Friday, March 7, 2008

How I Learned to Stop Hating On My Writing Assignment: Part 1 – Use What You’ve Got

If you lament that writing assignments can seem to have nothing to do with you or what you’re really interested in and you find yourself wishing your professor would let you write about Donkey Kong strategy, or the sexual tension between the cast members of The Real World – or some other topic on which you consider yourself an expert – you are not alone. Every writer at one point or another has been given an assignment that simply fails to inspire. We usually write the paper anyway but feel as if we’re just “calling it in,” and it often shows in the finished product.

That’s why, here at the Writing Center, we like to tailor assignments whenever we can to line up with our own interests and questions. It’s true that some writing assignments are pretty rigid, but we believe that even in the case of rigid assignments, getting interested plays a huge role in writing well. Take a look at these two suggestions for tapping into your own interests to transform a topic from blah to hurrah:

Discover your opinion. Having an idea is probably the single most important component to writing a good essay. But, it’s hard to have an idea if you dislike the topic. Sometimes, though, you can turn even your intense dislike of a topic into a viable, energetic and intellectually rigorous essay. The way to do this is to move beyond simply feeling that dislike and begin to ask questions about why the topic bothers you. When you come up with an answer to the question why, keep asking increasingly probing questions (i.e. So what? Why does that matter?) until you feel yourself hitting on a fresh idea. Make that idea the basis for your essay. Example: an assignment asks you to analyze a piece of art. You don’t like this piece of art. Why? Well, it looks like a child’s drawing. So what? Good art should have a standard of artistic merit. Why? Otherwise anyone would be able to make some random thing and call it art. So what? Otherwise how will we be able to distinguish what is art and what is not art? So what are you trying to say about this painting, then? I think this child-like painting disturbs the viewer because it challenges traditional beliefs about artistic merit. BINGO. An idea is born.

Use your own life experiences as a resource. Not all assignment guidelines will allow you to bring in your own life experiences as evidence, but who says you can’t be thinking of them behind the scenes? No one says that! Maybe you’ve always been obsessed with bats and you know an awful lot about them – perhaps more than you’d care to admit. Why not tap into your passion for bats as a way of approaching your essay assignment on environmental ethics? Research bat habitat and ask how human decisions affect the lives of your smelly big-eared friends.

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