Prepare for your assignment:
1) If you can, read the assigned work at least twice. The first time, read it straight through, just to experience it. Then, if you have time, read it again. This time, if the book is yours, as you read use two different colored highlighters: one color to mark passages that confuse you and the other to mark passages that seem to show what the story/play/novel is about (the theme). If you don’t own the book, use those little Post-It Note “flags” in two colors to indicate these passages. When you’re done, if you still have questions about the sections you highlighted/flagged, ask your teacher or a friend for help. Also, copy down the passages you highlighted/flagged as examples of the story’s theme onto a piece of paper to be used later for outlining/pre-writing.
2) Make sure you understand the assignment. Really! Many a good student has gotten a poor grade on an essay or report because they assumed they knew what the teacher wanted. If you have the assignment in writing, read it thoroughly before you leave class. If your teacher announced the assignment and you wrote it down, read it to make sure it makes sense. Ask questions if there’s anything you’re unclear on, including terms the teacher used, the length, the purpose of the assignment, the due date, and what resources you might be able to use (i.e., see a movie version to help you understand the work better, read a study guide, work in groups, do research about the work on the Internet, etc.).
Write your assignment:
1) Allow plenty of time for the pre-writing, or outlining, process. This valuable time helps you “discover” what you want to say about what you’ve read. There are many ways to handle this process. For a research paper or long essay, some people prefer a formal outline: a main heading followed by a list of subtopics, and so on.
For a shorter assignment, or if you’re more of a “right brain” person, you might try organizing your thoughts by using a “mind map.” You can Google mind map and find many examples, but the key element here is branching. You draw a big circle in the center of a sheet of paper, and write the main idea inside it. For example, if you were writing a character sketch about Romeo, from “Romeo and Juliet,” you’d write “ROMEO” in the big circle. Then, draw lines branching out from the circle, and attach a word that you associate with Romeo to the end of each branch. For instance, you might write “brave” or “romantic.” Then, from each of those words, draw another branch, and attach an example of bravery, or romance, that occurs in the play. For example, you could write “balcony scene” under “romantic.” To make it easier on yourself when you come to the writing stage, note the page number and/or scene number of the example.
This approach allows you to get more and more specific with your ideas until you come to concrete examples—i.e., the scenes or passages that show the character in action, etc. And you know how teachers love concrete examples!
2) Write your first draft quickly. Notice I say “first” draft. This implies that you’ll have time to do a second draft, which is always recommended. (Even professional writers do multiple drafts!) If you have put in the legwork during the pre-writing process, then the first draft should be easier to write. At this point, it’s important to banish the critical “editor” that sits on our shoulder and says discouraging things to us as we write. The writing and revising stages are distinctly different, and draw upon different parts of our brain. There will be plenty of work for the critical editor to do during the final phase of your assignment, so tell him or her to chill!
One way to lose the critical editor is to do what is called “timed writing.” Choose a section of your paper to focus on, set a kitchen timer for 20 minutes, and just sit down and write without stopping. Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation or spelling at this point; just get your thoughts down on paper. Repeat this process until you have addressed all the items on your outline or mind map. Ta-da! You have a first draft!
3) Do a revision (especially if you have followed the above advice and done your first draft quickly). Remember, revision means to “re-see” or “see again.” It’s most helpful if you can sit on your first draft for a day or so, or at least a few hours. Doing this gives you the perspective you need to edit, because you aren’t as attached to your writing as you were when you’d just finished it!
Here’s a quick revision/editing check list:
- Does this say what I intended it to say? (Don’t worry about perfectly “matching” your outline or mind map. Often the process of writing clarifies our thinking even more, and we don’t have to be tied to our original. But the essay should make sense to you.)
- Do I have enough “evidence” to back up my assertions? (i.e., if I say Romeo is romantic, do I describe the balcony scene between him and Juliet as an example of that, etc.) Most teachers specify how many examples to use; if they don’t, a good guideline would be two or three per point you make.
- Have I followed my teacher’s guidelines in terms of what the paper should include and how long it is?
- Do I have a decent introduction and conclusion so that the reader is drawn into the essay and has a feeling of “closure” after reading it?
- Are my paragraphs well-balanced, each one beginning with a strong topic sentence?
- Is my spelling correct, even names of characters?
- Do I have any awkward sentences, which may signal a grammatical error? (Read the paper aloud or have someone read it to you. You might be able to more easily spot problems this way.)
- Do I have commas where there is a pause like there would be in conversation, or between clauses or “items in a list?” (One of the best and funniest—yes funny—books on punctuation is “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” by Lynne Truss. I recommend it!)
- Are my sentences “wordy”? Every word should be there for a reason.
- Do I use the “active voice” more often than the “passive voice”? (Example of passive voice: “The invoice was processed by Melissa.” Active voice: “Melissa processed the invoice.” Which sounds better?)
“The Elements of Style,” by William Strunk and E.B. White. A very short book—85 pages—on improving your writing. A classic!
“Eats, Shoots & Leaves,” by Lynne Truss. Kind of snarky, but you’ll know how to use commas after you read this.