Tuesday, 8 December 2009

College Writing for Dummies

A successful college essay is like a declaration of love: it doesn’t matter what you say as long as it sounds right. Once you’ve discovered a formula that works for you, you can use it again and again and expect similar success.

As well as being like a declaration of love, a good essay is also like a magic trick. When a magician says to you, “I’ll bet you don’t think I can make this elephant disappear,” you are liable to think that, yes, making an elephant disappear sounds pretty hard. It’s important to remember, however, that only the worst magician in history would set herself a problem to which she does not have the solution already. Likewise, you must set yourself a goal that appears impossible, but to which you already possess the answer.

So how do you fabricate an insoluble problem? What you absolutely must not do is withhold information until the end, which is equally unsatisfying in our genre as it is in the whodunit. (Of course, withholding information is permitted, even recommended; but you must pretend throughout that it simply doesn’t exist, or you will ruin the illusion.) Instead, think about the way that you present your question. The magician will not say, ”I’ll bet you don’t think I can distract your attention while I surreptitiously lower this elephant into a hidden cavity beneath the stage.” So frame your problem in terms very different from your eventual solution. You might find it helpful to locate a writer who disagrees with you, so that you may establish your problem in their terms before slowly destroying them point by point. This move is known as the Strangling Vine, or “Stanley Fishing”, to honour the most enthusiastic virtuoso of the form.

After stating your insoluble problem, it’s time to reveal your amazing answer. But wait, not so fast! You can’t just pull it from your sleeve, or we’ll know that you had it there all along! Your argument must appear to spring not from you, but from the ether, by magic. In writing we call our magic “truth”, but it amounts to much the same thing: secretly placing things in unseen locations, and then expressing surprise when you find them there. Locate sources to support your argument and hide behind them. Find sources that oppose your argument, but not too well. Then, in the concerned tones of one who was always rooting for them, and knows they tried their best, but has too much respect for them to spare their feelings, subtly imply that the authors are evil, stupid or insane.

If college writing is an art, it is kin to the Hollywood blockbuster or the video game: like General Patton, it will not tolerate a loser. As a college writer, you take the role of Culture Hero, your reader’s representative in a world of fantasy, the object of your quest nothing less than Truth itself. So just remember that, the next time you’re asked to analyse the imagery in “Ode to a Nightingale” or to take a position on free will versus determinism. Content is always secondary to the story of a victory hard-won.

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