Practice, trial-and-error, maturity, and time improved the quality of my essays. Developing a solid system, one that works for me, improved the speed at which I complete them. I'm a novelist, so I've had enough practice to allow me to write a little faster than others, but what helped me more than anything was streamlining my process.
First, I'll go through and discuss my process, from idea to final draft. Then, in Part 2, I'll talk about how writing an essay and writing a novel are not completely unrelated, and how fiction writers can approach this type of nonfiction.
How To Write An Essay, The Annie Method
Step 1: Ideas
As with novel writing (noveling?), the first step is always to come up with your idea. I like to jot down ideas as we discuss a book in class. If there's an aspect that grabs your interest as you read, make note of it. Tracking your ideas as you read makes it easier to gather your thoughts once you actually start to work on the paper.
Step 2: Outline
In middle school, I couldn't work with outlines. I was a paper first, outline later (never if not if required) type of person. Part of this was probably due to the fact that the outlines had to have certain things and look a certain way that didn't necessarily make sense to me. Now, however, I can't write an essay without one. I don't do anything fancy, format-wise. I pull up a Word document and start a numbered list with Roman numerals. From there, each numeral is a paragraph. I then add extra details to the subheadings. It's not polished--I jot down every detail that comes into my head.
Now is the time to look for quotes. Textual evidence, if you want to be scholarly about it. I go through the entire novel and locate any chapters or sections that are relevant to my paper. For example, when I wrote my essay on Crime and Punishment, I was writing about two characters, Sonya and Dunya. I found all the sections that they were in, and ignored everything else. Yes, it involved paging through the entire book. Yes, it's worth it. Once I identified all the important sections, I copied any relevant quotes into my outline, to be used in the paper. In some cases, I also used page tabs to mark the places where I found these quotes (for this, I used a different color tab for each character). My copy of C&P ended up looking like this:
My outline for 100 Years ended up like this (it's not the whole thing--just the first page of the Word document):
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Obviously, these are just bullet points rather than full sentences to be used. The ideas are there, though, which makes it so much easier to flesh them out once I start the draft.
(Optional) Step 2.5: Second Outline
In some cases, my quote-gathering process gets a bit chaotic, and ends up with a huge, unorganized list of quotes instead of a neat outline. When this happens, I start another outline, and paste each quote into the place I want it. Sometimes, this is just easier than trying to rearrange the current outline.
Step 3: The First Draft
This is the lengthiest portion of the process. However, I've found that having all my quotes gathered into an outline ahead of time makes it so much faster. When I do this, I have two documents open in separate windows on my computer. I open up the outline on one side, and the first draft on the other. This lets me copy directly from the outline, and type while reading from it, instead of having to switch between windows, which is annoying. It looks like this (click for larger image):
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If the two windows don't quite fit on your screen, I'd suggest reducing the margins of each page, at least temporarily.
Step 4: Print and Attack with Pen
After I've completed a first draft, I print out the essay so that I can make marks all over it with my editing pen. Ideally, you should wait a little while before starting this, so the essay has some time to sit in your mind--a few hours, even a day. Let's face it, though: you probably don't have that much time. I've been there. In that case, print it out and go right ahead.
Now, the point is to destroy everything you've written. Your words are not carved into a stone tablet--in order to change them, all you need to do is hit the delete key. When you read it through, pen in hand, mark anything that needs to be changed. Watch for ideas that need fleshing out, paragraphs that should be rearranged, awkward wordings, passive voice, typos, MLA mistakes, etc. Essentially, you're looking for the same things as you would when editing a novel, except that the rules here are stricter, and there are a few added things. Don't be shy about marking it up. The harder you are on yourself, the better the final draft will be. My general rule is this: if I can't (at least faintly) smell the ink from the pen I'm using, my editing is not thorough enough. (In other words, breathing possibly harmful fumes=good, in this case.)
Step 5: Final Draft
Now that you've made edits onto your printed copy, it's time to transfer these edits back into the digital document. This also gives you the opportunity to do one last readthrough as you're making the changes, to catch anything that you might've missed on the print copy. After you're satisfied that every word looks the way it should, you're done!
It's time to eat some chocolate. Or throw yourself a mini one-person party. Or cry, depending on your situation. Maybe a bit of all three.
In this post, I've covered just the process. In Part 2, I'll talk more about how fiction writing and essay writing aren't entirely separate, and how to appeal to your writerly strengths.
What is your essay process like? Are there any steps you would add? Have you tried these steps?