows us where we need to dive in first to edit.
Another useful thing to do after your first-draft is to make a list of things you like about it. Maybe you liked a pop culture name drop, the reference of a memory, or a playful way to phrase something. These first come across as happy accidents. But we can consciously pick these out, and then apply them in areas of the essay where they're missing. If we think about what "voice" is, it's basically a set of mannerisms that recur throughout the piece. With experience, this comes out organically. As you're starting, you can refer to your check-list. It will help accelerate the budding areas of your voice.
When to Start Over
Sometimes a first draft is successful. Sometimes an unexpected and promising ideas emerges. Sometimes a draft lets us discover a new dimension of our voice, but it isn't quite balanced yet. When we're trying to push our boundaries, the process can feel long, winding, or difficult. Even if the final product doesn't feel "done," the state we create from evolves without us realizing. After a long first draft journey, we often find that a second draft can be created in a quarter of the time. We're free from what's on the page, but we bring forward our strengthened lens. Write something fresh, read it, and then refer back to your original draft to see if anything essential is missing. This process can apply to sentences, paragraphs, sections, and even entire essays.