Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A Novelist's Approach To Essays Part 2: Essay Vs. Fiction

In my last post, I discussed the process by which I write academic papers.  It's a process that has been honed and perfected throughout my high school years, making essay-writing less inefficient, and possibly a little less stressful.  You can read the entire thing right here, complete with screenshots of each stage in the process.  Academic writing isn't noveling, but I've found that being a novelist gives me an advantage when writing for school.

What do essays have in common with novels, though?  Aren't they different?

Yes, there is a fundamental difference between the two.  A novel is a story, told in the voice of a perfectly unique character.  In other words, told however you, the writer, want to tell it.  It goes wherever you want, and its only limits are the ones you impose on it.  An essay is so much more restricted.  You have to use an academic voice.  You have to stick to an established storyline or topic, which you can't change on a whim.

Even so, being a novelist gives you an advantage when writing essays.  You're one step ahead of everyone else.  You've probably had more practice writing than most, if not all, of your classmates.  It's probably a little faster, a little more natural for you.  You've drilled aspects like show-don't-tell, active voice, using strong words, etc., into your novel writing, and now is not the time to abandon these things.  All these rules still apply to essays.

Just because it's a formal essay does not mean you have to abandon your creativity.  So many times, we think we have to use stuffy, formal, boring language in our essays.  The opposite is true.  You can still use fun, colorful words.  Novel readers don't want to read about anger, sadness, and happiness.  We want to read about wrath, melancholy, and elation.  The same applies to whoever is grading your essay.  Your essay can use the same varied and creative sentence structures, detailed word choices, and unique ideas as in your novels.

In a way, you're still telling a story.  Think of what you're doing when you tell a story: you introduce a character to your audience, put him or her through a series of tests, and bring them out on the other side, into some kind of outcome, positive or negative.  An essay is similar.  You're taking an idea, presenting it to your reader, proving that its logic is sound, and concluding it in a way that will resonate with people.


Don't be afraid of strong emotions in your essays.  Yes, you have to retain an academic level of detachment.  But it doesn't need to be dry.  Don't tell us that Aureliano is solitary.  Paint us a picture of Aureliano working alone in his laboratory, long into the night; living within a chalk circle that no one else may enter; shooting himself, but failing at even that.  Evoke something emotional in your audience.  Prove to them that you believe in what you're writing, and that they should, too.  Otherwise, what's the point?  Even if you have to fake the emotion, go for it.  You're a novelist, after all.  You specialize in conjuring emotions that do not technically exist.

You don't need to go into this with the goal of proving some stiff, dull academic thesis.  Have a goal of creating a clear image in your teacher's head of your ideas; of making them feel at least the tiniest hint of emotions.  If you can care, show it.  If you can't care, fake it.  In the end, your teacher doesn't care if you care.  What's important is your ability to make people think you care.

Throughout high school, I have learned that caring gets me better paper grades.  Last fall, I had to write a personal response to Dante's The Inferno.  I had strong opinions about the piece.  Most of them involved wanting to see Dante get a taste of his own medicine.  That particular assignment allowed me to express my indignation, so I let it all out.  In an academic style, of course, but you could say that I was still ranting, in a way.  And I got a perfect score on that particular paper.

No matter the topic, you can find something to go on, either to care or to fake-care.  Say you're proving that Piggy's glasses symbolize wisdom and clarity--unoriginal and boring, right?  But you're a writer, so wisdom and learning are obviously important to you.  And then, maybe, you've found a connection point.  Maybe you're writing about the role of fate in Oedipus the King.  How would you feel if you were fated to kill your father and marry your mother and inspire some truly strange Freudian ideas?  Channel some of this.  It's all in how you look at it.

Essay writing will never be as fun as novel writing.  That's okay.  You can make it better, though, by not keeping the two entirely separate.  Fiction writing techniques can carry over into academic writing.  You still want it to be engaging, even if you're writing about the symbolism of water in Crime & Punishment.  If nothing else, imagine that the Dead Poets Society boys are staring down at you like the GIF below while you write your essay, expecting something worthy of their reading.  I don't know why this might help, but I like the idea of it, so...here it is.   

If you want to read a little more about essay writing, here's a fabulous article, literally titled "How To Write A Great Essay About Anything".  It uses ancient military tactics invented by the Spartans as an effective way to write an essay.  It is quite possibly the best essay advice I have ever come across.

How do you use fiction techniques in essay writing?  How do you make the process more interesting and enjoyable?  
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2 comments:

  1. I'm actually a high school senior myself (though I graduate in two weeks! Beginning of June!), and have written too many essays of my own. Your method looks a lot better than my own, though to be fair I am an AP English student and generally have 40 minutes to both come up with ideas and write the full essay. Thankfully, they're expected to be rough drafts, so I actually get top-score papers. And I do credit it towards all of the writing I do. After awhile, you just sort of soak up the ability to write varied sentence structures and higher-level word choice, from all of the books you read and the stories you write.

    But, well, I admit it: I often have a hard time drawing a connection between writing fiction and writing essays. I actually took an AP Literature course this year, and I quickly learned that writing fiction and writing about fiction are two separate styles. I never memorized quotes or did too much note-taking, except when required, because I am so used to being able to absorb what the author is implying (since I read mostly regular fiction, not literary). And it generally worked alright, since really, it's connecting the book's themes to the prompt. But while I do apply plenty of that soaked-up grammar and structure to my essays, they were always dry to write. (Not that my AP Lit teacher agreed, considering my high scores.) I've just always considered it tedious to copy out someone else's words, even if I'm using the quote as evidence of my own educated opinion on the meaning of the work as a whole.

    But I guess in the end, fiction writing and essay writing are, as you said, about bringing emotion to the piece, even if you are ambivalent towards the topic. When there's only 40 minutes, I manage to formulate the ideas, the emotion, and the meaning behind the theme and the way the author says it, in order to just lay it all out in a somewhat haphazard fashion. Which is also what I've done for the (several) drafts of my novel. And the good thing is, it often comes out somewhat coherently, no doubt because of my writing and reading.

    I suppose really, one of the main differences I see is that in my own writing, I am free to be implicit about whatever topic I choose. In essay writing, I must be explicit about someone else's work. And that is what prevents me from fully grasping the connection between the two, because it's such a huge difference.

    (I did not mean to make this comment so long. I feel somewhat like I just wrote a blog post in response to yours. But anyways, what I really meant to say with this is: thank you for highlighting the similarities in writing fiction and writing essays, because I too often look at the differences.)

    Have a blessed day!

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    1. I'm also took AP English (lit & comp). This was definitely not my process for the essays on the AP exam. For those, I just wrote quick outlines that consisted of one or two words for each main idea, just so I knew what the paragraphs would be about. After that, I just madly started writing. Hopefully it worked.

      I was taught to use quotes only when the author said or described something better than I could myself. It's more that if an author uses a metaphor or a special sort of description rather than just saying "he was mad", then I use the quote. If nothing else, my teachers like to see actual evidence from the text itself to prove whatever point I'm making, so this is a way of doing just that. It also helps the show vs. tell problem, for me.

      I definitely believe that doing so much "outside" reading and writing helps with school essays. If nothing else, it exposes you to vocabulary, ideas, and sentence structures that you may have never come across otherwise, and this all contributes to an interesting essay.

      Thanks for commenting! I like long comments, actually--they spark conversations! You're always free to leave long comments. Or short comments. Or whatever you want.

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