Students who partake in a college English course (most college freshmen) are under pressure to comprehend a reading, interpret a related inquiry to that reading, and produce an individually written response in return for a grade. This alone may not seem sufficient cause for a mental block, but when we consider that students often have math, science, and other course requirements to deal with simultaneously, taking the time to read critically and write a thorough essay seems difficult, if not impossible.
On top of finding time to complete assignments, the reading is often obscure in both content and author. Another complexity is getting used to an instructor's individual teaching style. It's much more likely that time constraints, content difficulty, and issues with class structure or instruction are the obstacles to performing well in English courses than any sort of personal inadequacy.
One particular technique that, in practice, may resolve all matters is to confront the assignment on a closer level.
First, closely examine the question in its entirety. Then begin to read (or re-read) the text, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph until there is a mental connection between the question and reading material. Somewhere within the pages of text and the wording of the inquiry is one, if not more, corresponding themes upon which to form the basis of a thesis along with corresponding topics and subtopics. Then you can begin to write.
This phase of drafting is the necessary step in generating ideas and connections between the question and the reading that can be transferred directly into a standard outline. The outline serves as a mechanism for preserving the draft in all phases of composition and revision. The planning facilitated by an outline will save time, boost your grade/score, and will prove valuable in other disciplines. It is the instrument that propels the writing forward and keeps thoughts organized. In essence, the outline exists as a structure that lends itself to incorporating the writer's personal experience and understanding into a formal college essay. Here are a few good outline examples from Explorable.com.
After several iterations, the outline will stabilize to the point where external sources will be required in order to develop and expand the writing beyond the limitations of the course or the student. The first place to look for informational substance is in the course itself and the discussion that emanates from class. It is the main place where crucial judgments can be made regarding what to include and what not to include in the final draft. During this phase, make good use of your college library; it is replete with a variety of publications and librarians who can offer useful advice on how to navigate the seemingly endless supply of research articles, publications, and textbooks.
Reassessing the Writing
As a final step in the drafting process, it may be worthwhile to read the assigned text once again, followed by reading the written response to the text soon thereafter. Although tedious and time-consuming, it could serve a dual purpose. First, to realign the student’s work with the textual source, and, secondly, to initiate a proofreading phase which could provide further motivation to identify and eliminate any lingering syntactical, grammatical, or thematic inconsistencies. The greater the number of intermediary steps preceding the final draft, the stronger and more transparent the conveyance of argument will be.
In conclusion, it's important to examine the question closely and establish connections between it and the required reading while you are reading (and re-reading) the text. Next, it's necessary to build an outline to organize your ideas and keep yourself focused on the prompt. This is an especially important skill that will carry over into other undergraduate and graduate courses.
Research is another essential aspect of your writing, in all collegiate courses. Make use of the resources available to you (online databases, librarians) to make this a much less daunting experience. Always leave time for editing and redrafting, to make sure that the final result is polished and cohesive.
About the Author
Luis Freire has been an English and writing tutor for the past 10 years. For more information on tutoring, click here.