Facing that terrifingly blank sheet of paper or screen, and nothing, abslutely nothing, comes to mind — and the deadline for your essay becomes ever closer? Here's an easy way to get started that many students and I have found effective:

Even if you have only a vague idea of what you want to say, or even not much of an idea of what you you might want to say, at least you have a rough idea of the subject about which you will write. Therefore, start by looking over the texts, images, or other data you want to discuss and find half a dozen passages potentially central to your topic or at least related to it. Copy them out, placing each in its own document or on its own page. Next, write a two- or three-sentence introduction to each one, and then after the passage write some comments. These don't even have to take the form of complete sentences. You can jot down ideas the passage suggests, such as how it relates to another passage, add some reminders to yourself, or just ask yourself questions. Print out the results, take your half a dozen or more sheets, and then arrange them on your desk or floor and see if any obvious order appears.

You may find that you have passages that appear too similar. Conversely, you may discover a potential set of connections, or the beginnings of a chain of conections in which something seems to be missing. In that last case, simply go back to your materials and look for that missing evidence. Most of the time you will find that by the time you come to the third or fourth passage, your jotting may have begin to turn into sentences. Fine. Keep writing as long as you can, and when you can't go any farther, stop and go on to another passage.

Why does this strategy work? First of all, it requires far less concentration than starting to write the usual way. Second, it provides an easy technique for discovering both a line of argument — that is, your thesis — and the evidence that supports it. Try it, you'll like it!

Remember, though, that the thesis you have begun to formulate functions only as a tool: you do not have to live or die with it! If you encounter evidence that qualifies or even disproves your first (or second, or third) idea, go with it.

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Last modified 15 March 2008