What to Write

I’m sure everyone who writes consistently often runs in to the dreaded moments when they can’t decide what to write. This is a fairly regular occurrence for me, but I’ve discovered that it happens more frequently when a deadline looms. The less time I have, the more difficult it is to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. 

Even though I still struggle with this occasionally (Chrisie would say constantly), there has so far only been one moment in my life when a temporary block really scared me. It came during my first semester at Austin Peay during English Composition 1010.

One exercise we regularly did was to come to class prepared with a topic for an essay. Our class time was then spent on writing the essay. It was supposed to help us improve our extemporaneous writing and therefore our writing overall. I actually enjoyed the exercises except for the week we spent on process essays.

A process essay, for those who don’t know or have forgotten, are ones which explain how to do something. They are also the only essays I feel too unskilled to write. It may be that I’m just not interested enough in processes. Well, I’m not interested in normal, easy to explain processes anyway (my prepared typed essay written out of class was entitled How to Be Offensive at Weddings).

I hadn’t come prepared with a topic the day we wrote process essays in class. This is clearly my fault. The problem was, I hadn’t come prepared any of the other days either. I didn’t have any trouble figuring out what to write before, so I never imagined I would spend over half of the class staring at a blank page.

I panicked several times before inspiration struck. Here are the results of that inspiration transcribed with my professor’s remarks in red.

The world would be a much better place if only there were a book entitled 1001 Great Essay Ideas with an entire chapter devoted to the process essay. Unfortunately, no such volume exists. This leaves the despairing college student to wonder endlessly on what to write. This essay is not only a solution to that problem, but also a guide for what to do when that mental block hits.

The first thing most people will tell you to do is to brainstorm. This is an excellent tool, but not very practical in tight situations. Instead, take out a blank piece of paper and set it in front of you. Then stare at it intently and wait for divine intervention to save you.

Next, you must give up on the spontaneous generation of an idea and actually put some thought into it. Review everything you know how to do until you find a suitable topic. Hopefully, you will hit upon something you are good at and be able to transform the twisted wanderings of your mind into an “A” essay. If you find a good subject, then great! Go ahead and write that paper. If not, then read on.

The desperate college student must be inventive. Think about your surroundings. You might be able to write a paper on how to lace and tie an athletic shoe, or perhaps one on how to make passes at one of the more attractive members of the opposite sex in the room. Who knows? There could be thousands of such ideas just waiting to be discovered.

When none of these topics seems appealing and all else fails, write about the assignment. There are still many possibilities: how to get out of the work, how to put it off until the last minute, or how to write a paper in the first place. You will find that you can author a decent essay even in the face of writer’s block.

Now you must develop your idea. Be careful not to write too little information. Often, these spur of the moment essays come dangerously close to being too short. Work with the idea and expand it. If you are aiming for a certain number of words, then keep track of how many words you have by paragraphs or sentences. It is also important, however, to make sure that you do not “pad” your sentences with such phrases as “because of the fact that” or “all too often.” These phrases should be worked in some other way. as indeed they were

Finally, it is important to note that you should not approach every essay in this manner. This is a desperation attempt and should be used only in emergency situations. As in all things, keep the courage that you will survive, even if this one essay does not work out. Remember the words of Benjamin Franklin, “A ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” If you keep that in mind, then you will not have to resort to such drastic measure.

I don’t know whether to applaud you for your ingenuity or criticize you for your lack of preparation. There is too much padding – thus the B. It is ingenious – thus the B.

The grade was more than I hoped for. I was shooting for at most a C and really just wanted to avoid an F. My professor spoke with me when she handed back my essay. Here last words were, “I hoped you’ve learned your lesson from this.”

I did learn my lesson. I learned I could wait until the last minute and scrape out a B in a feverish writing session with no preparation.

What? You don’t think that’s what she meant?

© Leighton Brown and Stories Now Told, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from Leighton Brown is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Leighton Brown and Stories Now Told with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. For more information, please see the Copyright page.
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About leighton

I could be considered a true Renaissance Man after having a long and storied (seriously, people actually tell stories about it) college experience and varied careers. I am also a shameless self-promoter (who did you think was writing this anyway?) who is prone to flights of fancy, an abundance of passion on any given subject, ,obsessive behavior, spontaneous storytelling (whether anyone listens or not), and making parenthetical references. I would also be thrilled if I heard someone use the word "raconteur" to describe me.
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4 Responses to What to Write

  1. tulisha says:

    Do you still have “How to be Offensive at Weddings”? I’m interested in reading it.

    • leighton says:

      Of course I do! 🙂 I was mulling figuring a way to post it here, but I haven’t decided. Perhaps if there is a great enough public outcry, I’ll go ahead and do it anyway.

  2. I would also love to read “How to Be Offensive at Weddings”. You are so entertaining.

  3. Pingback: How to Be Offensive at Weddings | Stories Now Told

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