The Writing Center


Most college writers say the worst part of writing is just getting started. Here are some exercises designed to get you to do one of the most important tasks in college--asking a question you don't know the answer to. That question is the beginning of all great papers.

Starting Point

There are two ways to begin--you pick whichever works for you.

The easier one is to zero in on your feelings when you think about the topic at hand or the essay that you had to read for the assignment. Think of yourself walking around on campus or being at work or home--does any idea from the reading or from the topic assigned keep popping up in your head? Does anything from the reading make you angry, depressed, excited? The key emotions to zero in on are puzzlement, wonder, and curiosity. Begin there. Form what it is you feel into a question. For instance, one student asked "I wonder why Sam Keen thinks that men need to be isolated from everyone in order to develop themselves--that sounds very weird to me, leaving everyone?!" With the question you form--that you DO NOT know the answer to--you are allowing the writing to become interesting thereby allowing yourself to do your best work (adults only do their best when they see something as relevant or practical). Answering the question will be the way you begin to explore and eventually write the paper.

Here's the second way to begin. Draw up 2 columns as in the example below; it doesn't matter where you start. Let's say I'm reading Daniel Goleman's chapter on anger in his book Emotional Intelligence (1995). Form a question out of the clash between columns.


The Reading or Topic My Values and Expectations
anger is to be controlled I always thought you should express it, not violently!
walk it off, distract yourself my great-grandmother said not to let it in the house!
always examples at work why no social justice anger???
no examples about women why?
anger isn't ever good I read anger protects you

QUESTION : Why does Daniel Goleman think anger is something to be controlled?

Checklist for Questions

Once you have a question , it has to meet 3 requirements:

1) the question should point you back to the book (not outside the reading)otherwise you can't quote and use examples from your source

2) you should find the question challenging

3) will the question (when answered) fill 3 pages of text?

Now you're ready to explore your question with brainstorming of some type. The ANSWER to your question will become the THESIS or FOCUS of your essay.