Thursday, May 19, 2011

How to Write a Terrible Essay

From the rough draft (which took three days to write) to the ridiculously unhelpful (read: nonexistent) peer editing remarks to the sea of red pen I unleashed on myself, my last English essay of freshman year was certainly more of an ordeal than usual.

I already posted six ways to make essay writing easier, but this last experience has given me some insight into what not to do:

1. Don't keep it simple

Convoluted thesis = much RAEG.  If I hadn't complicated things, I would not have had to run around looking for evidence for two battling main ideas.

2. Don't murder your darlings

Finding a great piece of evidence is good.  That's like an adaptation that helps you become more fit to your environment. (Studying for bio final, yay.)

Keeping it when a better piece of evidence serves the same purpose is not so good.  That's like a vestigial limb that only gets in the way some of the time.

Keeping it when it diverts your paper's focus is even worse.  That's like evolving one wing that you drag around on the ground and can't do anything with.  Better to amputate it and save it for another day (wow, that analogy fell apart real quick).

3. Don't do your own revisions

There's an evil thing called "peer editing."  It sounds innocuous - someone else does the heavy lifting on the revisions for you, and you use their suggestions to make your paper better.

Until you get your paper back and there's not a single mark on it.  "I couldn't find anything wrong," your peer editor says, and you resist the urge to say, "Try harder."  No paper is ever perfect.

Of course, peer editors have no incentive to be useful to you.  So even if you roll your eyes, know what to expect.  If you want a thing done well, you must do it yourself.

4. Don't edit with a machete

I know, some teachers have word count requirements.  Mine doesn't, so I have the luxury of cutting away all the filler.  If you, too, have this option, use it.

5. Don't rearrange as needed

Does it flow logically?  No?  Then change, move, or cut it (see above).  Something I did a lot in this last essay was put commentary before the evidence on which I was commenting.  Nice going, bro.

6. Don't scrutinize word choice

During the first draft, filler words ("conclusion of sheer awesome goes here") are fine.  However, in a final draft, the words "idiocy" and "foolishness" are, well, idiotic and foolish.

Likewise, tone is important, but "academic" does not mean "pretentious."  I was so sick of this essay that I let the conclusion (of a literary persuasive essay) drift into a proposition to right the evils of society.

If I didn't know that my teacher is capable of reading a six-page research report without making a single comment except to quibble about bibliography formatting, I'd be worried about that.

7. Don't take breaks

My brain would be fried if I didn't take breaks.  Just be careful that your well-intentioned five minute break doesn't turn into "herpinternetbrainsuckderp" time.

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