Suppose this is an examination and you have to write a composition. There you are, sitting at your desk, staring at the subject. It does not inspire one single thought. You have nothing to say. You have to write 200 words about it. What do you do?
First, you don’t start writing. You will probably stop after a few lines and feel even more desperate, and you might end up writing in circles and repeating the same ideas all the time. This is the right recipe for failure.
This is what you can do:
- Get some ideas.
- Select the ideas that go together and throw away the rest.
- Decide how you are going to end.
- Start writing.
To get your ideas, you have to make them accessible, you have to shake up your brain. We call this brainstorming: You throw questions and associations into your head until something comes up. The idea is simply to make links between the subject topic and your knowledge and experience. All sorts of questions and associations can help. When you need to get ideas, go through a routine like this:
1 Me and the subject: What experience do you personally have? Where does this subject touch you? What is your attitude to it? Does everyone feel/think as you do?
2 Take a position: Is the composition a question of opinion? If so, decide immediately what your opinion is. Then imagine someone you know disagreeing with you.
3 Find examples and illustrations: Think of real examples, things which you know about, things which have happened to you or to people you know, things you have seen.
4 Ask questions: Try inventing questions about the subject. Not all questions will work, but that doesn’t matter. Ask why, what, who, where, how, and answer those questions.
5 Compare: Whatever the subject is about, think about
How it is different from others.
How it was different in the past.
How it will be different in the future.
How it is different in other places or other countries.
6 Culture: Think of the subject in literature, art, films, TV and the news.
We always need a separate piece of paper for brainstorming, and most certainly you will be given rough paper in an exam to write a rough copy or write your notes. Make a point of always using the rough paper.
Also, remember that there are many different ways of thinking about a topic and putting your ideas on paper: lists, unconnected notes all over the page, diagrams. Whichever your method is, it will be good for your purpose: get ideas and select and connect the most suitable ones. Also bear in mind that nobody plans a composition in a straight line, from beginning to end.
Getting a lot of ideas is just the beginning. The purpose of brainstorming is to get a few good ideas. The others, you throw away.
Decide on the ending
Before you start writing your first draft, decide on the ending. Ending is the difficult bit, so it is a good idea to have an ending to work towards, even if you change your mind later.
Choose something good for the ending. Often writers start with their best ideas, but they should think of the ending too. The ending is the climax, it is what your readers will remember. Your ending should be closely connected with your main idea.
This is a summary of a chapter 6 in Feedback "What to say", Cambridge University Press. An excellent writing course for intermediate students.
To read the previous blog entries of the Writing Workshop, click on the Writing Workshop tag on the right hand side.