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For many people, brainstorming great essay topics is more intimidating than actually having to write them!  Here are some tips to get you past the writer's block.

By Ben Feuer

You're a creative person -- most of the time.  But when it comes to choosing a topic for your essay, you're drawing a blank.  You have no idea what to write about -- you don't even know how to DECIDE what to write about!  Don't worry -- you've come to the right place.

Step One: Know your prompt and your word count -- and then forget them.  Ah, Zen.  Let's begin with a contradiction, shall we?  The very first thing you should do when you're trying to answer an essay question is read the prompt, word for word, out loud, at least twice.  Mouth it to yourself if you are super shy but reading aloud is better.  Notice each and every word.  Now look at the word count.  Is it a character count?  Page count?  No limit?  Will you be putting it into a form or sending it as an attachment?  Consider the context of what you're about to write.  Think about it from a reader's perspective.

Now forget all of that.  It will help you later, but for the next step it will only get in your way.

Step Two: Go to the feeling.  Fear, joy, rage -- these are powerful emotions.  And because they're powerful, we tend to avoid them on a day to day basis.  We try to make our lives ordinary.  And that's just fine.  Except when we're setting out to write essays.  Because the number one rule of essay writing is MAKE IT INTERESTING, and it's very hard to get other people excited about a topic that you don't even care about yourself!  So think about times in your life when you were frightened or elated.  Think about the hardest things you ever had to do.

Step Three: Be questioned.  The one essential tool in coming up with ideas is your brain.  Problem is, most people's brains and memories don't work well in a vacuum.  You need to have a conversation with someone who can push you, someone who can ask odd and unexpected questions, rapid fire, to throw you out of your usual patterns of thought.  You have a lot of preconceptions built up inside, and a good interrogation can help break some of them down.

Step Four: Never say no.  As you come up with ideas, your first instinct is going to be to shut yourself and others down.  No, that won't work.  Because of this, or that, or the other thing.  Reject that instinct.  Leave everything on the table.  Explore the corners and contours of your initial thought rather than throw it away.  Try to find aspects of it you didn't consider at first.  And even if you still don't think it works, write it down anyway.

Step Five:  Think like a journalist.  So now you should have a couple pages of ideas.   What do you do with this scrawled list of half-recalled stories?  Who, what, where, why, how, when.  The details of the story you're about to write might be second nature to you, or you might not have thought about them for years.  Either way, you're going to be writing for an audience that does not know anything about you.  So do them a favor and give them something to sink their teeth into.  Before you try to make your essay perfect, just tell the simple facts of the story in 200 words or so, more if you need them.  The purpose of this exercise is to let yourself (and your reader) see clearly what actually happened.  Choose AT LEAST FIVE that you think have some chance at working.

Step six:  Get feedback.  Now that your ideas are fleshed out and legible, go back to your reader.  Ask him or her which of the ideas seems most promising.  Chase down any leads he or she suggests.  Maybe explore this person more, or this side of the story more.

Step seven: Repeat as needed.   People don't like this step much, but it's often necessary.  New parts of your life, new questions you haven't heard.  There is ALWAYS something you haven't considered.  Maybe whatever it is is about to be your next awesome essay topic.

I know this can look kind of overwhelming.  Whatever happens, don't get discouraged.  Take things one step at a time.  Trust me, the process works, we've been doing it for years.  With a little faith and a little honesty, you'll soon have a big menu of ideas to choose from.


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