Friday, January 30, 2009

Step One

An essay I wrote for a composition theory class concerning my personal methods of how the fuck to write an essay. It got an A.

Step one: ensure you have a hard copy of the assignment in a condition that can be easily read. This is also step two and step three, and is of critical importance – it doesn't matter if there's a copy of it available online, or if you know for a fact that you've got a copy of it sitting in your email. Ensuring that, at the very least, you're capable of beginning work on the assignment is one of the few aspects of writing that shouldn't be procrastinated upon – in my experience, there are few things nearly so terrible as sitting down the night before an eight-page paper is due to write it and realizing that you don't have and cannot access a copy of the actual assignment. During the week leading up to a written assignment of any length, I'm likely to check and make sure I've got the document in my bag at least once each day. This has the added benefit of planting and replanting the raw concept of a due paper into my mind each day, as it's difficult to resist the compulsion to quickly read over the assignment sheet each time it's pulled out. The over-awareness of the looming due date combined with the constant reminder of topic creates an urgency and thought process that I find to be nearly essential in composition.

The second component in my process is the collation of data, whether it be in the form of hard research, stupid anecdotes or critical segments of fiction. This is the first phase where a steno pad becomes critical, both for the recording of relevant quotes and pages numbers, but also as a method of forcefully extracting from my brain ideas and the phrases that they could be used in. I find that hand-writing at least this segment makes for a more natural flow to the prose, and I find it easier to connect and introduce quotations when I can hurriedly sketch out two or three or fifteen versions and see each of them before me. Although this can be done on a computer, automatic formatting and space restrictions limit the amount of digital real estate that you can dedicate to it.

This second area of pre-writing focus is also important as it allows for time specifically devoted to gaining a thorough understanding not only of the various works that will be included in the paper, but how to structure my interpretation of those works in the context of the assignment. Although my interpretations of works, particularly those that fall under the category of fiction, tend to be wild stabs in the dark that occasionally find their mark, I find that it elevates my level of confidence sufficiently so that I can complete the assignment. We'll return to this concept later, but for now self-assuredness is assured.

Thus we, or I, move into the structuralization/development phase of the essay. This is where a series of physical items non-related to the subject matter become critical; cigarettes, an ample supply of coffee, a steno pad, and a Pilot Precise v5 RT (black) ensure comfort and the immediate satisfaction of physical urges that would otherwise drive me away from the craft. The creation of a thesis and major talking points is also established during this period. Although not always succesful, I've found that if I can establish even two or three major ideas to work into the paper then I've already completed half of the work. Generally, the remainder of ideas will be generated during the actual writing process and done electronically.

Sometimes, after the first, black-ink-written draft of the thesis statement is complete, I will immediately jump into typing what will become the sword of the first draft. I'm also prone to, on occasion, write ten to fifteen pages of prose on the steno pad before proceeding to this. I've found that this isn't really something that I can plan and is directly related to my level of confidence with the material at hand – if I know my game well enough, then I can burn through the grunt work of writing the essay quickly, whereas if I am unsure then I can and have spent hours slaving over individual sentences. This phase is also where cheap beer can become hugely beneficial, provided I take care to clean up the style when sobriety returns.

Writing free from a planned structure is a double-edged sword. When I'm sure of what my major ideas are going to be and have them planned out, it becomes a mere matter of filling in the colored lines with the right color of crayon until completion. The unfortunate aspect of the pre-structured essay, for me, is that I have a more difficult time connecting the points together, and I often myself writing three to four sentence paragraphs just to connect the two ideas when a closing sentence should have been sufficient. This issue is entirely sidestepped when the majority of the prose is undecided and is written as the paper develops; the flexibility of being able to place major ideas where I find they integrate the best allows me to write a far more fluid essay than the former method.

I've found that the freehand, write-it-as-you-think-it sort of crafting is more suitable towards essays of this nature which require personal reflection and independent analysis of fiction or poetry. I've also found that the structured approach tends to work more in favor of rigid, data-interpretation-style essays, and those works where the presentation of the right information was more important than the presentation of the right prose.

Throughout the actual hammering process, I will pause after every couple of sentences and after every paragraph and read the previous few lines aloud; I find this to help immensely when determining not only whether or not the sentence works, but also for the tone that it conveys. Too snarky, too ambiguous, too elitist? I have a tendency to glaze entirely over accidental tone shifts when merely reading, and speaking the words aloud helps me to identify problem areas and correct them.

After the bulk of the essay is completed (which may or may not include the introductory paragraph – it can be a personal wild card for me when I find that I'm prepared to write this), I read over it twice in it's entirely, correcting grammatical and structural errors while attempting to clean up the prose. After this, I find something else to occupy my mind for a short while. This is inevitably one violent video game or another, and the pulverization of digital people into digital bloody pulp provides exactly the sort of release that I need to focus on the final, and arguably most challenging, part of the essay: reading through the damn thing again and again until enough errors are repaired to convince myself that there is little more than can be done with it.

Which is exactly when it gets printed, another cigarette lit, and read again. After I've decided that I'm content with essay, I complete my final adjustments and begin formatting. Since high school, I've preferred to save this part of the craft for last. I despise the way that double-spaced typing appears and find that formatting as I write distracts me, and I've come to enjoy the final formatting process – it feels like finally striking the death blow on an internet dragon, and it's almost as rewarding.

At a certain point during this process, music becomes integral, and must come in the form of enclosed-style studio headphones. Typically, the draft stages tend to have music focused around a beat and certain varieties of hip hop work excellently for this; for example, the initial writing process of this essay was done to Viktor Vaughn's Vaudeville Villain. As the essay developed and my typing grew quicker and more confident, the music changed into the substantially more aggressive and suitable death-metal stylings of Wolfchant. This path is rarely deviated from; although the bands change, the tempo and type of music rarely does. Slow, steady music is excellent for laying down foundations and creating bricks, whereas purposefully angry and fast music is great for essentially filling up space. The other wonderful function that it serves is a bolster of confidence; it's quite easy for me to lose steam midway if I've got nothing to listen to, but by allowing myself to get heavily into the music keeps my spirits quite high. This is high point is, of course, completely destroyed when I decide that the paper is complete and submit it for grading, but I've yet to find anything that can allay that trauma.

No comments: