Getting Started: Writing the Best Essay Possible
One way to generate useful material in an early draft is to ask yourself a lot of questions about different aspects of your project, from audience to topic to perspectives on the topic.
- Who is your audience?
- Is there more than one audience? For instance, you may be writing both for your peers and for your instructor. You may be writing for your clients, but also for your supervisor at the same time. Maybe the criteria of your primary audience will include the way you address the secondary audience.
- What do these audiences want or need from your writing project? What instructions or criteria has your audience given you in a written assignment, in a memo, in class, in meetings? Think about the context in which they’ll be reading your writing. What can you do that will please them the most?
- What do you know about this topic right now?
- How and where did you learn about it?
- What aspects of the topic don’t you know about?
- What aspects of the topic are you most curious about?
- For each answer, ask WHY?
Keep returning to those questions as you explore the topic further. Write down your answers and generate more questions from them. As you go through this process, keep your eyes peeled for a question that targets an interesting aspect of the topic and that can also generate a debatable answer—this will become your thesis.
Topic + Audience
Now address some questions that unite these two crucial aspects of your project:
- What does your audience already know about the topic?
- How might you get them interested in the topic or your perspective on it?
- What might you tell them about this topic that they don’t already know?
- What questions would they ask you?
- How might you answer them?
These questions are sometimes referred to by the band-like name “The 5Ws and an H.” They’re useful for giving you a solid sense of what happened—the basics of the events or phenomena you’re writing about. They’re called the “journalistic questions” because they’re the ones a reporter starts with—and a good news story will answer all of them, at least provisionally.
The All-Important Question: “So What?”
When you’re working on an analytic or persuasive piece of writing, you do need to go beyond the basic “What happened?” queries. Whether you’re writing a research paper for English, a marketing plan or an engineering design proposal, you’ll need to answer a 7th question:
Your answer to this question will highlight what’s important about the topic and your perspective on it. The way you answer the big “So what?” will lay the foundation of your thesis.
This is a method of considering your subject from six different points of view. It can lead to surprisingly original and revealing discoveries that will jump-start your project.
- What color, shape, size, etc. is it? (Describe it.)
- What is it similar to? (Compare it.)
- What does it make you think of? (Associate it.)
- How is it made? (Analyze it.)
- What can you do with it? How can it be used? (Apply it.)
- Are you for or against it? (Argue it.)
Write your answers to these questions and then go through what you’ve said. What do the answers reveal about your knowledge and opinions of the topic? What do you find most surprising or thought-provoking in your answers? Consider how you can use these answers to develop a more interesting or debatable perspective on your topic. What clues do they give about how your answer to the big “So what?” question might be amplified?