Unaspiring Writer Articles About

The Humble Essay

Stick to One Main Idea

Chapter 1

The first thing to understand about writing the college essay is that you're expected to stick to one idea of your own — your opinion, in other words. If you learn nothing else from this book, learn that.

We often use that word "opinion" as a synonym for "guess" or "hunch" or "something I believe with all my heart even though I have zero evidence." That's not the sort of opinion we're talking about here. For a college essay, the main idea must be a reasonable opinion, an idea based on thoughtful consideration of relevant and credible information.

This expectation is simple enough. However, many of your teachers have confused the matter by playing fast and loose with the word "essay." Since grade school, you've heard this word used to describe just about anything made with sentences. Your English teachers haven't helped matters, either, by tossing around other technical terms as if you understood them — or cared.

So before we move on to other expectations, let's clean up a few definitions and take a closer look at what it means to stick to one main idea.

Commonly Misunderstood Terms

It's beyond the scope of this book to clean up all the misunderstandings you picked up from teachers over the years, but we can at least make a start with three terms that help to explain what it means to stick to one main — thesis, thesis statement, and topic. This won't take long, but pay attention. It will be on the midterm.

Thesis and Thesis Statement

The word "thesis" is a Greek term that means "proposal" or "assertion." When talking about college essays, thesis means "your main idea." English teachers like to use "thesis" in place of "main idea" because it's a Greek word, and there's something about Greek words that make English teachers purr like kittens.

As long as you understand that "thesis" means "main idea," those Greek-loving English teachers won't pose a serious problem for you. However, keep in mind that the thesis of an essay is not the same as the "thesis statement." The thesis is your idea, your opinion, a fleeting bit of electrochemical activity inside your brain. The thesis statement is a single, written sentence that states your thesis. See how that works? It translates the intangible idea that lives in your brain into tangible words on an actual piece of paper or computer screen.

For those who like tables, here's a table:

Thesis and Thesis Statement

  Thesis Thesis Statement
Definition An assertion, the main idea of an essay A written sentence that articulates a thesis into actual words
Key Quality Exists only as an idea — intangible Exists only as written words, a sentence — tangible

The distinction between "thesis" and "thesis statement" seems easy enough, but a few rogue English teachers confuse this as well by using "thesis" for both your main idea and the written sentence that defines your main idea. With these teachers, pay attention to how they use the word "thesis" in a sentence. If they ask what your thesis is, they mean, "What's your main idea?" If they ask where your thesis is, they mean, "Where have you hidden a one-sentence summary of your main idea? Because I'll be honest with you, student writer, I can't find it. Not anywhere."

Thesis and Topic

Some student writers have developed the habit of using "topic" and "thesis" interchangeably. This isn't surprising. "Topic" is a vague term, just like "thesis," and the term "topic sentence" refers to a sentence that states the main idea of a paragraph — the same thing that a thesis statement does for a whole essay. The similarity between "topic sentence" and "thesis statement" makes "topic" seem a lot like "thesis."

However, "topic" and "thesis" don't mean the same thing. The topic is the subject of the essay, the thing about which you have an opinion — a poem you read, a scientific theory you studied, the life cycle of nematodes, or anything else that your professor tells you to study and write about. The thesis of an essay is your reasonable opinion about that topic.

Perhaps this table will help:

Topic, Thesis, and Thesis Statement

  Topic Thesis Thesis Statement
Definition The subject of an essay The main idea of an essay A written sentence that articulates the thesis
Example Voting requirements The idea about voting requirements that is explained by my essay Voters should have to accurately describe what they're voting for before they can vote.
Example The ending of "A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O'Connor" The idea I have about the ending that is explained by my essay The ending of O'Connor's story teaches us how unsafe it is to reach out and touch someone.

Topic, Thesis, and Thesis Statement at Work

Now let's look at where these three terms show up within the process of writing an essay. The topic of your essay is the subject that you are writing about — a thing of some sort — a person, a theory about time, the mating habits of tree frogs, petroglyphs. It was probably assigned to you, or if it wasn't assigned, then you were asked to pick a subject for yourself from within some set boundaries. Having a topic is the starting point of the process.

The next step is to educate yourself about this topic. If it's a poem, for example, you read that poem a dozen times, trying to figure out why in the world anyone would write a poem about a shopping list and how good plums taste. You read what others say about it. You talk to your professor about it and then ask him to assign Edgar Allen Poe next time. Gradually, though, your self-education leads you to opinions of your own about the meaning of this poem, how good it is or isn't, the symbolism of plums, and so on. You pick one of those opinions, and it becomes the thesis of your essay.

When you write your essay, you focus entirely on your thesis — your own, somewhat reasonable opinion that the plums symbolize sex and death. In the opening paragraph, you introduce the poem because it's your topic. Then, because you can't explain everything about the poem, you present your focus within the poem — the meaning of the plums. Finally, you present your main idea about those plums in a single sentence, your thesis statement: "The plums represent sex and death."

In the body of the essay, you present evidence from what others say that helps you explain and defend your thesis. You list the objections some might have to your thesis and then respond to each objection — politely, of course. For a few minutes, you're tempted to add a juicy fact you uncovered about the poet's bizarre private life, but then you wisely say to yourself, "No. I can't go there. That has nothing to do with my thesis." And then you wrap things up by summarizing the evidence in the body and restating your main idea.

Nothing could be easier.

The College Essay and What It's Not

Now that those three terms are clear in your mind, or at least slightly less muddy, we'll move on to the most misunderstood term of them all, "essay."

According to your teachers, you've been writing "essays" since the first day of third grade when beloved Mrs. Webster asked you to write an essay about what you did on your summer vacation. Since then, you've written hundreds of "essays" that were actually stories, reports, reflection papers, and other types of writing — but not essays.

To undo those long years of misunderstanding, we'll look at some of the non-essays from your past and compare them to the college essay. With each example, notice how the difference always comes back to whether or not that paper has a thesis — one main idea of your own.

College Essays and Stories

A story recounts events, real or imagined. Stories are pieces of informal writing that are usually organized chronologically. They tend to focus on the actions of their characters and how those actions usually lead to dire consequences. Stories engage readers because we're all suckers for finding out what happens next.

For storytelling to be effective within an essay, however, you can't just present the series of events. You have to use those events to explain a main idea. If you don't have a main idea to explain, then the story is just a story.

Here's an example of that:

On the first night of our backpacking trip, Denise and I camped beside the river we'd followed upstream. We set up our tent on a small, sandy gravel bar to take advantage of the smooth ground and the soothing sound of the river. It was a beautiful campsite.

By the time we'd eaten, it was already getting dark, so Denise said we should leave the dishes for the morning. We took a few minutes to watch the stars come out, and then we hit the sack. Denise was asleep instantly.

It took me longer to fall asleep. Something didn't feel right. After perhaps an hour, I went outside to relieve myself. The stars had disappeared, but I didn't think anything of it. I went back to bed and finally fell asleep. Later that night, I woke to the sound of light rain on the tent. Like the river, it was a peaceful sound, and it lulled me back to sleep. The next time I woke, it was from Denise jabbing me with her elbow.

"Wake up!" she shouted. "We're soaked!"

We were more than soaked. It was raining heavily. The rising river had swamped our tent, washed our cooking gear downstream, and drenched our food. Scrambling in the darkness, we were lucky to get our tent, packs, and sleeping bags up to higher ground. We found most of the cooking gear later that day, but the food — and the trip — were ruined.

In this example, the story might be used to illustrate several opinions, but the writer never actually presents an opinion or explains how the story illustrates that opinion. So the story remains just a story.

Here's an example of how a writer can use this same experience to illustrate a thesis (with the thesis statement in bold):

Whenever you go backpacking, the first rule is to respect the place you're traveling through. If you don't know this rule at the beginning of your backpacking trip, the place itself will be glad to teach it to you. That's what happened to my former girlfriend and me last summer. It was our first backpacking trip together, and, perhaps because she wanted to impress me, Denise acted as if she were in control of everything — including the weather and the river.

On our first night out, I wanted to set up camp about thirty feet back from the river so we wouldn't have to worry about rising water during the night. Denise laughed at my suggestion and set up our tent at the water's edge. She left our cooking gear and food on the gravel beside the tent.

That night, however, it rained. It only rained lightly at our campsite, but upstream it rained heavily, and the river rose almost four inches before we woke. By then, our cooking gear was a hundred yards downstream and our food was soaked. Denise tried to laugh as if it was no big deal, but the fact is we could have been drowned in our sleep. And even though we escaped death, it took most of the day to recover the gear and dry things out.

This was a disappointing trip, but it taught me a lesson that has guided me ever since: Respect the environment or the environment will make you respect it. This is true when camping beside the river, but it's also true at home, at school, or driving down the street where you live. Never assume you're in control of the world around you.

The writer now does more than just present the event. He uses the story to illustrate and validate his thesis that you must respect your surroundings. The main idea is now the star of the show, and the story has shifted to a supporting role. We have an essay instead of a story.

Here's a table, in case you were expecting one:

College Essay vs. Story

  Story Essay
Topic A backpacking mishap Respecting your environment
Main Idea
(as a thesis statement)
None You should respect your environment.
Explanation The details of the story help readers understand the topic (a mishap) rather than an idea about the topic. The details of the story explain why this piece of advice is a reasonable idea.

Autobiography is one type of storytelling that sometimes looks like an essay but still isn't. With autobiography, the writer writes about the writer: My life has always been difficult. Moving to Omaha is the best thing that ever happened to me. Nobody understands me like my cats.

If the writer presents one main opinion about himself or herself, then technically, it's an essay. However, it's still not much of an essay for two reasons. First, it's hard to say whether this is an opinion or a fact. No one can climb into the mind of the writer and argue that no, you know very well that Uncle Jimmy understands you better than your cats. Second, and more importantly, the topic (me!) isn't relevant to your college classes. College classes tend to focus on something other than the students who take them.

College writing isn't personal in this way. It doesn't focus on you but on a topic that you and your reader have in common. For a college audience, it doesn't matter that you got rained out while hiking. What matters is the topic of respecting the environment, a topic that you have in common with others.

In spite of everything I just said, autobiography is often effective within an essay. Personal experiences draw readers into an essay, particularly if you come across as likable, someone the readers can relate to. So sure, if you can use personal experience to introduce or help illustrate an idea within your essay, use it. You just need to keep the autobiography in a supporting role.

College Essays and Reports

Reports are papers whose purpose is to give readers information about a topic. They're common in elementary school and high school because they require students to educate themselves about a topic, and this gives them both new information and some practice with self-education. Reports continue in college, too, and for the same reasons. They're also a common type of formal writing in many professional trades — human services, building inspection, fire and paramedic services — because so many trades require accurate observation and recording of information.

Reports aren't essays, however, because they don't provide readers with the writer's own opinion about the topic. In fact, it's fairly easy to write a perfectly acceptable report without thinking at all. Think of the times when you opened a book and copied the information "in your own words" without letting it penetrate your brain. Think of the times when you scoured the Internet for the first website that had any information on your topic.

Anyway, here's a typical report:

According to Wikipedia, pigdogs live in packs of six to eight animals in established territories of up to one square mile. The territory tends to be bounded by natural features, such as rivers, or by man-made features, such as interstate highways or fences. The territory includes a year-round source of water and a shaded area known as the "sty" where the pigdogs lounge as often as they are able and occasionally yip in their sleep.

Pigdogs first arrived in California as pets on a Norwegian freighter, the Ibsen, which docked in Sacramento in 1911. Having been thrown overboard by the sailors, the pigdogs swam to shore and soon flourished in the surrounding environment.

Pigdog packs establish and defend their own small territories (often defined by roads or irrigation ditches). Females bear one litter of seven or eight pigpups every other year, except in times of drought. During times of drought, the females typically band together and fight off any rutting males, sometimes ferociously.

The males are the hunters of the pack, although they will retreat from any animal that moves quickly, such as a rabbit or vole. Often they come back to the pack bearing fast-food wrappers and Pepsi cups or road kill that is not too intimidating. They may also stalk fruit and vegetables, acting as if the plants were dangerous animals, and bring these spoils back to the sty with great displays of pride.

In this example, the writer provides information that informs you about the topic of pigdogs. Because that information is the only thing that the writer offers, this is a report. For it to become an essay, the writer needs to present his or her own opinion about the significance of this information and then use the information to explain why that opinion makes sense.

Here's an example of an essay that uses the information about pigdogs to explain and defend the writer's thesis (with the thesis statement in bold):

Non-native species have a way of destroying the environments they invade, and that's why the California Department of Fish and Wildlife must act more aggressively in its attempts to eradicate this species. A good illustration of failed eradication can be found in the case of the Norwegian pigdogs that have taken over large parts of California's Central Valley, according to a study that was reported by Al Tobey (2014) in Scientific Californian.

Perhaps because they seem timid, or because of their odd habit of gathering roadside garbage, pigdogs have been considered harmless for decades (Bone 2011). It was only recently that wildlife biologists observed that pigdogs had begun to crowd out native species such as raccoons (Brase 2013). Efforts to curb the spread of pigdogs by removing roadside garbage only resulted in pigdogs moving into farmers' fields and orchards where they began a population explosion that continues today (Tobey 2014).

If aggressive eradication tactics such as trapping, shooting, and poisoning had been taken earlier, pigdogs would not now be eating one-third of California's annual artichoke crop, among other things.

This writer uses much of the same information about pigdogs, but it's now used to present and defend the thesis that is stated in the first sentence. Any of the original information that doesn't help to support that opinion has been dropped from the second example. The fact that pigdogs arrived on a Norwegian ship, for example, doesn't help explain the thesis, so out it goes. Other information — such as how pigdogs have crowded out raccoons — has been added because the thesis does require it.

Here's another table:

College Essay vs. Report

  Report Essay
Topic Pigdogs Eradicating non-native species from California
Main Idea
(as a thesis statement)
None The California Department of Fish and Wildlife must act more aggressively to eradicate non-native species.
Explanation Specific information helps readers better understand the topic of pigdogs. The negative example of pigdog proliferation defends the idea that aggressive measures should be taken.

Paraphrasing is a type of report that sometimes acts like an essay. With paraphrasing, writers report someone else's opinion by putting that idea into their own words. While the presence of an opinion makes the piece of writing look like an essay, it remains a report because the main idea is not an idea that came from your own brain. You're just reporting what happened in someone else's brain.

Here's an example:

When students complain that teachers have screamed profanities in the classroom, many parents' first response is to file an angry complaint with school administrators. However, according to Detached Educator, the newsletter of the Almost Retired Teachers Association (ARTA), that might not be the best approach.

"An incident of screaming can admittedly cause temporary problems," says Steve Richardson, ARTA president, "but why make things worse by making a fuss?" According to Richardson, it's best to let the situation resolve itself over the course of months, or even years.

When you write your essay, you regularly need to paraphrase the ideas of others. It's a good way to compress and include their ideas as you explain your own main idea. Their opinions just can't be a substitute for your own thinking.

College Essays and Reflection Papers

A reflection paper is a collection of several opinions or observations about a given topic. These assignments are usually open-ended — explain your reactions to Chapter 3, describe what you like about this article, and so on. Teachers often assign reflection papers to compel you to actually read and hopefully think about the assigned reading. Why you wouldn't do the reading on your own is a mystery to your professors, but they embrace that mystery by assigning these free-form reflection papers. However, even if a reflection paper is assigned by a college professor, it's not an essay because it doesn't focus on just one of your opinions.

You can find real-world reflection papers in the letters-to-the-editor of the local newspaper. Someone gets steamed about the way schoolteachers have summers off or how the county needs to do something about pot holes, and they respond by typing angrily. What they type seems coherent because it sticks to one topic and is unified by the same angry mood, but there's no single, main idea.

With college writing, essay assignments can easily turn into reflection papers when student writers can't decide what opinion to focus on or are unwilling to take a stand on just one opinion. Instead, they circle around a topic and hope that what they write will somehow, miraculously become an essay. Occasionally miracles do happen, but don't count on it.

Here's an example of a typical reflection paper:

Writing is very important. You have to be able to write in order to succeed in our society. People expect you to write well. If you can't express yourself well as a writer, then you will miss out on many important opportunities.

The use of writing has been with us for thousands of years, but in the past only the elite needed to write. Since the invention of the printing press, however, writing has become more important with each passing year until now almost everyone needs to write. Nowadays, with the arrival of computers and email and texting, writing is even more essential to the world in which we live.

It isn't easy to learn to be a good writer, but a good teacher can help you to gain the skills that will make you a better writer. You will find that with stronger skills, you have much more confidence, and confidence translates into success!

Oy vey.

If you're assigned to write a reflection paper about a topic, then reflect all you want. Add lots of opinions. Write any ideas that wander into your mind. However, if you're assigned to write an essay, you need to be disciplined and stick to one main idea.

To prevent a reflection paper from happening to you, resist the urge to vent your emotions. Emotions are fine, but they aren't the same as thinking. It's not sufficient to feel strongly about a topic. You must instead think strongly. Second, take some time to actually figure out what you think about a topic before you start writing your essay. Educate yourself more about the topic. Wait for an interesting, reasonable opinion to show itself. Don't start putting words onto the page and expect that somehow a single opinion will emerge on its own — or worse, that your professors will be so impressed by your strong feelings that they won't need a main idea. With your friends, you might call that sort of writing "B.S." Your professors call it that, too.

When you choose to simply vent or B.S. about a topic, what you're really doing is choosing to not educate yourself about that topic. I don't want to make you feel bad about yourself, student writer, but you're wasting a perfectly good opportunity to make yourself smarter. Doesn't that make you a little sad?

Anyway, here's an example of how a student writer has narrowed the reflection paper's focus and, with some self-education, developed a more interesting thesis for an essay:

In a recent People magazine poll, 59 percent of the respondents said that writing freaked them out. On a recent television reality show, only one of six participants was willing to write a typical college-level essay, even when offered a hundred dollars. The problem? People feel inadequate about their writing skills. But that all seems to be changing, thanks to the Internet. To use the Internet, you have to read, and you have to write.

Most reading and writing happens when Internet users send, receive, and respond to email. Many online games require less formal writing, but they require more of it and at a faster pace. Using websites as a source of information doesn't require the same level of writing, but social networking sites such as Facebook use writing extensively.

Even though many users may not be aware of how much writing they are doing, the writing still has its impact. Internet users, whether they realize it or not, are becoming more and more comfortable with the written word.

According to Dr. Jerry Trabue of the Eastern Central University of Northern Kentucky, it all comes down to classical conditioning. Writing within a more comfortable environment helps writers to associate that feeling of comfort with the writing itself. And that makes them feel more adequate as writers. He notes that while 59 percent of People magazine readers are still freaked out about writing, that number is down from 63 percent two years ago.

So while the growing use of the Internet makes writing more important, that growing importance does not seem to be making people more uncomfortable with writing. Instead, emerging research shows that it seems to be helping them become more confident and prolific writers.

In this version, the writer stays focused on just one reasonable opinion about writing, and each paragraph has a clear connection to that thesis. The opening paragraph introduces the topic and thesis. The next paragraph illustrates how much writing happens on the Internet. Then there's a transition, and the next paragraphs explain how all that writing may change how people feel about their writing skills. The last paragraph summarizes the explanation provided by the body of the essay and, in doing so, restates the thesis. And notice, too, that the information comes from studying the topic itself, not from personal experience. Kudos, student writer!

Here is another table that may or may not help:

College Essay vs. Reflection Paper

  Reflection Paper Essay
Topic The importance of writing Impact of increased Internet use on attitudes toward writing
Main Idea
(as a thesis statement)
There is no main idea. Each paragraph contains one or more different ideas about the topic. The increased use of the Internet seems to be making people more confident writers because it requires so much writing.
Explanation Because the essay skips from idea to idea, no single idea is illustrated with more than a broad and passing summary of information. Paragraph 2 illustrates the increased amounts of writing required. Paragraphs 3 and 4 explain how attitudes are changing among Internet users.

College Essays and Five-Paragraph Trainer-Essays

The "essay" that you wrote in high school was probably a five-paragraph trainer-essay. The five-paragraph trainer-essay is to a real essay what a training bra is to a real bra. You feel like you've written a grown-up essay, and it certainly looks like one. However, it's almost never an actual, fully developed essay.

The five-paragraph trainer-essay is primarily a template that helps student writers organize their papers. An introductory paragraph presents the topic and main idea. Each of three body paragraphs then covers one subtopic or idea about the main topic. A concluding paragraph restates the main idea and the point of each of the body paragraphs. You can insert anything into this template as long as it's related to the main topic. If you insert raw information into the body paragraphs, it becomes a five-paragraph report. If you insert a new opinion into each of the body paragraphs, it becomes a five-paragraph reflection paper.

The five-paragraph trainer-essay is easy for teachers to explain and easy for students to use. It's something a beginning writer can accomplish at an early age. In other words, your middle school and high school teachers were doing the right thing when they taught you and the other fledglings to use this template. That was a great starting point. It introduced you to the idea that what you write should have organization, which is a great idea.

The problem is that an organizational template like this tends to generate essays that oversimplify and under-explain your ideas. That's fine when you're young and don't have anything to say anyway, but with the college essay, your main idea is supposed to be thoughtful and complex. A thoughtful and complex idea has a hard time surviving in three body paragraphs. It doesn't get enough oxygen.

Instead of forcing your thesis to squeeze into those three body paragraphs, you need to force your body paragraphs to increase and multiply until your thesis is fully explained. If a fully formed idea can be explained in five paragraphs, then fine, write a five-paragraph essay. So be it. But if your thesis is more complex and requires six or twelve or sixteen supporting paragraphs, then so be that. Set your five-paragraph trainer-essay aside and get on with the task of writing college essays.

Most student writers are willing to accept the concept that the days of the five-paragraph trainer-essay are over. However, it's one thing to accept an idea, and it's another thing to put that idea into practice. Long years of practice have hard-wired these five paragraphs into your brain and probably your DNA. The five-paragraph trainer-essay is what you will write until you forcefully rip it from your brain and say, "No more! You are dead to me, five-paragraph trainer-essay!" That sounds a bit extreme, but that's what's required. It will not go gently.

College Essays and Artful Essays

The college essay is not the only kind of essay out there. It gets the job done for most of your college writing, and it does so effectively. However, it's not the sort of essay that you find in respected magazines and overpriced college anthologies. It's not art, in other words.

Artful essays use more advanced methods to present their main ideas. The venerable E. B. White, for example, could write an essay about watching his son jump into a lake and, in sharing his simple observations, somehow unravel the mysteries of the life cycle. He did this with careful arrangement of images, with careful selection of words, and with only minor and understated discussion of his thesis. On the surface, it looks like a story or a reflection paper, but because of those advanced techniques, White still gets his thesis across to us, so it's an essay.

These artful essays are usually informal. As in the case of E. B. White, they're often based entirely on personal experience and observation. You connect to the writer at a personal level. Because they're written for the broad readership of national magazines, they must engage and entertain readers so that they enjoy themselves and will hopefully renew their subscriptions.

If you didn't know any better, and if you already have a way with words, you might be tempted to skip over these sensible guidelines for writing the college essay and take on the challenge of writing your own artful essays. That desire to engage readers with personal stories and artful writing can be a strong temptation. I urge caution.

One problem with artful essays is that while they are easy to read, they are difficult to write. For most of us, they are out of reach while we're in college. Or while we're in grad school. Or while we're slogging through life teaching English composition for part-time wages at a community college in the middle of nowhere. For every E. B. White, there are another twenty thousand who think they are E. B. White.

The more important problem with artful essays, however, is that aside from a few young, untarnished English professors, your college professors aren't particularly interested in reading them. They want to see your ideas about the topics they've assigned, and they want to see your ideas explained clearly and concisely. They want college essays, in other words. They have dozens of other papers to read besides yours, too, so they will become ill-tempered if you stray from your assigned task in order to unravel the mysteries implicit in your recent journey to the refrigerator.

Don't lose heart over this, aspiring student writer. Wonderful, artful essays may indeed be part of your future. The odds are against it, but it could still happen. My uncle — true story — has been hit by lightning twice, so anything can happen.

In the meantime, you have college essays to write — essays that are due next Thursday, or possibly tomorrow morning — and for these assignments, you should write the sort of college essay that's introduced in this book. Don't try to dazzle a professor with a stunningly artful informal paper when all that she or he really wants is a formal paper that presents a single good idea of your own.

Free Advice: Wait for the Idea

Back in the days when your "essays" were just a bunch of words about a topic, you could start writing papers without having any idea what you were going to write. Sometimes a main idea emerged after a few paragraphs, making your paper more like an essay. Usually no main idea emerged, making your paper a reflection paper or report.

My dear student writer, what was going on back in those golden years was that you were using the drafting process to explore your topic. If you were just rewriting stuff you found online or in books, then you were using the drafting process to do your research.

What needs to go on now is for you to knock that off. You need to do your research and explore, but you need to do that before you start drafting — well before you start drafting. We'll get to this in more detail in Chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6, but right from the start, you should understand how important it is for you to not start writing until you have an idea that's worth writing about.

First, there's the practical issue of sticking to one main idea. If you don't know what your idea is, it's pretty hard to stick to it. You see that, right?

Second, there's the more important issue of learning something. As you'll see in Chapters 3 and 4, the reason you have to write essays in the first place is so you'll learn something you didn't already know and stretch your brain just a little. That means exploring your topic, doing your research, and finding new and unexpected ideas. If you write before you know what your idea is, none of that happens.

So wait for your main idea.

That's my advice to you, student writer. Ignore that strange, primal urge to just start writing — as if that is going to reduce anxiety for more than five minutes. Instead, do the research and thinking that lead you to new ideas, one of which will be worthy of an essay.

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