One of the most difficult, time-consuming, and frustrating tasks for many of us is to write a several-page paper, essay, or report for a class, a project, a job, or other purpose. We struggle to write and organize an outline, generate the words, edit and re-write, check for errors, and submit it to a critical editor. Here is one way to easily write your essay, and in the process to organize and write an effective piece.
Most of us have a much easier time if, instead of generating sentences from scratch (creating ideas, words, and sentences), we write to answer questions. So, that’s the way to do it.
Step 1. First, think about your major topic, and put it in the form of a brief question. This should be the major question your essay is going to answer – the overall focus and point of the article. Now write that main question at the top of a blank sheet of paper (or top of the computer screen).
Step 2. Now, as quickly as possible, generate a series of related questions, each of which would have to be answered in the process of answering your major question. Some of these questions may be specific and detailed, some may be more broad or theoretical, and some may grow from personal reactions. But each sub-question should cover only one idea and should be in the form of a question, not a statement. Don’t worry about the order of these questions. Write them as they occur to you, with the idea of ending up with a half-page or full page in an unorganized “laundry list.”
Step 3. The next step is to re-order the sub-questions in a logical order, so that each has to be answered before the next one can be addressed. One can re-order these questions intuitively, of course. And if that is easier for you, that’s fine.
But if not, you can use a variation of the Method of Paired Comparisons, in which numerous items can be prioritized by comparing only two items at a time. Here’s how it works:
You should have your major question at the top of the page, followed by all of your sub-questions (one per line). Now label each sub-question in order by giving it a letter – A, B, C, D, E, etc.
Now compare question A with question B. Considering only those two questions, which one should be answered first? Let’s say it’s question A. Now compare question A with question C. Of those two, which one should be answered before the other? Let’s say it’s still question A. Now compare A and D, and pick the one answered first. Go through the entire list this way, comparing only two questions at a time, until you are left with only one question. Let’s say it’s question E. Question E is now your first sub-question. Pull it out of the list, and give it number 1 under your main question.
Now, with the remaining sub-questions, go through the same process with the remaining ones to find question 2. Keep going through your list this way, and you will end up with your questions in a logical and orderly sequence.
Step 4. Now, start writing your essay by simply answering the questions. Your paper will almost write itself, because you are answering questions rather than struggling to generate words. And an additional benefit is that your list of questions are, in fact, the basis for a practical and logical outline for your paper. And, you can link everything together by coming back to your main question at the very end, giving your paper a clear focus and major theme.
With a little practice, you’ll find that outlining and writing a paper will become much easier and you can become a more effective writer.
About the Author
Dr. Sander (“Sandy”) Marcus is an experienced clinical psychologist who received his Ph.D. from Illinois Tech and was the former Director of Illinois Tech’s Counseling Center. He is currently a career consultant within Career Services, and has decades of experience as a career and personal counselor, author, and consultant.