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How to make essay writing not quite so scary

I recently came upon a blog post from H.E. History Hub (a terrific blog focused primarily upon issues related to students and teachers of history) titled, “Five things you need to think about when starting your dissertation.” As a student of American Studies with a master’s degree and a peer-reviewed academic book under my belt, I well understand both the more exciting and interesting elements of academic writing as well as just how terrifying, anxiety-riddled, and difficult it can be. Moreover, for many students (who are never taught time management skills but are instead all too often left to try and reinvent the wheel for themselves), learning how to organize oneself and give oneself the time necessary to read, take notes, research, and truly think over all the issues before ever putting pen to paper (or finger to key, I suppose), is the true bugaboo. True writing—academic or otherwise—must begin with hours, even days, (in some cases, even weeks) of reading and research before any actual writing takes place.

But I, like H.E. History Hub, am here to tell you that essays of any length—whether it’s a 5-pager for your freshman high school English teacher or a 10,000 word long dissertation for your PhD—are well within your reach and capability; it’s all a matter of:

1) Making your essay topic interesting to you;

2) Being diligent and creative about your research;

3) Reaching out to supervisors, teachers, and mentors;

and 4) Working hard and having faith in yourself.

Now, all of these things may seem either obvious or impossible, but I guarantee that neither is accurate. For college students, the freedom many professors offer regarding essay topic and style can be at once liberating (given the more restrictive nature of the models employed by most high school teachers) and yet overwhelming by the same token. For high school students, the number of restrictions and limitations imposed by teachers can be at once stifling as well as useful and helpful (as sometimes constraints are necessary to both hone basic skills and inspire true creativity).

There is a middle ground here, however, because no matter how wide or narrow your allotted scope, no matter your current writing skill level, you basically always have the room and abilities necessary to make the topic interesting to you—it just means that you’ll have to be willing to take the time to get creative with topics and assignments that may, at first, seem boring/irrelevant/useless/long/busywork/too hard/pointless/etc. Even those short 1 to 5 page assignments (those often frustrating ones that can seem disconnected from everything useful) can be used as stepping stones to bigger and better things if you give them the time and attention necessary. Think of these shorter assignments not as busywork but as opportunities to explore new ground and/or build up research for some future project(s).

And trust me, I understand that it’s super tough to dedicate extra time, resources, and feeling to projects that seem intended for you to fail or be bored out of your mind, but if you’re willing to make the leap, to pay the dues, and wear the Essay Writing Club t-shirt, then it’ll pay off—if not today, then tomorrow, but I promise: It Will Pay Off.

The first thing to know is that, while all rumor and chatter seems to suggest the contrary, high school and college are the places to take risks—to try research, arguments, and styles that may seem odd, that may get you a couple not-so-awesome grades in the short-run, but which might just also blossom into something original, strong, and lasting. Digest that. Let yourself get comfortable with the simple truth that a few bad grades won’t irreparably damage your career dreams but that being timid in your scholarly studies, explorations, and writings just might.

 

Image All digested? Ready to plow forward? Good.

Next step: Leap. Take that strange family tree/ancestry assignment and turn it on its seemingly-clichéd head. Conduct a full-scale oral history of all the extended family members you can get a hold of. While a handful of relatives might bore you, while learning to transcribe recordings to paper might drive you crazy, there will be a relative out there who fascinates and surprises; there will be a teacher so impressed with your efforts that they help you bring the project forward in a new way; there will be something new in the process of collection, interview, transcription, and analysis that arrests you and leads you down a new path of exploration and understanding—there will be something to reward you for your risks and efforts.

Of course, if you looked closely, taking that big leap required a great many smaller leaps pieced together:

  • Deciding to go above-and-beyond for a simplistic-seeming or clichéd-seeming project
  • Finding a way to make it happen: finding/borrowing/renting/buying the necessary equipment to record and conduct formal interviews (*cough*libraries are great for finding these kinds of supplies*cough*)
  • Getting outside of yourself and Starbucks to conduct some real primary research by finding and contacting all of those family members and getting signed agreements to have their stories recorded
  • Organizing your time and resources around the needs of others and restrictive research
  • Learning to be delicate and respectful while still clear and uncompromising in all elements and stages of your research and writing
  • Learning to take things that are close and personal to you and analyze them for the benefit of others and all involved
  • Learning that not all research can be utilized in a written work, even if it’s fascinating or on-point (especially when human subjects are involved)

The list goes on and on…

In other words, as Nate Kreuter of Inside Higher Ed so wisely said in his article, “Conquering Writing Anxiety,”

Sometimes [writing] anxiety can become so pronounced that it makes a meaningful cut into our productivity. But, like all anxieties, writing-related anxieties live in the mind, and can be overcome.”

Whether you’re approaching your dissertation or your first high school-level essay, writing anxieties and frustrations hit everyone, and the first step to overcoming such obstacles is to make the decision to do so.

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