Essay Pre-Writing Tips

March 17, 2018

Personally, my pre-writing phase usually takes the form of a brain dump. Now, this is not an attempt to write a coherent paper. Instead, it’s just a chance for me to get all of my thoughts onto a piece of paper or into a document in my note-taking app.

When I do a brain dump, I’ll open a new document, set a pomodoro timer for 25 minutes, like we talked about in that procrastination video, and then I just start my pre-writing phase. Specifically, I’m looking to pull basically everything I know about the topic out of my brain, as well as identify any questions I might have. I’ll also list out any main points that I think will be important to cover, and finally try to think of any specific external resources that might be useful to look at during the research process.

Once you’ve done a brain dump, it’s time to move onto the research process. Now, the biggest pitfall that most students deal with here is the tendency to get stuck in the pre-writing phase forever. The author Cal Newport calls this “research recursion syndrome” – you get stuck in a loop of constantly looking for yet another source. In his book How to Become a Straight-A Student, Newport lays out an algorithm of sorts for ensuring you don’t get stuck in this loop.

First, you find your sources.

Now, you’ll probably find most of these at the library or on the internet, but it’s also possible that you’ll find them in the burial room of an ancient temple full of booby traps.

Pro-tip: Most teachers agree that being impaled by hidden floor spikes is not an acceptable excuse for turning your paper in late. Just so you know. A safer place that you might actually want to start with is Wikipedia. Now, some of your teachers are gonna say that Wikipedia isn’t a good source – and they’re right. However, the citations section at the bottom of each and every Wikipedia article is actually a really great place to find good sources, since Wikipedia holds their articles to high standards and requires high-quality source material – like scientific studies published in reputable journals. Aside from Wikipedia, though, you’ll also find lots of good sources through Google Scholar, journal databases like EBSCO, your school library, and – one place you might not have thought of before – the notes or bibliography section in most popular science books.

For example, Bill Bryson’s book A Short History of Nearly Everything contains 48 pages of citations and references to other works.

Once you’ve found your sources, make personal copies of them – create photocopies if they’re in books or other paper formats, or add them to a note-taking app if they’re digital. This ensures that you’ll always have them available to you when you’re writing without having to go look them up again.

Next, you wanna annotate the material.

Skim each source, highlight the sections that you feel are specifically relevant to the arguments you want to make, and add any notes that might help you hammer out the details of those arguments when you’re actually writing the final draft.

Finally, consciously ask yourself if you’re done.

Cal’s ballpark suggestion here is to have at least two sources for each main point in your thesis, and at least one for any tangential or non-crucial points. Of course, this is a general suggestion, so you’ll have to make the final call. If the answer is no, repeat the process. If the answer is yes, then it’s time to write your first real draft.