Write A Good Essay Quickly Drinks

Over the past year, Helen Gordon and I have been putting together Being a Writer, a collection of musings, tips and essays from some of our favourite authors about the business of writing, ranging from the time of Samuel Johnson and Grub Street, to the age of Silicon Roundabout and Lorrie Moore.

Researching the book, it quickly became obvious that there isn’t a correct way to set about writing creatively, which is a liberating thought. For every novelist who needs to isolate themselves in a quiet office (Jonathan Franzen), there’s another who works best at the local coffee shop (Rivka Galchen) or who struggles to snatch an hour between chores and children (a young Alice Munro).

Conversely, it also became apparent that alongside all this variety of approach, there are certain ideas and pieces of advice that many writers hold in common. In an 1866 letter to Mrs Brookfield, Charles Dickens suggests that: “You constantly hurry your narrative ... by telling it, in a sort of impetuous breathless way, in your own person, when the people [characters] should tell it and act it for themselves.” Basically: show don’t tell. Three words that will be familiar to anyone who has sat in a 21st-century creative writing class.

Our book therefore contains a lot of writing advice, ranging from the sternly practical to the gloriously idiosyncratic. We have writers talking about what went wrong, as well as what went right. They discuss failing to finish a manuscript, failing to find a publisher, badly realised characters and tortuous, unwieldy plots. Here are a just few of our favourite tips, which we believe any aspiring writer should take to heart.

Hilary Mantel: a little arrogance can be a great help
“The most helpful quality a writer can cultivate is self-confidence – arrogance, if you can manage it. You write to impose yourself on the world, and you have to believe in your own ability when the world shows no sign of agreeing with you.”

Leo Tolstoy and HP Lovecraft: pick the hours that work best for you
Tolstoy believed in starting first thing: “I always write in the morning. I was pleased to hear lately that Rousseau, too, after he got up in the morning, went for a short walk and sat down to work. In the morning one’s head is particularly fresh. The best thoughts most often come in the morning after waking while still in bed or during the walk.”

Or stay up late as HP Lovecraft did: “At night, when the objective world has slunk back into its cavern and left dreamers to their own, there come inspirations and capabilities impossible at any less magical and quiet hour. No one knows whether or not he is a writer unless he has tried writing at night.”

William Faulkner: read to write
“Read, read, read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.”

Katherine Mansfield: writing anything is better than nothing
“Looking back I imagine I was always writing. Twaddle it was too. But better far write twaddle or anything, anything, than nothing at all.”

Ernest Hemingway: stop while the going is good
“Always stop while you are going good and don’t worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry bout it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.”

John Steinbeck: take it a page at a time
“Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day. It helps.”

Miranda July: don’t worry about the bad drafts
“I was a lot dumber when I was writing the novel. I felt like worse of a writer … would come home every day from my office and say, ‘Well, I still really like the story, I just wish it was better written.’ At that point, I didn’t realise I was writing a first draft. And the first draft was the hardest part. From there, it was comparatively easy. It was like I had some Play-Doh to work with and could just keep working with it – doing a million drafts and things changing radically and characters appearing and disappearing and solving mysteries: Why is this thing here? Should I just take that away? And then realising, no, that is there, in fact, because that is the key to this. I love that sort of detective work, keeping the faith alive until all the questions have been sleuthed out.”

F Scott Fitzgerald: don’t write and drink
“It has become increasingly plain to me that the very excellent organisation of a long book or the finest perceptions and judgment in time of revision do not go well with liquor. A short story can be written on the bottle, but for a novel you need the mental speed that enables you to keep the whole pattern inside your head and ruthlessly sacrifice the sideshows … I would give anything if I hadn’t written Part III of Tender Is the Night entirely on stimulant.”

Zadie Smith: get offline
“Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.”

Muriel Spark* : get a cat
“If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially on some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work … the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle under the desk lamp. The light from a lamp … gives the cat great satisfaction. The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquillity of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impeded your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence alone is enough. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, and very mysterious.’ *(or rather, the character of Mrs Hawkins in A Far Cry from Kensington.)

  • Being a Writer by Travis Elborough and Helen Gordon is published by Frances Lincoln, £15.

Writing the perfect paper is a lot like a military operation. It takes discipline, foresight, research, strategy, and, if done right, ends in total victory. It follows then that the best advice for writing a paper -- be it a high school essay, a college research paper, or even an office memo at a Fortune 500 company -- would come from the tactics of a brilliant military commander.

I discovered these tactics myself as a student, reading in awe of the mastery of ancient military masters and put them to good use. I could then -- and still can, when necessary -- bust out a ten or even twenty page paper with a few days notice. I've developed a worry-free formula for your academic paper or essay (called the Spartan System) that has been so successful that it was printed out and taught as a curriculum by almost every English teacher I've had. Naturally, I was hesitant to teach my secrets to more than a few friends but after I left school and published the formula online in 2007, the formula went viral across the web. It's since been used in classrooms across the country by many satisfied strangers. I've gotten countless emails from adherents -- and these emails are always the same: your system got me an A. In my own life, I applied the tactics to my writing and knocked out a 70,000+ word book in 90 days... which I sold for a cool six-figures.

What Was My Secret?

In my reading of Greek history, I stumbled across an obscure military maneuver, one designed for troops penetrating deep in enemy lines. It seemed to be used by the greatest of generals from the Spartan Brasidas to the Athenian Xenophon (an actual student of Socrates). I thought, if this one trick can protect a ten thousand man march through country after country of hostile territory, it can probably work for a silly school paper.

Their tactic was this: to successfully march or retreat, the general brings his troops together in an outward facing square with their supplies and wounded in the middle and the strongest troops at the front and back. As they moved away from unfavorable ground, the men would defend their side, stepping out only slightly to meet their attackers and then retreating immediately back to the safety of the shape. And thus they were completely impenetrable, able to travel fluidly and slowly demoralize the attacking army. As Xenophon wrote, the idea was that having prepared hollow square in advance, so that "we should not have to plan [everything defense related] when the enemy is approaching but could immediately make use of those who have been specially detailed for the job."

My essay format works the same. Consider your introduction as the creator of the shape, and then the following paragraphs making up each side. They venture outwards when called to but never abandon the safety of the formation entirely. It is a process of constant realignment, maintaining the square at all cost. In terms of "writing" you need only to create a handful of original sentences for the entire essay: a thesis, a theme, a mini-thesis which begins each paragraph and a conclusionary sentence that says what it all means. Everything else is a variation of these four sentences in some way. Together they create the square, and the serves as the point of return -- much like Chuck Palahniuk concept of "chorus lines (see in books like Fight Club, where whenever the plot gets off track he immediately comes back to one -- "I am Jack's sense of rejection.") And so the reader always protected and the troops defend your point.

Forget your teacher's boring prompt. Forget "Commentary/Concrete Detail/Commentary/Concrete Detail" and all that nonsense. Let's do real work, real writing.

Here is the outline for a hypothetical five paragraph paper:

Introduction: (see a complete intro example here)

  1. Begin with a broad, conclusive hook. This will be the meta-theme of the paper. Example from a paper on The Great Gatsby: "When citizens exhibit a flagrant disregard of morality and law, societies quickly crumble."
  2. Thesis. This needs to specify and codify the hook in relation to the prompt/subject. Ex: "This atmosphere as shown in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby -- with blatant corruption and illegal activity -- eventually seems to become all but incompatible with a meaningful incarnation of the American Dream."
  3. One sentence laying foundation for first body paragraph. (These are mini-theses for each point you will argue.)
  4. Sentence for second body paragraph.
  5. One sentence for third body paragraph.
  6. Restate the hook and thesis into a single transition sentence into the first paragraph. "The 1920′s as the epitome of excess and reactionism symbolized a sharp break in the American tradition; one that no one seemed to mind."

Notes/Advice: Some say the thesis should go at the bottom of the intro instead of the top, which I think is a huge mistake. The point of a paper is to make an assertion and then support it. You can't support it until you've made it.

Body #1

  1. Rewrite first body paragraph thesis.
  2. Support the mini-thesis with evidence and analysis.
  3. Restate body paragraph thesis in the context of thesis as a whole.

Notes/Advice:

-Begin with your strongest piece of evidence

-Introduce quotes/points like this: Broad->Specific->Analysis/Conclusion

-Always integrate the quote, and try to incorporate analysis into the same sentence. As a general rule never use more than 5-7 of the author's words. Normally you can use even less: "It was Jay, who despite the corruption around him, looked forward to what was described as an 'orgastic future.'"

Body #2

  1. Rewrite second body paragraph thesis.
  2. Support mini-thesis.
  3. Restate body paragraph thesis in context of the paragraph above and thesis as whole.

Body #3

  1. Rewrite third body paragraph thesis.
  2. Support mini-thesis.
  3. Restate body paragraph thesis in context of the paragraph above and thesis as whole.

Conclusion

  1. Restate hook/meta-theme.
  2. Specify this with restatement of thesis once more.
  3. One sentence for each body paragraph, surmising its assertion.
  4. One sentence for each body paragraph, surmising its assertion.
  5. One sentence for each body paragraph, surmising its assertion.
  6. Rewrite hook and thesis into a conclusion sentence.
  7. Last sentence must transition to general statement about human nature. "The American Dream -- and any higher aspiration -- requires a society that both looks forward and onwards as well as holds itself to corrective standard."

****

That's it. Seriously. You can see why this frees you up as a writer; essentially, the format requires just six original sentences and the rest is nothing more but reiteration and support. It works for a paper of 300 words just as much as it does for one of 300 pages. It's self-generating, self-reinforcing and self-fulfilling. Could you ask for anything better?

Just like the tactics of the great generals, by laying out the square in advance with clear, orderly lines, you insulate yourself from the chaos of improvisation. You mark the boundaries now so later you don't have to. Each paragraph is given a singular purpose and its only duty is to fulfill it. No longer is the professor or teacher grading you in terms of the prompt, because you have redefined the dynamic on your terms. By marking the boundaries out early, excellence is achieved simply by filling them in with your sentences. You take the prompt and make it your own. You place the reader in the middle of the square, protected by all sides, and methodically move them forward, defending doubts and objections as they arise.

With the strongest thoughts at the introduction and at the conclusion, you make it so that the reader -- or the soldiers, as historian VD Hanson pointed out -- "might be led by the former and pushed by the latter." The thesis is buttressed at the top by your intro hook and at the end by your look forward. The middle is just details. The thesis is the entire paper-as it is, and always should have been. Once that is written, everything else falls quickly into place. The meta-theme, logically, is deduced from your primary theme just as your mini-themes are. All that is left to the writer is to simple decide a theme and record it to paper. And like Palahniuk, when we venture too far from it, remind the reader with a chorus line.

And if you object too much to rigid structure, consider the freedom this truly allows you (none of which is ever permitted in the horrible "Schaffer Method"). Once you've disregarded-or been able to reduce to the subconscious-the actual form of the paper, all that is left is the ideas. Isn't that what is truly important? Would you rather parrot back plot summary or take the theme not only to a new level, but an understandable one? If a professor can't respect that, what does their grade even mean? All I know is that this technique has allowed me both to remove any sort of stress from paper-writing, and even better, given me the opportunity to put to words concepts I'm grappling with.

So go now. Internalize this system and watch as it does all your work for you. See if you can beat the record: an 8 page paper in 3 hours... with a nice big A+ stamped on the front.

Follow Ryan Holiday on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ryanholiday

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