Essay Lab: Getting the Words to Flow

Mix one part approaching holidays with one part looming application deadlines and you may have a recipe for procrastination or full-on writer's block when it comes to writing your essays. But no worries, both are temporary conditions.

If you're in the throes of a case of writer's block, one of the ways to get “unstuck” and develop some good stuff you might be able to use for your essays is to actually take a detour and write about something else. This may seem counterintuitive, but responding to a different -- and slightly provocative -- question than the one you seek to answer in your application essay can help move things along. And doing so can also help you find the heart of things, so that what you say and how you say it can have more impact.

Professional writers often find themselves stuck in front of the blank page -- or the blank screen -- so we've asked several of them to share their favorite ways to get the words flowing.  We'll be sharing these writing exercises every day this week on the website. Can they help you? They very well might. Some of them even have the potential to work for the open-ended "Topic of your choice" essay.  Give them a try.

First up:

Firoozeh Dumas, best-selling author of Funny In Farsi and Laughing Without An Accent:

               Have you ever been REALLY jealous of someone? Tell me about it.

               Did you ever get lost as a kid? Where?

               What is the theme song to your life?     


Ellen Sussman, best-selling author of French Lessons and On A Night Like This, and essayist whose work has appeared in Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave and Because I Love Her

                Tell a story in your own language, as close to "talking it out" as you can.  Then polish.

                Find one anecdote in your essay -- one special moment -- and make that  moment come alive, as if you're the filmmaker filming the story.  Narrative is always better than exposition.        

                How are you different? Write about that for a page -- it doesn't matter if it's good different or   bad different -- and then see what you've got. It might lead you somewhere.

                Is there one thing that has happened in your life so far that changed you? Affected you the most?  Write that story. Don't analyze it or explain it or try to understand it. Just put it on the page. Then take a look and see what's there.


So pick an exercise, set a kitchen timer for 15 minutes, and just write away.

Tomorrow in the Essay Lab: Advice from Irena Smith, writing teacher and independent college counselor.


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