Chapter 2: The College Essay Is a Process

Student writers often think of the college essay as pages filled with words, as something they have made, something they can now hand in for a grade. In a way, they’re right. The essay is a thing that they hand in for a grade. It’s a bunch of words that they have put onto paper. It’s something that professors write on and grade and hand back.

However, the college essay does not create itself. It’s an end product, the result of something that student writers do. And if the essay is any good, the majority of work happens before any typing takes place. So while it makes some sense to think of the essay as a product, it makes more sense to think of it as a process, a set of steps that help student writers to first develop a good argument and afterward present that argument on paper.

This chapter begins with a look at some common and inadequate approaches to the writing process. You will thus be able to clean out any misconceptions and then replace them with a better, practical process for writing college essays.

Start Thinking for Yourself

When I ask a new class full of writing students to explain their process for writing essays, they offer many types of responses. Three common responses are fairly benign and easy to eradicate. For these writers, the writing process is essentially a mystery, but one that they have conquered with reliable ritual.

Here’s a sample explanation:

Whenever I have to write an essay, I sit in my room and turn off all the lights except for the computer monitor, which goes to a screen saver of traveling through the universe, like on Star Trek. I like to light a candle, too, to help me relax. Vanilla is a good scent. After that, I wait for an idea to come to me. Usually something comes to me after about five minutes. I never question what it is. I just go with it. I write and write until I get it all out and onto paper — or the computer. Then I stop. If there’s time, I come back later to check spelling and stuff, but I almost never change anything.
Good luck with not changing anything, student writer.

Good luck with not changing anything, student writer.

A second common method is just as magical, but it’s less overtly so. I call this process “composting”:

When I need to write an essay, the first thing I do is go to the library or Wikipedia and just read about it for like an hour. Sometimes I take longer, but only if I’m into it. Then I just write about whatever I’ve read. The information all kind of flows together onto the page. I go over it once to smooth things out, but if I spend more time than that, the process starts to break down.

Of course the process starts to break down, student writer. That’s because it’s not a process. It’s just your subconscious mind doing its thing.

A third common approach depends less on magical ritual and the subconscious mind and more on other people. This isn’t exactly plagiarism, but it does rely on something other than your own ability to think. Here’s an example:

Whenever I have a paper assignment, my mother and I like to sit down and talk things through, and she lets me know when I have something that seems like it would be a good paper. Then I go off and write it on my own. That might take an hour. Then we work on revising it together. She was a teacher for many years, so she knows about how to write papers. She’s the one who taught me that an essay should have three supporting paragraphs, which I still think is the best way to do it. None of my previous teachers have had any problems with it. In fact, I have always gotten excellent grades in all my English classes UNTIL THIS TERM. I used to enjoy writing — A LOT.

Sorry for ruining your life, student writer!

What you see in these three examples is an abdication of the writers’ responsibility to think for themselves. Instead, they let their moms or their subconscious minds or mysterious forces of the universe do the thinking for them. They seem to believe that the writing process is more powerful than the writer, and thus that they have no choice but to follow whatever process they’ve fallen into. However, writing the college essay is just a set of actions that can be learned and improved upon. No magic is required. Mothers are optional. This process might feel awkward at first, especially if you set aside something comfortable like vanilla-scented candles, but awkward is normal. When it comes to learning new things, awkward is a good sign that you’re getting somewhere.

The more you practice a new process, the less awkward it becomes, until eventually you can look back at your former process and smile nostalgically at what a goofball you used to be. You’ve done this a hundred times before with a hundred other new skills. It’s not like you left the womb knowing how to tie your shoes or drive a car or find a moderately priced Thai restaurant. Writing the college essay can be a fairly complex process, so learning how to do it might take some time, but it’s still just something you do, a process you can learn to do for yourself. It’s not bigger than you are. It’s nothing compared to something really difficult like ballroom dancing.

At some dark moment in your past, some teacher might have told you that you were just a bad writer, as if bad writing was a rash, and you had it, and it wasn’t going to get better. If you took that teacher’s diagnosis seriously, you might now cling even harder to any ritual that works for you. But here’s the real story with an incident like that: The teacher was just a bad teacher. You may not have had the skills you needed to be an effective writer at the time, but your teacher was blaming you for his or her failure to teach you how to improve. What a rotten teacher! I’m sorry for your terrible luck.

The fact is that writing is not a genetic condition. People may grow up to be more or less comfortable in their ability to use written language, just as they may grow up to be more or less comfortable in their ability to remain upright on a skateboard. However, in the same way that anyone can learn how to skateboard, anyone can learn how to write the college essay. All you have to do is start out simply and get better with practice. You might not become a professional writer, but with enough practice, you can become competent and comfortable with this process.

Don’t Be a Knucklehead

While any of those three not-so-thoughtful student explanations of the writing process might be painful for student writers to leave behind, their inherent weaknesses are easy to understand and make fun of. It doesn’t take long for student writers to see this for themselves and put aside these old ways.

A fourth common and inadequate process is related to the persuasive paper you read about in Chapter One. This process is more difficult for student writers to leave behind because it looks so much like the process of writing a good argument. Here’s one student’s explanation:

The way I write a paper is to figure out what I want to say and then look for evidence that will support it. I usually know what I want to say right away. Ideas just come to me like that. I’m not opinionated, but I have a lot of good ideas. If I can find enough evidence to support my idea, then I just start writing and put it all in the paper. If I can’t find enough evidence, then either I start over with a different idea (hardly ever) or I use common knowledge to explain what I mean.

This explanation reminds me of waiting for my first swim lesson to begin, hanging out in the wading pool with all the other Pollywogs. I was intensely afraid of the big pool, so to convince my mother that I didn’t need swim lessons, I laid down in the wading pool and used my arms to move around. “Mom!” I yelled. “Look! I can swim! I don’t need lessons!” There was a part of me that really wanted to believe it, too. But Mom barely looked up from her magazine. “That ain’t swimming, Roy,” she said. “That’s just being a knucklehead.” The other mothers laughed. I felt like an idiot, but Mom did have a point.

It’s the same point I make to students when they present this particular process for writing the college essay. That ain’t the college essay, student writer. That’s just being a knucklehead. Yes, you’ve got an opinion for a main idea, and yes, you’ve found the evidence to back it up, but it’s not a college essay because you’ve reversed the two central steps of the argumentative process.

As you saw in Chapter One, a good argument has four main ingredients. The process for writing a good argument has four main steps to match those ingredients:

  1. Ask a good question.
  2. Consider relevant evidence.
  3. Decide on the best answer.
  4. Carefully present your answer.

When you write like a knucklehead, you start with a question and end by presenting your answer, so the knucklehead essay looks like an argument. However, knuckleheads reverse the order of steps 2 and 3. Instead of letting evidence lead them to the best available answer, knuckleheads use an answer — any answer — to gather up supporting evidence and get rid of contradictory evidence.

The knucklehead writing process looks like this:

  1. Ask a question (usually one that’s easy to answer).
  2. Decide on an answer (probably a hunch).
  3. Look for evidence to defend that answer.
  4. Present the answer and evidence.

This is the writing process of conspiracy theorists. They answer a question with a suspicion: The mob assassinated John Kennedy. The September 11th attacks were an inside job. Barack Obama wasn’t born in America. Then they use that suspicion to judge whether evidence is credible or not. If a piece of evidence defends their suspicion, they say it’s credible evidence. Anything else is just part of the conspiracy and is rejected. Knuckleheads then use the evidence they accept to confirm that their suspicion is a good idea.

It’s possible, of course, that a suspicion is also true. It’s thus possible that a knucklehead’s suspicion could become the main idea of a pretty good essay. However, that will only be an accidental outcome. Knuckleheads won’t actually know whether a suspicion is the best available answer to a question because they won’t have tested that idea with evidence. Instead, they’ll have tested the evidence with their idea. They haven’t been open to other plausible, and possibly better, answers to the question. The idea they started with — good or bad — has only become a more strongly held prejudice.

Thinking for yourself doesn’t mean accepting just any idea. It means being thoughtful for yourself. It means using evidence to find the best available ideas and testing ideas to make sure they’re worth holding onto.

How to Write the College Essay

Learning how to write the college essay may not be a lot of fun at first. I hated swim lessons — and not just that first summer, either, but for the next two summers until I finally graduated from Pollywogs. It might be that kind of a struggle for you. Or you might be like my sister Nadine, who passed Pollywogs on her first attempt. You might have a strong aptitude for using words. You might have had a high school teacher who expected you to think for yourself and use evidence to test your ideas. Don’t worry about how quickly you succeed with this process. The point is to push ahead, whether or not it comes easily, so that with practice you get better. Here’s how the process breaks down into the four main steps that were mentioned above, using a hard-hitting local news story as an illustration of how this works.

A good question has three main qualities. It should be debatable, it should be answerable, and it should matter to you and your readers.

If a question can only be answered in one way — with a fact or an idea that’s so widely accepted that it might as well be a fact — then the paper you will write will be a report that explains that fact rather than an essay that defends your own opinion. If you ask how milk is pasteurized, for example, there’s only one answer, so a paper that explains that idea will be a report. If you ask whether or not milk should be pasteurized, you will quickly learn that a fierce debate exists over the value of pasteurization. Because more than one credible answer exists, your essay can enter that debate and propose an opinion about the best answer.

A good question is also answerable. That means there must be sufficient evidence with which you can decide on the best possible answer. When there’s little or no evidence to consider, your answer is just guesswork and has little or no value for you or your readers. You might ask, for example, what the world would be like now if Louis Pasteur hadn’t invented pasteurization. That’s an interesting question, perhaps, but there’s no evidence available with which to answer it. All you can do is speculate. Your speculation might be interesting — and could form the basis for an unsuccessful science fiction novel — but it won’t be sufficient evidence for a college essay.

A good question will also be one that matters to you and your readers. With the college essay, it is possible to get away with a question that doesn’t really matter to you or your reader (the professor). You may not care about pasteurization, for example, but if a professor assigns you the task of answering a question about its appropriate use within developing nations, you can still write an argument because the class itself matters. Or, to turn it around, you might raise a question that you like about whether organic juices should be pasteurized. As long as the question has more than one possible answer, and as long as the question is relevant to the assignment, it doesn’t matter whether your professor cares about that question personally. Part of what student writers do in college is practice argument for later use, so it doesn’t always have to be personal.

As much as you can, however, you should look for a question that really does matter to you. It makes the entire process more enjoyable and rewarding. Your professors assign essays so that you will learn something new and hopefully learn how to examine issues like they would — as historians or psychologists or biologists. So try to have some fun with that. Use the assignment as an opportunity to satisfy some small part of your ever-expanding curiosity. Accept your assignments as they are intended and you will find they offer more rewards than just a grade.

Early in the term, I like to assign students to read an article from the front page of a local newspaper and develop an essay in response to that article. Suppose, for example, that your city council votes to impose an annual $50 tax on raising chickens within the city limits. Owners of chickens don’t like the tax, but the city council says the tax is needed to pay for someone to oversee chicken-raising operations, and that the only alternative would be to ban chickens entirely.

With an article like this, you might start your essay by asking any of several questions. For example, you might ask what happened. That’s probably not a good question because there seems to be general agreement about what happened: The city council decided to impose a tax on chickens. If your essay attempted to answer that question, it would look a lot like the newspaper article — a collection of information, a report rather than an essay. The same would be true of other, more focused questions: How will the tax money be used? When does the tax go into effect? How many chickens live within the city limits? These probably aren’t good questions because they each seem to point toward one generally agreed-upon answer.

A good question is one that can be answered with more than one credible answer. For example, you might ask if chickens are really a problem. The city councilors think they are. The chicken owners disagree. The question is thus debatable, so you can join the debate by adopting that question for your essay. As long as evidence is available to help make you a decision, this question could be the start of an essay.

You should do some light research to find out if the question you have in mind really is a question, but don’t spend a lot of time gathering evidence yet. That comes later in the process. For now, it’s enough to confirm that your question is debatable and answerable. If you find that it’s not a good question, be adult about it and try again.

As you start out, you might have an answer in mind for your question. If so, ignore it. Treat that answer like the annoying musician friend who’s been staying in your apartment for the last three weeks to “cheer you up” and shows no signs of leaving. Don’t do anything to encourage it. You need to keep an open mind at this point, and that means setting aside any hunches and focusing just on the evidence. Your question will be a better guide as you gather and consider evidence. A hunch tends to focus your attention on evidence that’s relevant to that idea, but a question lets in all sorts of evidence for consideration. The more evidence you consider, the more thoughtful your answer is likely to become.

With the question of whether chickens are really a problem, you might look for evidence in other newspaper articles. Something like a chicken tax doesn’t make it onto a city council agenda without complaints. Find those complaints. What do the complainers have against chickens? How have the chicken owners responded? If you can’t find anything more about chickens in your city newspaper, then look elsewhere. Your city is nothing special. If chickens have been debated in your city, they’ve been debated in other cities. To see how others might have answered this question in the past, you can look for editorials and letters to the editor.

To dig a little deeper, you might read the actual transcript of the city council meeting to examine the evidence that was reported in the newspaper. Many cities put recordings of their meetings online now. You can listen to the full meeting. That would be fun. In some cases, experts might have already asked the same question and put a lot of time into figuring out good answers. You can examine their answers and reasoning and see how they hold up in your situation.

You might also talk to others who know more than you. With most college assignments, you can talk to your professor to get a better understanding of an issue and find some guidance about where to look for information. This is particularly useful if you do some initial research and don’t find much of anything. Reference librarians in your campus library are good resources, too. Or you may know someone whose job is related to your topic — your family doctor, your lawyer brother-in-law, the retired chicken inspector who moved into the apartment downstairs. Call your city councilor, who is a politician and therefore loves to talk. These local experts can all point you toward good, real-world information.

As a student, it’s unlikely you can do any meaningful, firsthand research. That will come later when you become so overeducated that the only way you can afford food and the Laundromat is by securing federal research grants. Even so, many student writers can’t resist the urge to poll their friends to find out what they think. Those friends are good at keeping you from feeling lonely, but take a good, honest look at them. They aren’t experts when it comes to chickens, city ordinances, public policy, or any other topic. They may give you a few more ideas to consider, but they almost certainly won’t give you useful evidence. Don’t tell them that, of course, but it’s true.

This brings us back to the need for a good question. Once you start digging for evidence, you will quickly learn that it’s not enough to just have a topic. The world is a complicated place, and even an apparently simple topic — chickens, for example — will expand outward in a hundred directions. Many student writers are skeptical of this. We’re talking about chickens, they say. How complicated are chickens?

Foolish student writers! The proposed chicken tax in your city could be the tip of a devious plot by giant chicken farms to put the squeeze on locally produced poultry. It could be a skirmish in a broader class war. It could be a sign of a dramatic demographic shift in your community. Sometimes a chicken is just a chicken, of course, but sometimes a chicken is much more than that. That’s why you follow a question instead of an answer. You have to let as much evidence as possible into your brain so that the evidence will take you wherever you need to go.

At some point, even with a topic as engaging and complex as chickens, you will run out of time for gathering and considering relevant evidence. When that happens, you have to decide how to answer your question. Your decision should be based on two things: your evidence and your honesty. Regarding the raising of chickens within city limits, you might not be too personally invested in the answer. That will make it easier for you to be honest about what the evidence tells you. However, if you’re writing about something that matters a lot to you, and if it’s something you’ve thought about for some time, and if the evidence is now pulling you toward an answer you didn’t expect and don’t like, honesty can be a challenge. Be honest anyway. Don’t be a knucklehead.

Your answer needs to be precise, too. Until you define your answer precisely, you’ve only kind of decided what you think. A vague answer is really just a cluster of potential answers. To answer a question clearly, you need to define the idea clearly. For that, you need to translate the idea into words so that you can tinker with those words and make the idea better. Suppose, for example, that the evidence leads you to this answer:

All chickens should be banned from within the city limits because they are noisy.

That seems reasonable enough, given the evidence at hand. You found plenty of real-world information to confirm that chickens really are noisy. Roosters are the noisiest, but the incessant clucking of the hens can be just as irritating. So say the people who live near the chickens.

But it’s not just the noise that bothers the neighbors. It’s also the smell. Chickens, it turns out, have poor bathroom habits. This leads to a strong smell that hovers over the neighborhood like smog. That’s a part of the answer, too, so you can improve your answer by including that fact in your reasoning:

All chickens should be banned from within the city limits because they are noisy and because they stink up the entire neighborhood.

That’s better. It relies on a broader range of evidence. However, now you remember the article you read about the couple who own a breed of chickens that are mute and can be trained to relieve themselves in kitty litter. That information undercuts your reasons for banning chickens.

If you were still in high school, you would simply ignore these quiet, sweet-smelling chickens and pretend that your idea is invincible. Because you are in college, however, you decide to revise your answer so that it more honestly conforms to the more complex evidence you have gathered and considered:

Chickens should be banned from within the city limits if they are noisy or if they stink up the neighborhood.

This is better. This sentence defines the boundaries of your answer more precisely. It’s an idea you can more honestly defend, too, because it’s a more honest idea. It will work well as the main idea of an essay. The answer still isn’t perfect. It raises questions about implementation of that ordinance: What does it mean to be noisy? What does it mean to stink? Who will judge whether a flock of chickens is noisy or stinky? But that’s a good sign, believe it or not. It means that you are moving into the complexity and complications of reality. Good for you.

Now, at last, it’s time to share your thinking with others by presenting this answer as the main idea of an essay. This step in the process typically breaks down into three stages: planning, drafting, and revising.

Planning

To effectively explain and defend a complex main idea, you need to lay out your thinking in detail and present readers with plenty of evidence. The more clearly you organize your evidence into meaningful patterns, the more likely it is that your readers will see how all the information works together to explain and defend your main idea.

If my former girlfriend had one fault that really got on my nerves, it was the way she moved from point to point to point in some kind of free-association mental universe and then expected me to understand how it all made sense. When I objected, she became furious. “You’re Mr. English Teacher,” she used to say, as if that was an insult. “You tell me what my thesis is.” I wish I had just told her what I was thinking: “I could — if you’d ever learn how to organize your evidence!” That’s a snappier comeback in my mind than it is on paper.

My point, though, is that when someone throws a lot of disorganized information at you, you become confused. You don’t see what all the evidence adds up to — if anything — and you gradually stop listening. To keep this from happening to your readers, you need to carefully inventory all the pieces of the evidence you plan to include in your essay and then arrange them according to an appropriate pattern.

One excellent tool to help you with this is a topic sentence outline. For each paragraph that you plan to write, summarize the purpose of that paragraph in a single, complete sentence. You then arrange those sentences so that the order of presentation makes sense. It might be chronological, for example, or it might move from most to least important idea.

When confronted with the suggestion of a topic sentence outline, student writers will sometimes tell me, I never outline an essay. I just write from a mental outline. With a simple, short paper, that might work. Your mind might be large enough to do this. With a more complex paper, it probably won’t work. To be sure you’re making sense, take five minutes and briefly outline the information that helps to explain your main idea. Five minutes! It takes less time than flossing your teeth, and it won’t make your gums bleed.

Drafting

This is where you put onto paper the actual words that will transfer an idea from your brain into the brains of your readers. Some writers can draft entire essays in their heads and then type them out as final drafts. These writers are so rare, however, that the federal government pays scientists to study them. I’m serious. If nobody’s studying you, then you’re probably not one of these writers. For you, there will be more than one draft.

A good way to start is to draft just the body of your essay. Student writers get way too hung up achieving the perfect opening line. To write the perfect opening line, or just an okay opening, you need to know what’s in the body of the essay. A better starting point, then, is the body of the essay. So write a full paragraph for each point in your topic sentence outline. If you have to expand more important or complex points into multiple paragraphs, then do so. Another option is to write a quick, brief draft of the body and then expand upon and revise that draft until you remove the ineffective and irrelevant bits of information and include enough of the right stuff. The end result should be a set of paragraphs that all work together to present and defend one main idea. Once the body is done, drafting a good opening and closing is much easier.

Drafting often leads you to unexpected discoveries about your topic, your question, your idea, or yourself. Drafting relies on the subconscious mind to gather up the right words, and the subconscious mind, once activated, is creative and unpredictable. You might discover that you need to go back to your question and take another look at what the evidence really says. You might notice a new wrinkle in the evidence, and that might lead you to an even better main idea. You might also see that a big chunk of evidence isn’t actually relevant to your particular question. You might have to junk it. You might have to go back to an earlier step in the process. You might need to reorganize your essay. If drafting shows you that you have to make changes, then make changes. Don’t fall too deeply in love with what you’ve written.

Revising

This word might be used to describe any point at which you go back to an earlier step in the process and improve your idea, your evidence, your organization, or your draft. Revising in its broadest sense means “re-seeing.” I have no quarrel with that broad use of the word, but that’s not how it’s used here. For our purposes, revision is only a matter of stepping back from your draft to polish it up for your audience.

You might introduce your question more colorfully in the opening, for example, or add or subtract bits of evidence to more efficiently defend your answer to the question. You might add a rebuttal to any of the other possible answers that you don’t like as much as your own. In polishing your essay, you might even stumble upon a better answer to the question and thus face more drastic changes. If so, you know what you have to do about that.

Revision includes some focus on the mechanics of the essay, but save most of that until after you are confident of your answer and its argument. You don’t want to spend time worrying about how to spell “accommodate” or where to put a comma when that whole paragraph needs to be eradicated from the essay. You also don’t want to lock in weak or irrelevant paragraphs of evidence by polishing up the punctuation. After you invest a lot of time in polishing garbage, the garbage starts to look pretty good. But it’s still garbage.

Feedback is an important part of revision. Because your essay is trying to take an idea from your brain and put it into the brain of another human, it helps to try the essay out on other humans, such as your professor, an editing group, a smart friend, and so on. This helps you check to see if the idea transfers successfully to other brains. One good thing about my former girlfriend was that she never had a problem telling me what she thought of something I’d written or said. That’s the kind of feedback you should look for — feedback that isn’t worried about your feelings. Don’t ask people if they like your essay. That doesn’t matter, and anyway, most of them will say that they like it so that you will leave them alone. Instead, ask them what they think your main idea is. If they can tell you, and if it is your main idea, then you’ve written a good essay because the main idea transferred successfully to their brains.

Student writers sometimes find it difficult to open up to feedback. They think that criticism of something they’ve written is criticism of their intelligence or personality. But it’s not like that. What you’ve written is just that — something you’ve written. It’s not you. It’s not your intelligence. It’s not a price tag on which is stamped your value to the world. And listen, even if the essay’s great, it’s not as good as your writing will be later on. It’s just an artifact of where you are right now as a writer. If you can accept that your essay is just this thing you did, like the plastic ice scraper you made in eighth-grade shop class — which by the way was a pretty decent ice scraper — it’s easier to take and benefit from the feedback.

This stage is over when the entire process is over — when you give your essay to its readers.

The Writing Process for You

In the end, and in seeming contradiction to the start of this chapter, you will have to discover a writing process that works specifically for you. This is the work of your brain, after all, and no two brains are alike. Brains, in this regard, are like snowflakes.

You should start with the four-step process of finding a good question, considering relevant evidence, deciding on an answer, and presenting your answer to others. This is how argument works. It’s been working this way for thousands of years, and there’s no reason to think that will change in your lifetime. However, as you get comfortable with this process, you should adapt and refine it so that it works best for your particular situation and habits.

You might find that the hardest step for you is coming up with a good question, and that talking to your friends — regardless of how I’ve trashed them in this chapter — is a great help. So be it. Good for you. Adapt the process to include them if that’s what it takes to get started. You might find that having your own special writing place is important, or that noise levels are a factor. You might need music or complete silence. You might need to turn off the television. It’s good to figure these things out. Respect those discoveries and revise your writing process to include those conditions and precautions.

Some writers have turned to opium or grain alcohol to get started. That can get you started, all right, but it can also get you into the county jail for the weekend, followed by twelve to fifteen Sunday mornings of picking up trash in an orange vest. So be careful with your writing process. Don’t risk too much.

If you try to use this four-step process and it doesn’t go anywhere, don’t panic. Above all, don’t go back to any not-so-thoughtful processes from the past. Instead, talk to your writing professor. Most writing professors collect tricks for jump-starting writers at various stages of the writing process. If you don’t have a writing professor, you can always search the Internet with these key phrases: “writing arguments” or “the writing process.” A lot of what you find will be junk, of course, but you might also find just the right trick to get started.

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