How can I begin an essay if I don't know what to write?

Expert Answers
teachsuccess eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Writing is often a challenging task; this is even more so when time is of the essence.

When you don't know where to begin, it helps to determine what you want to write about. Decide what the subject of your essay will be. If this is a free-style essay, the sky's the limit where subjects are concerned. Let's say your subject is second-hand cigarette smoke. Take a stance on your subject; this will be the basis of your thesis statement.

A thesis statement basically explains in one or two sentences what you believe about second-hand smoke. Such a statement is extremely important, not only because it tells your readers where you are headed with your arguments, it also keeps you from going off in tangents as you proceed through your paragraphs. Think of your thesis statement as a guide, an invaluable one.

To return to the subject of second-hand smoke, your feelings about such a topic can range from negative/positive to ambivalent. Let's say that your feelings about second-hand smoke are negative. This alone will decide how you craft your thesis statement.  Let's take a look at two:

1)All students should learn about the dangers of second-hand smoke so that they do not become susceptible to lung cancer.

2)Second-hand smoke is injurious to health, and cigarettes should be banned on college/school campuses.

Now, the thesis statement is just one or two sentences in your first paragraph. What will you write for the rest of your paragraph? Your teacher may have taught you to use 'hooks' at the very beginning of your essay; this can be an interesting quote, a personal anecdote/story, or some reference to a news story about second-hand smoke. Your thesis statement can be inserted towards the end of your first paragraph.

If your teacher has given you a prompt, begin to study what the prompt asks for. Is it asking you to compare and contrast between two different ideas, characters, or novels? Does the prompt ask for an analysis of a particular work? Either way, the first thing to do is to decide how you feel about the prompt and what your eventual stance about the prompt will be (this is where you form your thesis statement). The subject of your prompt may be Shakespeare's Macbeth and the prompt may ask you to analyze whether Lady Macbeth or her husband is more culpable for King Duncan's death.

If you think that Lady Macbeth is more responsible for Duncan's death, say this in your thesis statement. But, write your thesis statement in such a way that there will be room for argument. For example,

'Lady Macbeth is more responsible for King Duncan's death because she is more treacherous, corrupt, and ruthless than Macbeth.'

You can begin your first paragraph by briefly highlighting three or more instances where you think Lady Macbeth proved more treacherous, corrupt, and ruthless than her husband. Your thesis statement can be inserted towards the end your first paragraph, if you like. The body of your essay will concentrate on discussing in greater detail your main points in the first paragraph. End your essay by introducing some counter-arguments and refuting those. That's one way to write!

William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This will not be the only essay you ever have to write. I would advise you to start a diary or journal and write a certain reasonable quota of words every day in order to get into the habit of writing. It doesn't matter what you write about, and it doesn't necessarily have to be complete or well organized. A good model to follow is the famous Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank. She just wrote about her personal thoughts and feelings, along with some of the events that occurred while she and her family were hiding from the Nazis during World War II. If you get into the habit of writing you won't feel so intimidated by a simple term-paper assignment. Even if you only set a writing quota of 100 words a day, it will have a beneficial effect. But regularity is important. If, for example, you write 200 words one day, that shouldn't mean that you don't have to write your 100 words the next day. You might begin to enjoy writing if you wrote for yourself and kept your writing your own secret. A great many famous writers kept journals all their lives and drew on them for the things they published.