How to Write a Good Essay

Stan Wankey

Issue 3 * Summer 2000

During the course of the last few years as I've taught entry-level English composition classes, I've discovered that there is an important factor missing from most texts dealing with the subject. This great, glaring gap would seem to be unjustifiable when stated as plainly as I'm about to, but it exists nonetheless, and no one I know of has been so far willing to fill it. In the form of a question, it runs thus: "How do you write a good essay?"

In response to this much disregarded flaw in our system of higher-education, I present the following; boiled down into the form of a list it may be easily understood by all teachers of writing, even those whose first name is for all intents and purposes "Coach."

  1. Get a sheet of paper. This law is thought by some to have been superceded by the advent of computer technology. However, it is still an important first step in that it leads to the following:
  2. Sit at a desk with the paper on it, scribbling senseless doodles, silly faces, and, if you are so inclined, the name of an object of affection surrounded by hearts, flowers, and, again if you are so inclined, barbed wire.
  3. Start feeling guilty for wasting so much time and begin staring off into space waiting for the muse to start blowing you kisses or for inspiration to shoot a lightning bolt through the top of your head.
  4. Hum.
  5. Begin tearing pieces of the paper off and put them in your mouth. Chew. Swallow if necessary.
  6. Now that you are ready to write your first draft, turn on your computer and/or word processor and begin cruising the Internet or wiping dust off of your screen with the aforementioned paper or your thumb, whichever is more convenient.
  7. Remember that you've done no research. Go to the shelf and pick up a volume of the World Book Encyclopedia, preferably "P-R." "Q" always has some interesting topics in it.
  8. Finally settle--after combing through a few more volumes--on something to do with Wombats.
  9. Remember that the instructor actually gave you a list of possible topics from which to choose.
  10. Search in vain for the list of possible paper topics your instructor gave you from which to choose.
  11. Call up your friend who is also taking the class and beg her for the list.
  12. Meet for coffee. Forget about the list.
  13. Call her the next day and ask her to just read a few of the topics over the phone to you.
  14. Listen in horror as she says: "You did know this paper is due tomorrow, didn't you?"
  15. Go to the library.
  16. Research by checking out randomly selected books on vaguely related topics.
  17. Highlight like mad.
  18. Look at the stack of books for a good long while.
  19. Repeat step one.
  20. Wad up paper and throw it a random direction.
  21. Begin writing.
  22. Finish writing.
  23. Hand essay in.
  24. Receive grade.

There, in 24 easy steps, the reader can see just how it is done. The great strength of this plan, I feel, is it's incredible simplicity and marked efficiency, especially in steps 21 and 22. Should any questions arise about there being more than one way to write an essay, bear in mind that this plan leaves plenty of room for that, being only a mere pattern: your own writing experience might evince a slight variation.