Oct 122010
Authors: Johnathan Kastner

I consider my English degree to be like a unicorn tattoo on the lower back. It’s something I did when I was young, and now I have to live with it.

Still, unlike the unicorn tattoo (which is hypothetical –– really) I sometimes find a use for my
English degree. Every few weeks someone mentions an essay is due shortly, and they hate writing essays. As a former English student, I wrote a fair number of essays and have developed a number of foolproof strategies that make writing an essay as easy as a drunken walk into a tattoo parlor one fateful August eve.

The first thing you must do is select a topic. Sometimes this will be from a list of pre-approved topics or a single pre-selected topic. A younger teacher will sometimes give free-reign to students, allowing any topic. After the resultant deluge of ‘legalize-pot’ and ‘why I like to ski’ papers, they usually do not repeat this experiment.

If no list is available, try to remember what you’ve heard the teacher say and write about that. A topic should be selected based on personal interest, in that it should be something you have little to no personal interest in. If you enjoy a topic, you may spend more time than is absolutely necessary researching and writing and that would make you a dork.

After selecting a topic, you must do some research. If reading a novel was involved, I recommend starting your research there by finding out what novel you were supposed to be reading. The class syllabus is an excellent source for this, but I must strongly discourage you from asking the teacher directly. They are touchy about that kind of honesty.

It can be a bother, but additional research may be required. Naturally, Wikipedia is a one-stop shop for all the world’s information, but again, there are some unreasonable attitudes about relying on a single source for all information ever. The best tactic is to go to the library, grab a book with a title that appears to match, select a random passage, and quote it out of context without doing any checks on reliability. Like you were a reporter for the right/left wing media.

The key to a great grade is a great opening. Picture yourself as the teacher or, more likely, TA grading the paper. It’s late, you’re tired, and there are a hundred more papers to read. The only thing you’re likely to remember is the first 20 and last five words. And if I’ve learned anything from my career as a journalist, I know the best way to get attention is through proactively shredding decency.

Don’t start out with a hum-drum, “My essay will discuss the ways in which Huck Finn’s journey was an allegory for adolescence.” I lost half my audience to Failbook.com just giving that example. Start out with, “Huck Finn’s racist, sociopathic swath of destruction was Twain’s final condemnation of the human race. Titmouse.”

The middle of the essay is the longest and least important part. It’s really hard to justify spending much time on it, but regrettably many people get stuck here and are unable to simulate an in-depth discussion.

A useful trick is to pretend that you are explaining the topic to a friend, only that friend is texting and saying, “Uh huh,” and so you want to see if they’re really paying attention, so you say the same thing six times but with different words. This is called ‘being clear.’

Conclusions are supposed to be concise summaries of the facts you covered tied together with a punchy line that grabs attention back and says, “Give me an A.” Given the essay so far, I recommend taping “a” 50 times there.

Johnathan Kastner is in his second year of his second bachelor’s degree, majoring in computer science. His column appears Wednesdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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