When you start writing an essay or column or blog post, you likely have some good ideas that you want to write about. But you almost certainly haven’t had your best ideas yet. Those come later in the process.
I’ve read and marked a few thousand student essays, and there’s a pattern I’ve seen I-don’t-know-how-many times: Page 1 is okay. Page 2 is fine. Page 3 is nothing special. Page 4 is passable. Then, toward the bottom of Page 4, the student-writer says something brilliant. But by now we’re on Page 5, and this was supposed to be a 4-5 page essay, so instead of developing the brilliant idea, the student-writer brings the essay in for a landing with a passable conclusion recapitulating the passable observations articulated in the first four pages.
That moment of brilliance toward the end—where did it come from? It almost certainly came from the four pages of mediocrity that preceded it. When you read an excellent essay, it’s easy to imagine the essay growing out of the writer’s excellent ideas. I think it’s more likely that the excellent ideas grow out of the essay. To put it another way, the most reliable path to the good stuff runs through the not-especially-good stuff.
So here’s my one trick for writing better essays: sit down, write, and follow your just-okay ideas until you have a great idea. Then reorganize your essay around that great idea. That’s it. That’s the trick.
In the aforementioned student essay, those four pages of mediocrity weren’t a waste of the writer’s time. Unfortunately, they were a waste of the reader’s time. I know it took hours to write those four mediocre pages. I know it’s painful even to think about throwing away something that you’ve worked on for hours. But when the writer hit on that great idea at the end of Page 4, the writerly thing would have been to say, “Aha! Now I know what my essay is going to be about. Now I shall begin in earnest!” Some of the material in the first four pages might be salvageable, reoriented around the new “big idea.” Some of it, no doubt, would have to go. The end result would be something more closely resembling that flash of brilliance that seemed so out of place in essay that actually got turned in. (All of this, of course, requires that you start writing earlier than the day before an essay is due.)
It is important that you give yourself permission to write badly. But if you give yourself that permission, you can’t be precious. You’ve got to get comfortable with the idea that a lot of the words you write won’t make it into the finished product. Be ruthless. It’s one way you can love your reader.