Perhaps the hardest part of any essay is just getting started. We stare at the screen, sometimes into the small hours of the night, hoping for that brilliant first line that will captivate our reader and get our ideas moving in the right direction.
Sometimes, toughing it out in search of the perfect word is precisely what the occasion calls for. Still, over the course of the academic year, staying up all hours isn’t exactly sustainable. There are, in fact, much better ways to begin.
ASK A GOOD QUESTION
If ever you find yourself stuck for a starting place, give up the search for the perfect first line and try asking a question first. While it may not always seem obvious, most every essay is actually the answer to one or more questions. These questions are the key to the prewriting process, which is everything you should do before you actually begin to write.
Professors value essays that are especially well focused. They are more difficult to write, and, therefore, often result in a higher grade.
Here are just a few of the questions that my students have asked in recent years:
What was dental hygiene like in nineteenth-century England?
Do community gardens have the potential to reduce food scarcity among lower-income families?
What is the best strategy for reducing air pollution in Southwestern Ontario?
What does the green light at the end of The Great Gatsby signify?
What does it tell us about Jay Gatsby’s relationship with Daisy, and, more broadly, about the time and place that Fitzgerald’s novel evokes?
By turning a general topic into a specific question, you’re giving yourself something to guide both your writing and your research.
Asking a question at the outset makes the entire writing process easier, since you know precisely what you are doing: you aren’t just writing a movie review in response to a general set of topics; you’re answering a specific question.
If you’d like to try this approach, here are some tips on crafting a successful question:
MAKE IT SPECIFIC.
The more specific your question is, the more focused your essay will be. One trick you can try is to start with a very general question, and then to qualify it until you arrive at one that works. For example:
- What do quilts signify?
- What doe quilts signify to women?
- What do quilts signify to Canadian women?
- What did quilts signify to women in nineteenth-century Canada?
- What did quilts signify to women in nineteenth-century Atlantic Canada?
The specificity of your question depends to a significant degree on the level of the course you are taking. The last of these questions, for instance, would be especially challenging to answer. In fact, it’s the sort of question that a student in a fourth-year seminar on Atlantic Canadian History might ask.
Still, you should know that professors value essays that are especially well focused. They are more difficult to write, and, therefore, often result in a higher grade.
KEEP IT SIMPLE.
Ask a question that someone who knows very little about your area of interest could easily appreciate. He or she should be able to say: “Hey, that’s a good question.”
In other words: make it forthright, concise, and accessible to others.
Asking a question at the outset makes the entire writing process easier, since you know precisely what you are doing: you aren’t just writing in response to a general set of topics; you’re answering a specific question.
TAILOR IT TO THE LENGTH OF THE ASSIGNMENT.
Make sure you can answer your question within the word limit that you are working with. If you can’t do justice to your question within the space that you have, refine it further. Conversely, if you’re stuck on page five of a ten-page paper, maybe it’s time to broaden your question a bit.
MAKE SURE IT’S APPROPRIATE FOR THE COURSE.
Your question should speak to the topics that you’re covering in class, or should at least reflect in some way the material that your professor is trying to teach. The easiest way to ensure that it does is simply to ask your professor what he or she thinks of your question. Most professors will be delighted that you thought to ask, and perhaps even have some thoughts on how you might improve it.
PURSUE SOMETHING THAT YOU GENUINELY FIND INTERESTING.
I can’t stress this enough: if you don’t find your question interesting, your reader won’t either. While it may be difficult in some classes to pursue your interests at all times, but you should at least still strive to do so. It’s been my experience that students who write about things they’re passionate about stand a much better chance of producing a successful essay.
BE BOLD: ASK A QUESTION THAT YOU CAN’T ANSWER (YET)
Last but not least, your question shouldn’t be something you can’t already answer. You may have an inkling of what the results will be, but you’ll be bored out of your wits if you already know for certain, and that boredom will show through your writing.
Grab a friend or a family member and tell them what your question is. Tell them about the course that you’re taking, the assignment itself, and then explain why you chose this particular question. They may not have a great deal of feedback for you, but just saying these things out loud sometimes can clarify our thinking or lead us in new direction. There’s also a chance you may luck out, too, and end up having a great conversation that grants you new perspective.
Take a break from the search for the perfect first line and embrace the prewriting process, which for many students starts with asking question. You can call it a research question, or an initial question, or whatever you like.
What matters most is that you take a chance and ask a question to which you do not know the answer.
It will make the process of writing the essay itself one of discovery and new possibilities, which is, after all, why we go to university in the first place.