Essay writing skills

You might not know it, but essay skills are a core part of novel writing. No, really.

If I remember rightly, June and July is the first sitting Exam season. So it is probably no surprise that the topic of essays has come up on our Tumblr.


Enough of this monkey business. You want to know what I mean about essay skills being vital story telling skills.

I am glad you were paying attention.

Saying what you mean

In an essay the thing that makes your essay an A+ rather than a D- is that you have something to say, know what you are talking about, and say it.

The same is true of a story.

If you waffle, go off on tangents, or include irrelevant material, then your reader will get bored. Am I talking about essays or stories, here? I’m talking about both, obviously.

In order to write a truly A+ essay, you need one thing – some fresh to say. That something fresh comes from asking interesting questions. Questions that no one else in your class has asked. Trust me, your teacher will love you for it.

If you are not addressing a question in your essay, you are wasting time. Know the topic and the questions. Then, write tightly to the questions and the essay will start to write itself.

With a novel the same is true. Know the characters, know the plot, and just sit there while everything unfolds for you.

Open with the premise

In an essay, you start by saying exactly what it is you want to talk about. It helps if you know what the essay topic is meant to be, and have gathered some relevant quotes, and lined up some relevant questions to answer.

Then you open up with a paragraph that tells the reader what you are going to talk about. Then you go on to your questions (or topic points) and you answer those questions. Finally, you conclude and wrap it all up by showing how you just talked about whatever it is you said you were going to talk about.

If the essay is about bee-keeping and there is an anecdote about your cat chasing a bumble bee, well, you probably need to cut that out. Why? Because it is off-topic and does not move any of the answers forward.

The same is true of a story. You open with a hook (or promise). Then you work through problems the characters must face (questions). Finally, you reach some sort of finish wherein the promise has been fulfilled and the character (and therefore the reader) have been on a journey.

In an action adventure where the characters spend six pages debating the relative merits of season three of Lost, well, you probably need to cut that out. Why? Because it is off-topic and does not move the plot forward.

Having a plan

Even discovery writers (pantsers) have some sort of plan. However, unless you are a genius at writing some sort of structure, some degree or direction or outline, will give your story shape. Discovery writers frequently have to cut large chunks out, rewrite other parts, and rearrange after the fact. Sometimes they realise that there is a missing scene and go back and add it.

Discovery writing is just as messy for essays.

Having a solid plan for your story or essay matters. At the very least each section should have a topic. That goes for both story and essay.

When I had to write essays of 500 words all I needed was three points, a quote and an introduction. The plan was always this:

  1. Introduction
  2. point 1
  3. point 2
  4. point 3
  5. Conclusion

Later, when there was no word limit I discovered that I could waffle like no one else and just grabbed quotes and talked until all points were covered. As expectations rose my grades did not.

It turns out that discovery writing essays only works at a low level. To get the top grades I needed a plan.

The same was true of novels. My best novel draft took 30 days and was 75,000 words long. This was because I had a plan. A long list of chapter titles. Each chapter had a sub list of things that needed to be covered. It was still sort of discovery writing but the plan gave me a shape and let me focus on the here and now.

Do you agree?

  • Do you agree with me?
  • Is story writing so similar to essay writing?
  • Can you think of more examples?

Post your thoughts and questions in the comments.

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