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How to Start a Paper Or Essay

How to Start a Paper Or Essay

All papers and essays are supposed to be answers to a question. That’s what they’re for. So to start one, the idea is to get clear about what you’re supposed to write about, and then see what you have to work with.

Here’s what you do.

You find an old envelope and a felt-tipped pen, then grab your jacket, and head out for a walk. You’re going to jot some things, but you need distance from the big, scary question you’ve been asked to write about first. There’s something about the gentle distractions on a walk, combined with the safety from office harassment, that calms most of us enough to think about the project at hand. If you’d rather sit in a quiet room to do this, fine. Just be ready to head outside if your thoughts get all tangled up and overwhelming there.

Once you feel like you’re in your own safe space — and it may take a long time until your body is through panicking — have a nice, slow think about the question you’ve just been asked to write about. If it wasn’t asked as a question, you rephrase whatever was said into a question, so you can answer it. If the command to write came to you as, say, ‘Discuss trout fishing in Quebec’, which isn’t a question at all, you rearrange it to say something answerable in specifics, like, ‘What things should we know about trout fishing in Quebec?’ Or perhaps it’s ‘Why should people go trout fishing in Quebec?’ You decide, or get clarification on what the boss or the teacher wants. Take your time with this. There’s no going forward until you’re sure about what question you’re supposed to answer.

Now go back to your workspace. Open a word processing document, and name it ‘What should we know about trout fishing in Quebec?’, or whatever your big, scary question is. At the top of the document, centered, put that question, so you won’t forget it. Then down the page, not centered, type out all your jottings, just as you jotted them. Remember to keep each idea on its own line; don’t run them together in a big mass.

There! That’s the information dump. It’s Step One. It may or may not be a lot, but now you have something to work with.

In another article I’ll explain what to do if you need to do this with more information than what’s in your head. That’s where the techniques of researching come in.

Related video: Sam Harris – The Headless Way & Richard Lang


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