Essays are one of the most common ways to evaluate a student’s capacity for the written language, but when misapplied they can be unfair. You can have a thorough knowledge of grammar and even a sense of style, but time and again I find that some students struggle with essays because they don’t know what to say–in any language. Is it really fair, then, to judge their foreign language writing ability by the fact that they ran out of ideas?
I’ve seen this happen with students working on short-form writing assignments. They might ask me for a word here or there, or ask me if a particular sentence is okay, but I would say 80% to 90% of our discussion during writing practice is based on the problem of “I don’t know what to say.” My job, at that point, is no longer about providing the right vocabulary or grammatical structure. My job is to help students think: to organize and isolate particular arguments or reasons; to look at things from another perspective; to help them cultivate and express their opinions, knowledge, and experiences.
If you often feel “stuck” on essay prompts, try these tips on for size.
1. Why? So what? Can you prove it? Those are the questions you should be answering every paragraph. I find people most often get stuck when they think that what they’re saying is self-evident. This is rarely the case! If you’re writing an analytical essay about a novel or short story, for example, you obviously shouldn’t explain the basics like the plot or characters. You’re writing for someone who’s read the same book as you, but who can’t read your mind. You think that the black pearl in the eponymous John Steinbeck story symbolizes wealth; you think it’s so obvious it doesn’t require explanation. But maybe your reader thinks it represents greed, or capitalism.
2. Play devil’s advocate. If you’ve thoroughly explained your case but still find yourself coming up short, take a moment to argue against yourself. Where are the holes or inconsistencies in your interpretation? If someone wanted to prove you wrong, what would they say? Build those arguments as well as you would build your own, and then take the time to address them.
You can even take this method to the extreme by writing an essay that you actually disagree with. This is naturally more difficult to do (unless you’re trying to write something satirical, in the tradition of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”), but it can be a rewarding exercise.
3. Use details. Similar to #1, I find students get stuck when they think that details would be boring or nonessential. Taken to an extreme, this is true. Your reader is going to know your game if every time they read about “the issue” it’s “the pressing, complicated, and difficult issue.” But proving an assertion requires details. For example, it might be tempting to summarize Cinderella’s life prior to the intervention of her fairy godmother like this:
Cinderella had a difficult life until she married the prince.
Sure, this is true, and we’re all familiar enough with the story of Cinderella to be able to fill in the gaps ourselves. But specific details can flesh out your writing, remind the reader of things they’d forgotten, and maybe even bring a fresh perspective to things.
Cinderella had a difficult life until she married the prince. Her stepmother and stepsisters browbeat her into submission. In some versions of the story, her father still remains as a comfort, but in others he dies soon after his second marriage, leaving Cinderella a defenseless orphan. She has no quarters of her own and spends most of her days hard at work, covered in soot. Not only that, but after she meets the prince, her stepsisters do all they can to keep the two from marrying.
This refreshes the reader’s memory, but from a teaching perspective, it also demonstrates that you’ve actually read the assigned text(s). From a language teaching perspective, it gives us more more opportunities to see you actually use the language.
Watch out! When using details to support an argument, make sure to only choose details relevant to your argument. In other words, resist the urge to summarize the entire novel or essay.
4. Lie. I had a student in my South Korean hagwon days who was usually sullen and unresponsive. Then, one day, after I asked how their weekend was, he started telling me the most ridiculous whopper about having to turn down dates from Beyonce and piloting an aircraft into a crash landing and more that I, sadly, no longer remember. It made my week.
As a language teacher, I don’t care if what you’re writing (especially in a personal essay) is true. Unless we’re doing a unit on research or writing nonfiction, or unless you’re writing a personal essay for admittance to a university or postgraduate program, accuracy is not of primary importance. I just want you to use the language and be comfortable and confident in it.
5. One thing at a time. Your sentence should be about one idea. Your paragraph should be about one idea. The more you narrow your focus on one sentence or paragraph, the more material you can gather for another sentence or paragraph. When you first start writing, especially during a timed assignment, you’ll probably just start to write whatever comes into your mind, in whatever order. It’s important to get it all down first, but you should spend a few minutes to make sure it’s all organized. If your first body paragraph is about the causes of World War I (Franz Ferdinand, secret treaties), there shouldn’t be a stray reason (budding nationalism in the early 20th century) that crops up in paragraph three. If your entire essay is about the causes of World War 1, then give the treaties, the Archduke, and the nationalism each their own paragraph. And so on.
That’s it for my tips on what to do when you run out of ideas in the middle of your essay. Do you have any more tried and true “essay hacks”? Share in the comments or Tweet at me!