Writing Center

Step One: Find a Step One

By Ethan Shuh, Writing Tutor

As students, we are often faced with the daunting task of taking a prompt that may be as little as one sentence and producing five, ten, even twenty pages of coherent academic writing. Understandably, many students approach such an undertaking with some degree of apprehension (many with a high degree), and as such the problem becomes larger than it needs to be. It is in these situations that we must use the prompt as a tool, rather than approaching it as a slight annoyance that we as writers are forced to adhere to.

The most important step in the early writing process, especially in a research or argumentative paper, is developing a focused thesis that lends itself to further development. This is where we can let the writing prompt work for us-it is only through careful analysis of the question posed by the professor that a strong, relevant thesis can be formed. When I approach a prompt with the intent to extract what I believe is a persuasive, compelling, or insightful thesis, my first step is always to have a dialogue with the prompt itself. I like to begin by asking questions: is there an obvious direction that my professor wants me to take here? Is there a way to make sure that my own voice comes through in this piece, even if I am responding to the prompt in a fairly obvious way? Do I have something to say about this that no one else does?

Now, let's assume the worst. Let's say that even after all of my questions I still have a whole lot of nothing to say about this topic; maybe it isn't something I have particular interest in, or maybe I just have a crippling case of writer's block. After this much mindless staring at an empty Word document it becomes clear that I have no idea what I want to write about, let alone a thesis capable of helping me power through several pages of highly academic writing. It is at this point that I resort to Plan B-write the conclusion.

I find that, when I am struggling to form a coherent thesis, figuring out where I want the piece to end up is a good way to get the ideas that are bouncing around my head onto paper. When struggling for ideas, starting at the end works well because, more times than not, I have found that having a final point reveals directions that I would not have considered before. Once you have a finalized ending point, it is usually a trivial task to extract a thesis.

In the time that I have been a writing tutor, one of the most common requests for help that I've seen is about starting an assignment, or coming up with a thesis to suit the prompt. In those sessions, I like to take a writer through these steps; I ask questions about the prompt itself, their thoughts on the topic, and other similar leading questions. Ideally, this dialogue helps the writer successfully crafting a thesis, or at least establish a direction that they want to take their piece.

When starting a piece of writing from scratch, I find that the hardest part is establishing a focused thesis. This difficulty becomes much more manageable when we approach a writing prompt with a plan that works for us as individuals. This is mine, and it works well for me.

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