Unfortunately, many students are in a hurry to get their essays written so they can just forget about them.  They don't want to spend much time thinking about their topic, talking about it, reading about it.  Often they have chosen (or gotten stuck with) topics that they would rather not spend five minutes thinking about, much less hours or days.

I have often had students say to me that they are bored with the topic of an essay they have been working on, even if they started off enthusiastic about it.  In other words, they can only bear to write about a subject that they have given little or no thought to!

There is only one way to handle this problem of getting tired of your topic: deal with it.  If a student wants to earn a good grade on an essay, he should be prepared sometimes to act like a student and do the work necessary to perform well.  If that means spending more time than he likes analyzing and/or researching a topic he doesn't care for, then tough.  He can chalk it up as a character-building exercise, and consider the valuable analytical and research skills he learns along the way to be an extra bonus.

Life isn't all fun and games.  Sometimes it's work, even downright drudgery.  And that's true of school, too.

to section 2 on "Development" (Completeness)

to section 3 on "Development" (Balance and Proportion)

VI. Development  (*There are three pages to this unit on development.  The links to subsequent pages are at the bottom of each page.)

Warning:  This is, of necessity, a very "well-developed" section.  It will be longer than the other sections in this series on good writing, so you might want to read it in parts. 

In general, the development of an essay should have these attributes.  It should be concrete, specific, and detailed.  It should also be "complete," in the sense that an intelligent reader will come away from the essay feeling that the topic has been adequately developed, that none of the essential aspects of the topic have been ignored and none of the implied questions raised by the author have gone unanswered.  The development of the essay should also have balance and proportion.

Concrete, Specific, and Detailed?

When I grade a student essay, I so frequently have to mark aspects of the essay's development as vague and general that for years I have simply used the abbreviation "V&G" for that comment.  If I were to write out the entire phrase every time I use it, my grading would take up many additional hours!

What constitutes specific development as opposed to vague and general development is one of the hardest things for student writers to learn.  It is also one of the most important.

A.  Discovery: Generating Ideas

The first stage of the writing process, the prewriting stage, includes a phase called discovery, the methods by which the writer generates content, to produce the sort of concrete, specific, detailed development that is essential to a successful essay.

One reason student writing is so often vague and general is that they begin writing the actual essay far too early in the writing process, before they really have anything much to say on their chosen subject.

When the writer first comes up with an idea for his essay, whether he does so out of the blue or in response to an assigned topic, his conceptualization of that idea may not yet be completely formed.  Depending on the level of the writer's skill and his knowledge and experience in the subject he wishes to write about, this conceptualization might be close to complete, or it might be so vague and fuzzy as to be nothing more than an urge in the direction of a possible idea.

For example, when I decide to write an article for this website or for my "Grammar and Usage for the Non-Expert" website, I usually am responding to problems that I see in my students' writing or to a question that a reader has posed.  Because such articles are a direct response to a specific problem, I don't have to do too much in the way of narrowing and focusing my approach.  The boundaries of my topic are inherent in the need the essay is written to meet. 

Since grammar and essay-writing are subjects that I have been teaching for thirty years, I don't have to do any research or brainstorming to figure out what I want to say.  I already know what points I need to make, and after thirty years of explaining these points to my students, I have a pretty good idea of how I want to explain them.  I don't have much left to "discover" on these topics.

Nevertheless, I sometimes will skim the relevant sections in a number of books on composition, not to learn anything new, because I have long since mastered the subject of those books, but rather as a form of "seeding."  Just as clouds are seeded to precipitate rain, and just as a solution can be seeded so that the elements in it suddenly crystallize, I review what other people have said on my subject to refocus and crystallize my own approach.

I also will sometimes jot down loose notes off the top of my head, the same way you might jot down a grocery list on the run, not as a way of comprehensively outlining everything you need to buy, but as a way of making sure you don't forget anything important.  My notes are such reminders, and they too act as seeds for my thoughts to crystallize around. 

Sometimes a student is assigned a topic, or chooses one, that he is so knowledgeable about and so prepared to explain or argue that he doesn't need to do much more than jot down a handful of key words to remind himself not to leave out anything important as he races to get his thoughts down on paper.  Does this sound implausible?  Well, let me give you an example. 

You have been studying diligently for a history exam.  You feel you have a solid grasp of the subject and are well-prepared to respond to any essay question the teacher might throw at you.  When you see the essay question on the exam, you almost jump out of your seat with delight.  You know this stuff, and you can hardly wait to begin explaining it to prove how well you know it. 

How do you start?  Most people would automatically jot down a handful of key words in the margin of the exam or on a sheet of scratch paper and then begin writing, perhaps glancing at the list of words to remind themselves of what they need to cover, or perhaps not.  Often, the act of jotting those words down is all it takes to crystallize your ideas so that they can be delivered fully formed on the paper.

This is a common procedure when the writer already knows his subject so well that he has no doubt of how to convey it.  When a person does know something that well, he is usually full of examples, points, details, and explanations to illustrate, clarify, or develop those points.  Get anyone talking about his own hobby or any other favorite subject, and you will hear a wealth of detail. 

It's only when we aren't all that sure about our subject that we have trouble coming up with specific, plausible, and interesting things to say about it.

Unfortunately, many student writers begin to draft their essays long before they really understand their subject well enough to have anything worthwhile to say about it.  As a consequence, they revert automatically to vague generalizations of the sort that I stamp "V&G" all over.  When that happens, it is certain that they have neglected the discovery phase of their writing.

One solution to this problem is for students to choose topics they know very well and really care about, especially if they have already thought about the subject over a period of time and perhaps read about it or discussed it with other people.  It is especially helpful if they have argued the topic with those who disagree with their point of view, as long as they have not cavalierly dismissed opposition and thoughtlessly hardened their own attitudes, so that no evidence or argument, however convincing or rational, could ever make them reconsider their stance.  (I deal with this danger in my articles "Don't Get Emotionally Attached to Your Own Opinion" and "Don't Get Emotionally Attached to Your Own Opinion: Part II," on my "Teacher, Teacher" website.)

Recently Brian, a student in my English 101 class, confessed to me that he hated writing essays.  He had actually dropped out of English 101 the previous semester because he was on the verge of failing the course.

When he had to choose his own topics for the first two essay assignments for my class, he was stymied.  He couldn't think of a single thing to write about.  (You know, the deer-in-the-headlights syndrome).  He didn't even have that vague urge in the direction of a possible idea that I mentioned above.

But after talking with him and drawing him out about a few things, I was able to help Brian focus on two topics that he cared enough about to actually want to write on them.  The topic we settled on for his first essay was the idea that many high school students would benefit from having a year or more away from school before starting college.  The topic we chose for the second paper was the anti-hunting movement.

Brian himself had wanted desperately to postpone college for a while, but his parents had insisted that he go immediately after high school, so this subject was one he cared deeply about and wanted to argue.  He is also an avid hunter, and he feels that most people who protest hunting are unaware of why hunters hunt, and of the fact that hunters do more than almost any other group to maintain wildlife habitat and to ensure the welfare of game species in the wild.  Thus the choice of topic for the second essay.

But although he had strong feelings about the issue of postponing college, he had not really thought it through or talked about it, so he needed to do a fair amount of discovery before he would be ready to write that essay.  All he had to start with was the rather general assertion that a lot of kids are not ready for college right after high school, and that a year off from school would be a good idea for many students.  The "idea" for this essay was really more of an unexamined feeling than an idea.

On the anti-hunting issue, though, Brian was ready, ready, ready!  He had argued this point on many occasions with those who were repelled by the idea of hunting and those who accused hunters of being callous killers.  He had also frequently discussed the issue with his fellow hunters.  He knew what the anti-hunter arguments were, and he knew what answers he had to give those who raised such arguments.

It didn't surprise me when Brian turned in his "second" essay very soon after we first decided on the hunting topic.  Nor did it surprise me that the "first" essay took another three weeks to write.  He had a lot of discovery yet to do on the year off from college topic, but he had long since done almost all the thinking he needed to do on the hunting topic. (To read Brian's essay on taking a year off from college, click here.  To read his essay about hunting, click here.)

In my article "Twenty Years and Twenty Minutes" I explain how it is that I am able to write a 2000-word essay in just twenty minutes.  My point in that article is that when I do so, I am actually just writing down the results of many years of thinking a subject through, reading about it, and discussing it with or explaining it to others.  My discovery process for such topics, like that for my articles on grammar or for these articles on essay-writing, has already taken place.  It's not that I don't do discovery when I write about such topics. It's that I have been doing discovery on them for most of my adult life!

Consider  Sarah's essay on euthanasia, which I discussed in the section on Purpose (Manageability).  When she first read the assignment sheet for that essay, she knew only that she had to come up with a topic on her own and then find one or more articles or essays dealing with her topic.  Perhaps because her grandfather's death was so recent and the issue of euthanasia had been raised by the way his death was handled, she decided that she would write her first essay on euthanasia.

Her topic was far too broad for her to do adequate discovery on it in the amount of time allotted for the assignment.  Furthermore, it was too broad to be covered adequately in an essay of 700-1000 words.  But once she narrowed the topic to the issue of whether administering morphine to ease a terminal patient's pain was treatment or euthanasia, then she was well within the range of what could be covered in her essay.  Even more important, her topic now focused on the specific issue that was raised by the treatment that led to her grandfather's death.

Part of her essay required no discovery at all.  When she wrote down the details about how she watched Alzheimer's steal her grandfather's confidence, his memory, his personality, and his happiness, it was already all there in her mind.  She had been thinking about it over the years of his decline and probably talking about it with family and friends, as well.

Part of her essay, though, required a little bit of research.  She needed to know how morphine affects the central nervous system, so that she would understand how it relieves pain, but also how it can cause death. 

She also needed to do some careful thinking, maybe even a little bit of discussing with others, about euthanasia and about whether the specific circumstances of her grandfather's death should actually even be considered euthanasia.  Her ideas on these aspects of her topic were still somewhat fuzzy when she started out to write this essay.

Of course, some topics will require much more research, much more thoughtful analysis and brainstorming, and much more discussion than others.  And as I explain in "Twenty Years and Twenty Minutes," there are some topics that a person should not attempt to write about until he has spent many years "in discovery."

For a student, the trick is to select a topic he already knows about, or one that he can analyze and research to the degree necessary to have something intelligent to say about it.  If a student finds himself slipping into vague generalizations or pompous platitudes, then he can be fairly certain that he has a lot more discovery to do before he is ready to write on that topic.
back to page 1: What Is "Good" Writing?

back to page 2: Adherence to Textual Conventions

back to page 3:  Correctness

back to page 4:  Style

back to page 5:  Voice

back to page 6:  Purpose

to page 8:  Organization

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