We all know that the quality of an essay is significantly impacted by what the initial prompt is. You’re either extremely excited about it, can’t wait to get writing, and crank out an a five star essay that in fact deserves to be published, or you feel yourself instantly deflate upon reading the inexcusable monotony the professor has just asked you to respond to. We take the prompt seriously. We loathe the classic “compare and contrast x and y authors” or “describe the history of z social movement” because they’re boring. These classic prompt styles stifle creativity and don’t really give us as students much to work with as our education becomes more of a chore than it is intellectually stimulating.
But we can’t just blame the professor for mundane writing prompts and consequently subpar papers. A prompt is usually unexciting because it’s too general. And though we’d rather something exhilarating and specific, generalities do give us something to work with – we have room to make it our own. Rather than resigning ourselves to the drudgery of commonplace prompts, we have to take up the responsibility of making the ordinary captivating, the conventional enchanting. And to do that, we need to make these prompts our own.
My midterm essay prompt for one of my favorite classes read like one of those classic “trace the history of…” questions. But this class, its material, and my notes were too interesting to be wasted on a subpar, unoriginal eight pages of word vomit. So I traced the history of … through the lens of my favorite movies, its plot, themes, and characters – The Big Lebowski.
As I mentioned, the essay was supposed to be about eight pages long, but as I refreshed my memory of the movie by re-watching it – this time taking vivid notes as they related to radical ideologies and political theory – it was starting to look like (and ended up being) about a twelve page paper. I was genuinely having a good time writing it as I melded The Dude, Walter, Donny, Maude, and the nihilists together with Karl Marx, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Gerrard Winstanley, and Herbert Marcuse. The generalities of the initial prompt grew into a lively cohort of specific questions and explorations which not only made my writing more enjoyable but my essay better than it would have been otherwise.
Obviously there are many ways one can reorient the initial frame of a given prompt or essay question – and it’s also helpful to check with the professor before you take it some completely ridiculous route the way I did with my particular midterm – but the point remains constant throughout. Essays need to be made their own. They need some live to them. They need to be enthused with spirit – which only comes when the author (that’s you) is excited about what they’re discussing, what they’re researching, and what they’re writing about. Don’t be afraid to draw from alternative, fringy, and non-academic sources.
So long as you connect the dots and tie up loose ends, a paper that draws on these things is bound to be accessible, exciting, and readable. You want a paper that your professor, your parents, your best friend, and you can all read with pleasure and interest – and to accomplish this feat, the monotony needs to be ditched. Frame it in the context of a movie, of a song, of a current event, of a place in time, or even fairytale. Just do something unique with it for the sake of all parties involved. It can only backfire if you’re professor is specifically against any type of creativity or reframing (which if he is, you should be questioning why you’re even in the class).
So go forth into the remainder of the school year, or if you’ve already finished the semester, then the next one to come, and awe the academic world with your deep and burning passion for and knowledge of The Big Lebowski and its connection to radical philosophy (or something of the sort).