Tag Archives: writing an essay

Bronson Alcott

Most people have heard of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), a writer who’s often called America’s greatest philosopher. But they may never heard of Bronson Alcott (1799-1888), a close friend and (according to Emerson) a better philosopher.

So why is Emerson still remembered while Alcott is forgotten? I’m going to let you answer that question yourself. Here’s an excerpt from Alcott’s book Concord Days. Alcott is musing about his lifelong habit of keeping a journal:

Was it the accident of being shown, when a boy, in the old oaken cabinet, my mother’s little journal, that set me out in this chase of myself, continued almost uninterruptedly, and now fixed by habit as a part of the day, like the rising and setting of the sun? Yet it has educated me Into whatever skill I possess with the pen. I know not to how much besides; has made me emulous of attaining the art of portraying my thoughts, occupations, surroundings, friendships; and could I succeed in sketching to the life a single day’s doings, should esteem myself as having accomplished the chiefest feat in literature. Yet the nobler the life and the busier, the less, perhaps, gets written, and that which in, the less rewards perusal.

You see the problem: despite his brilliance, Alcott couldn’t write worth a damn. If you’ve heard of him at all, you probably know he was the father of Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women. (She somehow developed the writing skills that always eluded her father.)

What Alcott could do – engagingly and brilliantly – was talk. He made several tours around the United States conducting “conversations.” Huge numbers of people bought tickets to hear Alcott talk to them from a platform – a popular form of entertainment in those pre-TV days. Alcott was also an advocate of progressive education long before John Dewey and Maria Montessori came on the scene.

So the gifts were there, in abundance – all except the ability to write. Bronson’s problem was that his family didn’t have the money to send him to college. (If you read and loved Little Women when you were growing up, you probably remember that college was an unattainable dream for the ambitious Jo March, who also grew up in a family of modest means.)

Of course you can be a great writer without college. (Louisa did it!) But clearly Bronson needed help. If he could have attended a community college back then and taken a few writing courses, who knows what direction American philosophy and education might have taken?

No matter. I taught writing at a community college for 30 years. So today I’m going to pretend that Bronson is a student in one of my classes, and I’m going to offer him some feedback. You’re welcome to eavesdrop to see if some of my tips might help with your own writing.

Hi, Bronson. I’m intrigued that you’ve traced your enthusiasm for journaling to a childhood memory about an oaken cabinet and your mother’s journal. Another point that interests me is your conviction that “sketching to the life a single day’s doings” is equivalent to the “having accomplished the chiefest feat in literature.”

The problem is that I don’t quite get what you’re trying to tell me. How is a journal entry about one day similar to great literature? I’m hooked – tell me more about what you’re thinking!

I have the same problem with the journal you found in that “oaken cabinet.” I’m not connecting with that little boy and the thoughts and feelings he had at that moment.

I can tell that you’re brilliant. And I know from hearing you talk that you have a real ability to touch people through your words and ideas. What you want to work on is making that connection when you’re writing.

Here are some tips:

–  Put down your pen and talk  to someone who cares about you. Tell them the story of that oaken cabinet and what you saw inside. See if you can coax that little boy from long ago to talk about that experience. Then you’ll be ready to write.

 – Use short sentences. (I was worn out by a couple of your long, long sentences!)

–  Use everyday words. (I had to look up “emulous.” If a college professor with a doctorate doesn’t understand your vocabulary, what chance does the average reader have?)

What’s most important, Bronson, is to picture one of your readers while you’re writing. Talk to him (or her) in a human, personal way. Stop trying to sound wise and profound. Connect!

I’m looking forward to reading your next paper and learning more about how that boyhood experience shaped you.

Sincerely, Prof. Reynolds

Orchard House, home of the Alcotts

              Orchard House, Home of the Alcotts


Ten Tips for Successful Essays

Take it from an English professor with 30 years of experience: these tips work. (Many of them are also helpful for professional writing!)

Ten Tips for Successful Essays

  1. Before you start writing, review the directions from your instructor.
  2. Start working on your essay well before the due date.
  3. Freewrite to generate ideas before you begin drafting.
  4. Plan your essay carefully.
  5. Select a keyword that’s central to the point you’re making.
  6. Build your thesis (main point) around the keyword you selected.
  7. Take advantage of your instructor’s email, office phone, or office hours when you need help.
  8. Use your computer’s spellchecker and grammar checker.
  9. Use the free tutoring and other services offered by your school or college.
  10. Before submitting your essay, ask a friend or family member to read it and give you feedback.

Videos, PowerPoints, and other aids for writing effective essays are posted free at www.PlanMyPaper.com.



Thinking and Writing

If you had taken a writing course with me back when I was teaching at a community college, your first assignment would have been to write a story about someone you knew. 

There were two conditions: The story had to have taken place within a short time span (30 minutes max), and it had to illustrate a quality – good or bad – about the person at the center of the story.

I always introduced the assignment with a favorite story about my husband. Back when we were dating, Charlie took me to a restaurant in New York City. After the meal we started strolling back to my apartment – and then Charlie suddenly walked over to a homeless man who was staggering down the sidewalk. He put his arm around the man and they walked off together, leaving me standing there.

Five minutes later Charlie was back (relief!). “I hope you didn’t mind,” he said. “I saw that the man had been drinking and didn’t know where he was. I was afraid he’d get hit by a car. He said he lived on the next block, so I walked him to his door.”

I always asked students what quality they thought the story illustrated. After some discussion they would usually come up with several good ones, such as “compassion” or “caring.” Then it was time for them to choose a story of their own, write it down, share it with their peer group, and hand it in to me.

Over the years I read many marvelous stories about students’ friends, ministers, teachers, parents, and grandparents. But I also read papers from students who couldn’t grasp what the assignment was all about. Some students would record their mothers’ entire life story. Others would write about someone they barely knew.

I remember a student who wrote about a camping trip organized by her father, who had divorced her mother a decade earlier. Her story vividly portrayed her brother and sister, but Dad was a shadowy figure who did very little but put up the tent and build the campfire.

When I asked what quality she was writing about, she couldn’t answer. “To tell you the truth,” she finally said, “I never got to know him. He had been gone for a long time, and the camping trip was supposed to be a new beginning. But things never quite worked out.”

Looking back, I suspect she (and the peer group she worked with) learned more from that unsuccessful writing task than any other assignment that semester. (She eventually earned an A in the course.)

That simple assignment, she learned, wasn’t so simple after all. Students used to tell me that this “tell a story that illustrates a quality” was much harder than they expected. It’s easy to list a series of facts about a grandparent or youth minister. It’s much harder to focus on a single quality and then find a story to match.

I started thinking about all of this yesterday when my friend Gustavo A. Rodríguez Martin sent me a link to a writing booklet called Writing: A Teaching Guide published by the New York City Board of Education. As part of a summer writing project, students were asked to interview one another, choose interesting stories, and write them down. The instruction booklet is engaging and well written, and I was hugely impressed by the whole project.

The booklet was published in 1989. If someone wanted to do this project today, I’d suggest publishing the stories through an on-demand service so that students could have a book that puts themselves and their writing front and center – for a cost of less than five dollars per student.

Back to teaching writing. Here’s what I learned over many years of teaching (and doing my own writing): It’s all about thinking, selecting your material, and working it.  The secret ingredient in a successful writing task is usually the stories (another reason I always started the semester with the “story about someone you know” assignment).

I’m going to add one more thing: Writing is (or should be) about pleasure. Yes, writing can feel like drudgery. It can be tiring, confusing – even exasperating. But it should also be fun and exhilarating: “Look what I’ve done!” “Where did that wonderful detail come from?” There should be a real and lasting sense of accomplishment. Alas (and I’m as guilty of this as anyone), so often the only feedback students get is a grade and a list of corrections.

After some years of teaching, I made some changes in the way I responded to student writing. On the day an assignment was done, I sat down with each group and read each student’s paper.  My goal was to simply honor what was written. Although it was a simple procedure that didn’t take long, it transformed the energy in my classroom and had a powerful effect on those student writers.

The booklet I mentioned a moment ago – Writing: A Teaching Guide – got it exactly right. Here’s the statement of purpose for the biography assignment:  “Our goal was to plan a series of thematic units that would encourage meaningful language use in an enjoyable and serious atmosphere.” I couldn’t have said it better.

Conversation Wikipedia ok



Writing Your Introduction Paragraph

Many writers (perhaps you’re one of them!) struggle with an introduction paragraph for an essay, research paper, or report. Today I’ll offer some suggestions for tackling the beginning of a writing task.

Why are introductions difficult? One reason is the “blank-piece-of-paper” syndrome: Your brain freezes because the writing task seems overwhelming.

If you’re caught up in this syndrome, a good strategy is to skip the introduction altogether and work on the rest of the paper. Use a warm-up activity to get yourself going: freewriting, listing, making a mind map. (Click here for more suggestions about writer’s block.) You can always write the introduction later, when you have some momentum going and have a clear idea of what you’re saying in your paper.

Another reason introductions are difficult: You don’t know what you want to say. As an English professor, I’ve read countless student essays that say…nothing significant about a topic. The best solution here is to do some writing preparation. If you’re writing about a personal experience, look at photographs from the event or talk to someone who was there with you. Draw a sketch about the experience. In other words, have something to say before you formally tackle the writing project.

Some writers struggle with the introduction to a paper because they’re unsure how to organize it. Help is on the way! Here’s a list of what should be included:

  • An attention-getter. A short story (a sentence or two) is a great way to kick off your paper. Leaf through magazines, and you’ll see that almost every article starts this way. It’s a strategy you can (and should) use in your own writing.
  • The 5 W’s: who, what, when, where, and why. Don’t try cramming all of this in the first sentence of your paper. But do get it into your first paragraph (or second paragraph, if it’s a lengthy writing task). Make sure your reader knows the basics about what’s going on before you start exploring your topic in depth.
  • The thesis. Your paper should have an attitude or make a point, and readers should know what it is by the end of the first or second paragraph.

And there you have it!