It’s time to write a paper. The sun is shining, I’m leaning on a cat pillow, and “Uptown Funk” is playing softly in the background. I would like to be expatiating on how much I love watermelon and the movie “Singin’ in the Rain.” Instead I’m looking at a prompt asking me to examine the limits on the ideal self according to Nietzsche and Gandhi and to explain how these limits are still relevant in America’s education system. Rough. My mind, already wandering to lands of summer fruit and classic movies, starts to imagine Nietzsche and Gandhi in between the melons and musical numbers. Somehow they are friendlier there. But how can I keep that friendliness in my paper? Maybe they can be characters. A story? But dialogue is more direct. A script? What if I set it up using the “question and answer” format that Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj presents itself in? Or how about if…
College is a tricky time for development as a writer. Up until college, most students have experienced a very “play-by-the-rules” approach to writing. Creative writing assignments are pushed to the side in favor of more standard academic papers that will prepare students for standardized testing. However, college students have started to discover the things that make their brains light up, and they want to pour those exciting thoughts into their academic work. As students move beyond standardized testing, more options open up for approaching essays. Instead of being limited to five paragraphs, students have the freedom to format in a way that enhances their ideas the most. Changing an essay’s format in a way that enhances your argument, or makes the paper more fun for an audience to read, presents unique challenges.
Consult the professor
First and foremost, it is important to discuss your idea (or ideas!) with your professor. Unless the writing prompt is specific in leaving room for creative interpretations, the professor may only want a standard format academic paper. Run your idea by the professor to see if he or she thinks your idea is viable and will fulfill all of the essay’s requirements.
An intriguing approach
A dialogue between me, Nietzsche and Gandhi? A paper that imitates the style of The Book of the City of Ladies, but builds a city of pens instead of women? Or maybe an exposé about the conditions of life for women in the Second Great Awakening. Thinking outside of the box for a writing assignment may seem intimidating, or more work. However, when the structure that you use is entertaining to you, it is easier to find nooks and crannies of unexpected tension that add to your argument. I know that when I try to avoid the creative itch when it strikes, I get stuck on the dryness of the topic. Instead, try a prewriting tool or two (from The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors):
- Freewriting: Put pen to paper and write as the ideas come for a certain period of time. You can make the rules: maybe you ignore punctuation, or try to be as wacky with ideas as possible. After time is up, go back through your writing and highlight ideas you think are viable.
- Listing: Write your topic at the top of your paper, and toss out ideas in the form of a bullet point list. Go through the list and star ideas that are exciting to you. This is a more summarized version of freewriting.
- Talk it out: Search out a trusted friend, instructor, or stuffed animal and bounce ideas off of them. See if the conversation gives you new ideas for your approach to the paper. (Zimmerelli 40-44)
Give yourself permission to explore
The thoughts that lead to new approaches are usually the ones that students tend to squash. They might chuckle at their brain for thinking that it could write a paper in the form of a conversation between two dead philosophers in a coffee shop, and miss out on a fun approach that breaks a few rules, but gets at ideas in a fresh way.The natural wandering of the human brain can make it challenging to focus on an idea. However, when we allow, encourage, and take note of our slightly wacky ideas, they can be some of our best.
While not every writing assignment is an opportunity to play with structure, and not every student will enjoy or benefit from doing so, looking creatively at papers can let students understand a concept through a fresh lens. If you have also had experience in this area, or want to expand on an idea, feel free to add, respond, or critique.
Ryan, Leigh and Lisa Zimmerelli. The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors, Fifth Edition. New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2009. Print.