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Essay Writing: How to Take the Formulaic and Make it Yours

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Wed Oct 21, 2009 7:30 pm
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Teague says...

Essay Writing: How to Take the Formulaic and Make it Your Own
by Teague

In grade schools everywhere, the easiest way to teach kids to write is to give them a formula and let them run with it. This is a great teaching tool; but as kids get older, move on to high school and college, teachers tend to ask for something different. They ask for a breakaway from the old formulas in their quest to get their students to think independently. But this isn’t an easy process. For most of us, the traditional five-paragraph essay is how we learned to write. It’s what we know, and the adage is to write what you know, after all. So how do you make the jump from formula to uniqueness?

The trick is to not abandon the formula entirely. Formulas make great springboards. In mathematics, you use formulas to find an answer, and then you use that answer to come up with something new. Why can’t you do the same thing in your English class? Taking the five-paragraph formula and making something new out of it can’t be much different, right?

When I write an essay, I start with the basics. What my topic is and what main points I want to cover. This can usually be done in simple list format, which you can do on anything from scraps of paper to an old-fashioned typewriter. We’re going to use the example of writing an essay about my favourite dog breed, the Great Dane.
(This is in fact a fabulous strategy that should be used for as many writing projects as possible, just because it keeps your thoughts in line. Only if you like it, of course.)

The List
Topic: Great Danes
Main Points:
    -Breed history
    -How to train and care for a Dane
    -Pros and cons of owning a Dane
So, we’ve got a pretty simple essay here. Three main points equals three body paragraphs, right? Not necessarily. The first thing to consider when using the five-paragraph essay as a springboard is that limiting your main points to one paragraph ONLY is very limiting, and way more formulaic than just a five-paragraph essay on its own. If it just so happens that you only want to talk about a certain point for one paragraph, don’t be afraid to! This is your writing, and the point of this tutorial is to make it your own.
So how do I know if I want more than just three body paragraphs? Easy: I elaborate on my main points by making a second list. This time, I can include as many finer details as I want.

The List 2.0
Main Point: Breed History
    -National origin
    -Common uses throughout history
    -History of the name
    -Modern-day purpose
Main Point: How to train and care for a Dane
    -Basic commands
    -Training strategies
    -Why train?
    -Common health problems and how to treat them
Main Point: Pros and cons of owning a Dane
    -Environment Danes need
    -Who shouldn’t own a Dane
    -How much Danes cost
    -Food needs

Now we have a much more expanded list with many details that can be covered. Journalists call this the “inverted pyramid.” I like to call it the “funnel effect” when I’m writing an essay. Funnels start broad and end up very narrow, which is the approach you want to take when writing an essay. Obviously you don’t want a funnel with a mouth so broad that it takes ten years for it to narrow out, so choose your topic wisely.

You’ll hopefully have noticed that The List and The List 2.0 look strikingly like outlines, only less formal and organized. You’re very much right. The next step is to make a formal outline, especially if your teacher or professor is asking that you hand one in with your final draft. And again, we’re working from springboards, so bring The List 2.0 along.

Outlines are more in-depth without actually writing your essay for you. Usually you can draft almost your entire essay just by re-wording and expanding your outline, if you’ve done it properly. Outlines are a great tool for building your essay, and they are, in a sense, the final springboard.

Now, if you look at The List 2.0, you’ll notice that some of the smaller points don’t seem to be things you’d put in the same paragraph. And that’s awesome, because we’re breaking away from the traditional five-paragraph essay thing. Paragraphs should be all one clear, concise idea – if you start talking about another idea, it’s your cue for a new paragraph.

So, just to save time and effort, I’m going to only outline the second main point, “How to train and care for a Great Dane.”

The Outline

I. How to Train and Care for a Great Dane

a. Basic commands and their purposes
    1. Sit
    2. Stay
    3. Lie down
    4. Heel
b. Strategies for training
    1. Verbal praise and treats
    2. Hand signals
    3. The “Alpha” voice
c. Why training is necessary
    1. Getting control over a large dog
    2. Establishing the “alpha” to a pack animal
d. Common health problems and how to treat/prevent them
    1. Bloat
    2. Hip dysplasia
    3. Panosteitis (“growing pains”)

Now, see each of the minor points? Each of those could very easily be its own paragraph instead of one big “how to train your Dane” paragraph, so that you end up with more of a section than one limited paragraph. Alternatively, you can mix & match these points so that it flows smoothly but isn’t just rapid-fire point A-B-C-D. With the right skill and style, you could get away with mixing them together so that you get weird hybrid letters my keyboard isn’t capable of making. This particular skill is learned by practice, not by reading some tutorial, so try your hand at it whenever you get the chance.

And then, when you’ve finished your outline and you write your essay, it won’t be recognizable as that five-paragraph formula! Remember that writing is an expression, even if you’re doing an academic report for school that doesn’t leave a lot of room for creativity. Expression is alive, and living things evolve, so pursue any avenues that come your way. Don’t run the risk of being too scared to try something new, because you’ll either succeed or chase a strategy that doesn’t work for you, but at least you learned that you shouldn’t try it again. Let your writing speak for itself and just do what feels natural; but don’t be afraid to return to your roots every now and again.

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