The Delights of Writing An Essay

NO sane student would likely raise the hand to the question, “Who likes to write essays?” No sane teacher would ask the question either. There’s something exhausting about turning one’s thoughts into words, especially when you have little or nothing to say. 

Say you’re looking at a line-up of four questions at your term test or your semester exam—that’s what you’d expect in an ‘O’ level exam—and all of them glared at you in cruel condescension, what do you do? Fret, frown, go tsk, or succumb to the cloud of pessimism and doomsday hanging over you: “Damn, what in the world am I supposed to write?”

The first step to addressing this lousy feeling could well be some positive thinking, but that’s too late. A test or an exam waits for no troubled mind. You would have been better off engaging in some mental athletics and preparation way ahead of the game, peppered with a lively spirit of enquiry. By this, I mean the art of asking questions, of probing and prodding the mind, and very simply, engaging in self-conversation.

I have found this process works particularly well if you made “Be specific” your personal writing mantra. Say, for instance, you’re asked to share your views about the world being a very dull place without music, you could either respond in a general, telling way:

Yes, it would be very dull. Nations sing anthems, schools belt out school songs, and public places play Musak. It would be all too bizarre if all that music vanished. 

Or you could offer a more concrete and specific response:

Take away my iPhone and you take away my Apple Music, and by extension, my life. What’s a Swiftie going to do if you snuffed out her Taylor Swift? What’s an Adele fan going to live on if that transcendent voice went poof into some black hole, gone forever? Would it be good enough just to listen to that heart-wrenching “Hello from the other side” floating in the mind? 

Alternatively, you could be specific in this way:

At the heart of campfires is the flame of friendship and the kindle of camaraderie. Where would all the light and warmth be without those campfire songs, the hymn-like “Pass It On,” or that ode to the flower, “Edelweiss”? 

If you make it a point to work the “specific” refrain into your own mental chit-chat, you begin to find a meaningful conversation unfolding—constantly, every time. What you’d hear are more compelling answers, not just some yes-or-no nod or shake of the head, or some dull, uninspired, one-word answers.

Imagine talking to a bore. Then, imagine a delightful chatter with a conversationalist. Here, I visualize Truman Capote, my favorite writer, gesticulating, giggling, his devastating wit devouring my attention, his words calling up pictures.

How could writing not be delightful with this kind of mental clarity, bubbling with thoughts and ideas and a lively spirit of enquiry? It’s this kind of temperament that can steer your words towards a stronger sense of showing, rather than telling.

Notice how in her essay, World Without Music, Zhi Yi, one of my students, managed to tease out these details—at least, through some gentle coaxing in certain places, and some pulling of teeth in others:

  • the “Guess the Color of Tarzan’s Underwear” tune and the “Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear” song
  • the cast of singers in Pentatonix, her favorite pop group
  • Majulah Singapura as opposed to a mere national anthem

And when all your details get fleshed out, you’d come away not just with a touch of confidence, but one comforting thought: You know more than you think you know. All you need is to learn the art of extracting all that goodness from the depths of your mind. And that, essentially, is the spirit of enquiry.


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