A solid two thirds of the students we serve suffering from anxiety are triggered by the practice of writing an essay. Many of them get really stuck in the initial phases of writing, overwhelmed by the prospect of the whole project and the fear of not being able to do it or do it as well as they’d like to. Perfectionism, in particular, often finds a home in essay writing. While perfection is possible in math or science, as numbers and experiments can be finitely mastered, written communication does not offer that peace of mind, nor the satisfaction of a “right answer.”

In my 20 years as a writing instructor, the best way to approach this issues is by providing concrete steps to follow, which is an approach that works from the simplest of thinkers to the most elaborately abstract. While there are a number of approaches, settling on one to use is key. It doesn’t have to be the “right” approach, just one that works. Here’s mine…

  1. Process the reading: Here’s a really simple way of getting to smoe good thinking about a given text. List five themes, or repeating ideas that occur over and over. Explain in a sentence or two where they appear and how their appearance is similar in each repetition.
  2. Understand the Prompt/Assignment: Analyze every line of the assignment sheet that is provided for clues. Write down five keys to approaching the prompt. Will the structure be key? Will you need to address a certain concept or question? Writing an essay that doesn’t address the assignment rarely satisfies an instructor.
  3. Think about Structure: While some assignments might suggest starting with a thesis, I find it is more often important to begin with an exploration of what paragraph structure will be needed. Start with the basics. How many paragraphs will be needed (a four page essay for example will need roughly four body paragraphs with intro and conclusion)? Will it be a compare/contrast? Will different characters be the focus of the paragraphs? Will different themes organize them? Before/during/after? Select a logical structure to the paragraph organization and you’ll already be feeling more confident about it, no matter how difficult the prompt.
  4. Preliminary Thesis: Note the word “preliminary.” It can and will change as you write the essay, so your argument to address your structure does not need to be perfect. It could even be phrased as a question. Ultimately, you should make some kind of compelling, interesting and argumentative point, but only by the time you turn the final essay in!
  5. Evidence: Gather two to three passages for each paragraph that are going to speak to the topics of those topics you’ve selected for each one.
  6. Topic Sentences: Not write the first sentence for each paragraph. It has two jobs: explain what the paragraph will address and connect clearly and directly to that working thesis.
  7. Introduction: Begin with an interesting thought on your topic. Go on to discuss what will happen in each of your body paragraphs with a sentence or two for each body paragraph in the order that they will appear in the essay.
  8. Write One Body Paragraph: Take it one at a time. Integrate your evidence. Explain how it supports the topic sentence.
  9. Repeat with another Body Paragraph: Doesn’t need to happen all at once. Just before the arranged due date…
  10. Turn it in!: A surprisingly difficult step for some perfectionists. Excellent is the enemy of good enough. Did you put in your best effort give or take? Turn it in… It’s in fate’s hands now!