When I was in middle school (somewhere between 12 and 16 years old), I wrote an essay for our English class about the butterfly life cycle. It was a short read and in some way beautiful (for a school assignment). I was proud of it. I remember my classmate asked me how did I manage to write this. I shrugged it off, saying I just did it.
Complete lie. I had a very meticulous process that I followed when writing anything.
It’s all about the slow start and building blocks. As kids we first learn words to build up enough vocabulary. From there we are asked to create sentences. This one always puzzled me, because it’s tricky to come up with a good sentence without any context. Then we follow up with essays on a given topic. From my experience it was mostly descriptions of physical things, experiences or phenomena. Describe in 150 words your favourite season. Write an essay about your latest trip to grandparents. Create a portrait of you mother.
And, oh boy, I sucked at it. I was seriously struggling to express myself and write anything original. In fact, for half of my school years my mother wrote my essays for me. She is a native Russian speaker, learned Romanian together with me while I was growing up. She would take the Russian - Romanian dictionary and try her best to compose a cohesive essay for my Romanian class. As a journalism graduate, she had a taste for books and writing. Of course, she shined when writing for my Russian class. My teacher never skipped an opportunity to listen to what my mother wrote. Presumably she thought I made up most of it and someone with more experience “helped” me.
And so it went. My mother liked writing in free form. She despised the template and was always trying to think of something captivating. When it came to foreign languages (I did English, French and German), my mother was trying her best, but word for word translations weren’t any good. So I had to come up with a way of composing something that was at least a bit readable (it is ridiculous my mum was doing my homework for me).
Throughout the years, I learned about the structure of a composition: the introduction, the body and the conclusion. My teacher of Romanian took it to the extremes saying that any sentence should follow the same logical structure. I learned about canned intros, closing thoughts, most used connection words. I was taught I can create a plan of what I want to cover in a composition. I was asked to dissect other people’s work and identify their works’ compositional parts. Obviously I learned from my mum, while writing down in silence as she was dictating word for word the essay to me. It all boiled down to a framework for writing.
Here’s how I did it. I would get a topic and research it, learn about any processes involved. Then make a plan, put down some bullet points. If it’s a description (and most of the times it was) pick up the dictionary and find enough adjectives and verbs that would aid that description. I would start with a few known words, identify good synonyms and repeat the process a few times until I end up with a word cloud that’s not too banal and not too obscure. Nowadays I use thesaurus.com.
Next I need to pick up some figures of speech. Good I had a list of these as well. Similarly I would choose a good intro template and adjust it slightly to not sound too boring. Follow my composition plan. And finally pick a good conclusion that fits the tone of the essay. Throughout the writing use the selected adjectives, verbs and figures of speech.
This is how I wrote my essay about the butterfly life cycle. I struggled being creative, and still do. I follow a set of rules that help me think things up. This is, of course, far from true creativity, but it works for me.
Who knows, maybe you’ll find this framework useful yourself. At the end of the day everything is a remix.