I recently went through a box of ephemera from high school, including old essays. Each one I read started with a dictionary definition. According to Merriam-Webster, rigid (adj.) means inflexibly set in opinion, or strictly observed. I think an English teacher told me that one possible way to start an introduction is to define a key word, and this stuck with me enough that I applied the dictionary rule every time I began an essay, for the rest of high school.
Seeing these old papers made me wish that I had a formula to follow while writing now. How different writing would be if it were merely a methodical process, following a checklist! Instead, while working on a paper recently, ideas seemed to swirl around my brain as I was researching. I underlined sentences I found evocative. I knew there was something there, something I wanted to say—but at first, I wasn’t sure what, let alone how.
Reading up on academic essay structures helped, but ultimately I kept returning not to templates or rules, but to questions. What am I trying to say? What do I think? Why is this important? A thesis isn’t right or wrong; it’s either well-supported, or not. I’m not going to find my thesis statement in a dictionary. I have to figure out what I think, what I want to argue. What’s my point?
The most rigid rule I have now as I write and revise is to ask myself questions. I’ve learned that good writing requires the quality of being, as Merriam-Webster would say, inquisitive (n.): inclined to ask questions. Figuring out what I actually think, and then saying it, is the crux of writing—and though it’s hard to do, it can be rewarding.
Peer Consultant, Antioch Virtual Writing Center
This piece was originally published in the November 2016 VWC Newsletter