Regarding writing, the most frequently asked question by my students is, “But what do I write about?”
My answer: “You write about anything you want. As long as you write it well.”
This response causes a wave of moans and groans and exaggerated eye rolls followed by silence followed by one annoyed student asking ” But seriously, what do I write about?”
Thankfully, writing is not algebra. No matter what your sixth grade English teacher taught you, there is no writing formula. If you try to follow a writing formula, your writing will be boring and generic.
But to all you algebra people, don’t get all slope, over the years I have developed a brainstorming formula that has helped many students get the proverbial ball rolling toward a finished writing task.
Ordinary Experience +Extraordinary Reflection= Great Success.
Your audience… whether it be a solitary college admission officer or a classroom full of aspiring writers… knows (with all due apologizes to your mother) that you are most likely an ordinary young adult . Your audience knows your range of experiences is limited. So don’t stress that you never climbed Mount Everest , dug a ditch in Peru or dined with an American President.
I encourage my students to consider the ordinary things they do and ask why do they do those tasks and what have they learned from doing those tasks.
For example, several years back I had a student come to me and complain that he had absolutely no material for his college application essay.
He lamented how he was so incredibly average, how his family never traveled anywhere exotic and that all he does is work and play video games in his basement.
Our conversation went like this:
Me: Where do you work?
Dejected Video Gamer: Dunkin Donuts.
Me: What do you do there?
DVG: Get coffee and make sandwiches.
Me: What to you want to go to school for?
Me: You like to build things?
Me: So at Dunkin Donuts is it fair to say you that don’t make sandwiches, you build sandwiches?
DVG: ( his eyes widen like he just scooped up a Boomerang Flower on the Mario Kart Grand Prix track) Yes, I build sandwiches Mr. Armstrong.
DVG rises out of his seat.
With his average chin jutting upward, his average hands fixed to his boney hips and if he were wearing a cape it would be blowing rhythmically in the soft wind…
DVG exults with an above average roar… “I AM A SANDWICH ENGINEER!”.
And that was the advent of his college application essay.
DVG went on to write a tremendous essay about how building breakfast sandwiches inspired him to pursue a degree in real engineering.
I’m proud to announce DVG is at the University of Michigan still playing video games and more importantly learning to become a real engineer.
So make a t-chart…
On the left side list ordinary things that you do …
On the right side …jot notes how those ordinary experiences have changed and shaped you.
Great writers have been using this “writing formula” for years. It works well for both fiction and non fiction writing. If you’re curious, check out some fictional examples- Araby by James Joyce , A&P by John Updike and Chapter 25 of The Catcher in the Rye ( technically all of Catcher follows the formula but Chapter 25, the ‘carousel scene’ is a great example) and see how their stories combine ordinary experiences with extraordinary reflection to produce compelling reading.
If you give the “Ordinary Experience +Extraordinary Reflection” formula a shot I’d love to hear from you.