More on Revising your On Essay (UPDATE)

As you revise your essays this weekend/week, remember that the stylistic elements we reviewed in class—punctuation, image grammar—are ones that can help to clarify and bring life to your ideas. But as I mentioned in my earlier post (below), the ideas come first. Be sure to fully develop your ideas through illustrative examples and supporting details.

Go back through the other “On” essays we have read in class. Ask yourself: what did other writers do in their essays that you could emulate or borrow? For example, consider how much attention both Eighner in “On Dumpster Diving” and Mairs in “On Being a Cripple” use information such as definitions to give background and add depth to their essays. In each case, the reader has a greater appreciation of both Dumpsters and multiple sclerosis. Consider too how Mairs and then Didion in “On Keeping a Notebook” and also Chesterbrook in “On Running After One’s Hat” open with specific anecdotes that show the topic and then follow up with exposition that introduces it (similar to the “en media res” strategy of fiction—and many television programs). Notice the ways in which all the authors of the essays we’ve read use many types of writing—scientific information, statistics, personal anecdotes, compare/contrast, dialogue, definition, reflection, historical background, flashbacks—to add layers of meaning.

Beginnings and Endings

Ask yourself as you read your essay: is my introduction inviting? Examine that opening paragraph(s). Often, the introduction has one of two problems:

Problem 1: The first paragraph is actually the second paragraph: in other words, you may need to add something else before what you currently have that will be more inviting for the reader. Perhaps you can add an anecdote, specific example, something concrete, that gives a sense of immediacy.

Problem 2: The first paragraph is unnecessary and the better opening is actually the second paragraph. Why? Most of us have the habit of writing a “warm up” paragraph when we begin an essay. This “warm up” paragraph is typically a very broad introduction into the topic, something along the lines of “Many people think…” or “There is…” or some other more general, abstract description of the topic. Often, this general description is followed by an example such as an anecdote or flashback that illustrates the topic. Why not start the essay with the example instead? After the example, then give the background to the topic. “On Being a Cripple,” “On Running After One’s Hat,” and “On Keeping a Notebook” all start this way.

The Rule About the Pebble

Famous writing teacher (yes, there are famous writing teachers) Nancie Atwell advises students to be as specific as possible when writing. Her “rule about the pebble” is one that can be very useful for writing. Here it is below:

Don’t write about a general idea or topic; write about a specific, observable person, place, occasion, time, object, animal, or experience. Its essence will lie in the sensory images the writer evokes; observed details of sight, sound, smell, touch, taste; and strong verbs that bring details to life.


Don’t write about __________. Write about a __________.

Don’t write about (pebbles). Write about a (pebble).


Don’t write about fall. Write about this fall day. Go to the window; go outside.

Don’t write about sunsets. Write about the amazing sunset you saw last night.

Don’t write about dogs or kittens Observe and write about your dog, your kitten.

Don’t write about friendship. Write about your friend, about what he or she does to be a good friend to you.

Don’t write about love. Write specifically about someone or something you love: these are the greatest love poems.

Don’t write about sailing. Remember and write about a time you were sailing.

Don’t write about babies. Write about your baby sister, your baby cousin. 

Don’t write about reading. Write about your experience reading one book in particular.

Don’t write about pumpkins. Write about the pumpkin you carved last night, the pumpkin you grew from seeds, your family’s jack-o-lantern that you found smashed on the road.

Finally, don’t forget to review the previous post below for other requirements as well as the rubric.

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