Tackling long essays

A little change of pace, but a useful one. Clear writing is one of the most useful — and bankable — skills you can develop.

Hi Lee,

Bit of a personal one this. I’m having a very hard time with essay writing. Just started a Bachelor of Nursing and first semester is full of essays. Just little ones 2000 words is the longest, but they are slaying me. I got one in a couple of weeks ago and it killed me. That was the first essay I’d ever written in my life. I’m working on another one now and I may as well just hand in one of my kidneys. I’ve sunk a full 7 or 8 days into it, at the expense of all the other weekly class work, assignments and the usual functioning of my personal life. Eating well went out the window, I’ve not been on my bike, haven’t managed to do any mobility or strength work in the last 4 days. I’m not working at the moment either, so I should have plenty of time, but each night I start falling asleep in front of this thing and I’m no further than I was when I fell asleep the night before. Things are not going well.

Have been through some essay writing tutorials and I understand the structure and that you have to answer the question. I’m getting better at finding peer reviewed sources to reference, but I’m still struggling to write. I’m paralysed.

As you may notice I don’t struggle to write lengthy emails. I seem to find something to talk about and manage to get my message across. The only difference I can see is that in emails I can use the word “I” where as in essays I can’t. Count the I’s in this email! Maybe that is a factor….

To get better at mountain biking you don’t go and aimlessly ride your mountain bike, you need to break it down into specific skills. Pavel says that if you want to get better at chin ups, you need to “grease the groove”; every time you go down to your basement, do 5 chin ups! It adds up. How can I break this down into less scary bits? I’m starting from the bottom and I really need to build some confidence.

People often say that they don’t have the manual gene, or there are two types of people in this world; those that can wheelie and those that can’t. In my last year of high school I couldn’t do a wheelie at all. I remember sitting in class dreaming about how awesome it must be if you were one of those people who could manual and bunnyhop onto picnic tables, skills I believed would always be beyond me. Within a year I could bunnyhop onto a picnic table, wheelie in circles and even one handed. As for manuals, just check out the opening segment of an Australian DVD called Clict 2 – That’s me! I’m sure the number of people who can write an essay far outnumbers the amount of people who can hop to manual or do a rock bottom one legged squat. It can’t be that hard.

How do I shake the fear?




Thanks for the great question. I doubt you’re not the only reader of this site who has essayphobia (essay-o-phobia? me-no-like-essays-itis?).

As a journalism major who bangs out mountains of email, cranks out posts for this site, writes tons of business documents, writes for magazines and has written (so far) five books, I like to think I know a few things about writing.

A ton can be said about great writing, but your emails are quite good, so I am going to focus on tips to help you handle those big essays:

Plan twice, write once

An adaptation of my favorite “measure twice, dig once.” In school they often make you turn in outlines before you write your essays. I always thought this was a massive waste of time, but now I realize they were trying to teach us how to structure our thoughts. The better you plan, the less re-writing (re-digging) you have to do.

Do whatever helps you plan the flow of your essay: create an outline, jot some bullet points, stack a bunch of index cards, whatever.

Before you start digging, you should know exactly what you’re building.

Break it down

The first edition of Mastering Mountain Bike Skills was 60,000 words. The second was 90,000. That’s a whole lot of words!

It’s mentally punishing to open a Word doc, stare at that cursor and try to write a 90,000-word triumph of truth, clarity and humor. Forget that approach.

When I had to bang out MMBSii with Pro BMX Skills in the works, clients yelling at me and my wife on bed rest pregnant with the Bugs (and yelling at me), I thought: 1) Yikes. 2) I can crank out short pieces no problem; I do it all the time for this site. So I outlined and re-outlined and re-re-outlined the book until I knew exactly what I needed to write, then I busted out one section at a time.

Boil your essay into 100-word segments. That’s a few short, clear sentences that convey one point. String those together and — ta da! — you’ll have an essay.

You might notice the posts on this site have lots of bullet lists, subheadings and structure. These make complex ideas easier to understand, and they make my job easier. By hanging succinct points on a clear structure, I can omit transitions and other fluff — and I can write more meaningful content more quickly.

Don’t freak out

Writing MMBSi was the most stressful thing I have ever done in my life.

I’d been successful in a couple careers (Pulitzer at the newspaper, six figures and free massages at the dot-com), but I always leaned on my crutch of “Whatever, this is lame. Some day I’m gonna write the definitive book on mountain bike technique.” Well, when I quit www.altavista.com to pursue my bliss, the real pressure hit. It’s one thing to hide behind your ideas of radness; it’s a whole other adventure to drop everything else and try to BE rad. As I struggled to figure out how to express braaap in book form, I got a terrible case of the shingles.

If you are a young man and don’t know what shingles is, it’s OK: You should not know.

Shingles is caused by your dormant chicken pox virus, which lives in your nervous system. When the stress s— hits the fan, the virus wakes up angry and charges the entire nerve. Your torso gets red patches that look kind of like shingles, and the nerve — from spine to skin — screams in white hot pain. Shingles usually happens to old people, and I have no idea how they cope. Dang, crazy stuff: More pain than a broken clavicle, and for weeks.

OK, back to stress. Writing can be stressful, and, as all mountain bikers know, once you get stressed you get tense and stupid. Tension and stupidity do not aid essay writing or braaaping.

I was saved by this thought: “This is not the best book I will ever write. This is the first one.” And now, “It’s not the best book I will ever write. It’s the next one.”

After you’ve planned your essay, just dig in and get going. Do not stress the details until you’re in final draft mode.

Write long

“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

That’s Mark Twain.

Constructing a tight argument (the kind expected in business and college) requires more work and time than drafting conversational prose. It’s also more stressful, especially if you try to write tight on the first go.

For the first draft of your essay, write long. Write your ideas exactly how you’d explain them to a friend. I often put the Dudes and Bros in there, just to get the conversational juices flowing (later on, I remove some of them). If you can only write in the first person, do that.

As a rule, my first drafts are 30 percent longer than my finals. (Hmm, I guess I can speak 30 percent less and convey the same info?)

The first draft of MMBSi was 250,000 words! That was the toughest write of my life (so far). It involved a lot of wrong turns and, in the end, deleting a bunch of material I thought was brilliant. Such is the ruthlessness of self editing.

Rip it

Relax. Speak the ideas onto the page. Go back and edit ruthlessly.

If you are studying to be a nurse, I’ll bet your graders are more concerned with your mastery of the material than your kung fu skills as a writer. Use simple, clear language. Job 1 is to meet the requirements of the assignment. If your syntax, grammar, use of imagery, etc. is as dialed as your above email, you are good to go.

This is not the best essay you’ll ever write. This is not the best post I will ever write. Time to hit Publish.


Know more. Have more fun!

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