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How to Start an Essay

With AP Exams upon us, the focus of many Eastern students will be on their academics. Multiple AP tests feature writing sections that largely contribute to students’ total scores. For many—myself included—writing the bulk of an essay isn’t the biggest problem; what is, though, is actually getting started. In an effort to expedite our writing, it’s in our best interest to focus on how best to start writing. Thus, I’ve compiled some of Eastern’s teachers’ (Ms. Barnes, Ms. Devarenne, Ms. Cvengros, Ms. Gora, Mr. Kelbel, and Mr. Vanderburg) best tips and strategies.

Ms. Doreen Barnes has never written an introduction first. She always starts with her thesis before moving to the body paragraphs. After the body has been structured, she goes back to the introduction before finally writing the conclusion. As the first paragraph usually features a wider application of the ideas presented in the rest of the paper, Ms. Barnes prefers to better “cement” the subject of her paper before writing the more abstract introduction.

For AP tests, though, she recommends a slightly different approach. A fluffy intro isn’t on any AP rubric, so she doesn’t usually give it as much thought, but she still maintains the importance of not doing it first. The main difference: for AP tests, Ms. Barnes suggests a “hook.” These also work in non-AP writing, but they’re particularly effective at capturing the attention of a tired AP scorer. Images are great hooks; as you write your body, try to work in a metaphor or image. Then, in your introduction, establish it with an interesting or memorable description. Shifts also work; have your first sentence introduce something axiomatic—then instantly deny it and turn your whole paper on its heel with a single “but.” This is another potent strategy to capture attention, and if your truism is chosen wisely, its denial can even resonate with the lessons you aim to convey through your writing.

Ms. Barnes isn’t the only teacher to recommend detailing one’s ideas first. Ms. Kathleen Devarenne proposes gathering evidence, quotes, ideas, and details first, contending that the specifics should be laid out before any writing takes place. The first draft should be written quickly and imperfectly, then revised. Then, it should be revised. After that, revise again. Let it sit for a day or two without looking at it and then (and only then) should you… revise again! Get a peer to edit it for you, then make your final edits. At this point, the specifics you started with have developed into broader applications based on multiple perspectives and your rough draft into a complete final!

Ms. Lynn Cvengros is a strong proponent of the Design Thinking process, to the point that she even asks her students to employ this method in an end-of-year project; hence, she used it to found Hawk Teams! The process itself features five stages: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. For further information, please consider this excellent Stanford article that covers each phase in far more depth than could be achieved here. She also recommended the book “Steal Like an Artist” by Austin Kleon that covers any brainstorming-related problems authors might be facing.

Ms. Kristin Gora has different advice for students stuck in different parts. She encourages those who don’t know what they want to write about to “start with what they know.” If an author feels confident about and interested in the topic they’ve chosen, they’ll naturally find a core topic, at which point they can start their more in-depth brainstorming. Important topics chosen by a writer are also met with far more effort and love than unrelated ones assigned by force. If her student gets stuck after the brainstorming process, though, Ms. Gora has another tip: “focus on just one paragraph, or even just a sentence or two, to begin.” First, she would ask “what do you want to say first?” and have them simply write it down. Next, without giving them enough time to overthink, she asks “what do you want to say next?” These separate sentences quickly accumulate into a rough draft. Just like Ms. Devarenne, Ms. Gora strongly emphasizes the importance of revision because through it, that messy rough draft can be polished into exactly what the writer wants.

In addition to AP Literature and English 11, Ms. Gora teaches Eastern’s Creative Writing class. These students are far less constrained by a rubric than ones writing essays, so her advice is different: “begin with the setting. [then] …think of a place (location and time/year) that is interesting.” It’s easy to organically build on an established setting. The next step is to choose a few diverse environments: indoor, outdoor, on the move, a climate, a country, a time period, etc. She then asks “what kind of people populate this place? what objects, events, and conflicts naturally arise here?” This approach of writing what makes logical sense in a world can create a comprehensive, plausible basis for a plot. “From there, the final step is to latch onto small details—emotions, images, sensory details, and see if these create any sparks.” Ms. Gora also reminds her students that they don’t need to write the story from start to finish. If they have a scene they really want to include, she encourages them to write it! “I have them write what they are sure about, and then they can fill in the gaps as they go.”

Mr. Richard Kelbel’s advice largely pertains to his department (social studies) and thus applies mostly to AP History students. He emphasized that history essays are rough drafts. He explained that “as long as it does not significantly detract from the essay,” scorers are largely unconcerned with proper grammar. Instead, the key to a successful AP history essay is in the depth of content.
Before this, one needs to “know the organization and requirements.” Without looking at the rubric, a student should know exactly what their essay should include and how it should be structured. If he’s writing, he hasn’t even begun to think about content yet, rather “where the parts of an essay go.” Before a student starts writing, he suggests they list any specific historical content from the relevant time period. Sometimes, he says, students’ scores suffer because they don’t take the effort to research effectively. “Effective historical research is HARD, it takes effort, time, and most of all a LOT of reading. If you’re in a history class, expect it, get over it, and DO IT.” He also stressed the importance of connecting one’s thesis and topic sentences, suggesting a type of thesis that includes a distilled version of each topic sentence. Obviously, these tips are highly compatible with Ms. Devarenne’s suggestion to gather evidence and specifics before writing.
Mr. Kelbel has another set of suggestions once a student has started writing. First, a topic should be situated in a broader context. A successful essay doesn’t only cover the topic in the prompt, it discusses its causes and effects, how it changed (or didn’t), and more. He has also noticed that students often “panic and ‘brain fart’ what they think they know about a topic, even if it is not related to the question. Don’t answer what you want to, answer what the teacher asks.” The thesis is a good opportunity to lay this out, but after this, the body paragraphs need structure, too. They should “follow some sort of ‘TEA’. Topic (answer the prompt), evidence (cite actual historical knowledge to support your topic, like people, events, stats, descriptions of process), and then analyze/explain the content (dig deeper, make connections, draw on some historical thinking skills like comparison, cause/effect, or even change/continuity).”

Reviewing one’s writing can be a tremendous aid as well. Mr. Kelbel suggests that his students score their writing with the rubric. If they can’t give themself an accurate score, they don’t understand the assignment. Luckily, teachers are very often willing to help with this! “[Eastern’s] social studies department loves questions and loves to help. Even in college, I’d go to my history professors office hours to go over large essays, it’s their job (and ours). We are here to help.” Beyond the rubric, it’s important that students can “find their voice.” For social studies, this means taking a definitive stance—and backing it up. With time, some high school students will come to understand that history is a story. This story has an author, who must defend their stance with historical evidence. If writing about history, your writing should be like this, too.

In contrast to Mr. Kelbel’s advice to AP history students, Mr. John Vanderburg has advice for the more artistically-minded students. When asked what he would advise to artists who can’t seem to form ideas, Eastern’s art teacher ventured that “it depends on what you’re doing.” If the art is personal and not for a client or assignment, an idea should pop up on its own. “Mr. V” maintains that good ideas can’t be forced. The trick, then, is not to laboriously plant flowers in hostile earth but to actively create an artistic “soil” in which any natural seeds can easily sprout. Ideas should passively crystallize when you’re not trying to force them to. Some environments inherently aid this process, like laying down to sleep or showering. Ideally, an artist constantly lives like this—as an open receptacle for inspirations, seeds, and sparks.

Even for clients or assignments, Mr. V maintains that ideas can’t be forced, but if you desperately need inspiration, talk to your teacher or client. Even if they say they don’t have ideas, they do, he says. “Ideas seldom happen when you’re staring at a blank page,” so a good course of action is sketching or drafting the concept supplied to you and continuing to live & let that idea rattle around in your brain. But what if the problem isn’t with your idea itself? Sometimes, you can be limited by other things—even the materials you’re using. In a class, Mr. V once found himself without inspiration when stonecarving. He picked up the stone and hurled it against the concrete wall. Of course, you may not have to be so drastic—ideas could arise from something as tame as using clay instead of pencil.

According to Mr. V, “The moral of the story is: have a sketchbook next to the toilet.” But, he’s serious, as so many of his ideas come when he’s not expecting them. Commitment to recording your thoughts when they happen is really important. If you think you’ll remember that brilliant idea, you’re lying. Mr. V likened “catching ideas” to the optical illusions that appear to move when you don’t look right at them. Instead of putting your energy into forcing something that can’t be forced, direct that energy toward awareness of and readiness for those that come naturally—because they will. Making a schedule and recording at the same time daily can also help entice ideas to reveal themselves. If you’re still struggling, Mr. V suggested changing your environment. Try a different desk, room, or even working outside!

Sometimes, classes can be limiting. Teachers need to teach their curriculum, so they may not be able to cover some topics they otherwise would. I hope that this article has offered some of Eastern’s teachers a chance to share tips that they couldn’t cover in class or wanted to reiterate, and maybe even helped you. Now, if only I could write a conclusion…

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