How to Write an Essay: Tea with VODKA

by Kamm Prongay
published in Writing

I read essays with a cup of tea in one hand and a cream scone in the other. Ask me to write an essay, however, and my inner perfectionist (aka Ms. Prickleberry) balks, crosses her arms, and refuses to move words from my head to the page. I coax, plead, beg. She won’t budge until I reach for VODKA.

Tempting as it is to splash a bit of hard alcohol to my tea, VODKA is an acronym for the steps I follow when tackling a difficult writing project. I’ve used the technique for everything, from scientific journal articles to personal essays. It allows me to break big assignments into manageable pieces and places my creative self in the driver’s seat. 

Writing with VODKA

‘V’ is for Verify.

‘Verify the assignment and the format!’ teachers and professors tell me. I half-read, jump into research and writing, then discover I am writing about the wrong thing. My best, to date: reading “Three case studies, five copies each,” as five case studies. Verifying the assignment took two minutes of reading and saved four weeks of work. 

I also like to verify format. Scientific reports require a series of facts and conclusions, with little or no room for opinion. A five-part persuasive essay asks for opinion with an opening paragraph, three supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion. A personal essay, while still governed by conventions, wanders a bit as it moves from personal to universal. Knowing what the product is supposed to look like gives my writing direction.

‘O’ is for Overcome. 

The Law of Inertia says, “objects at rest stay at rest, until external force is applied.” To move from thinking about writing to writing, I need an external force. Looming due dates do this, but waiting to write until the night before leaves me cursing myself, my writing, and the outcome. 

Now, I use free-writing as my external force. I set a 30-minute timer, sit with my iPad, then write as much as I can about the topic. My goal is to write without thinking, letting ideas flow directly from my brain onto the keyboard. I challenge myself to produce 1,000 words and give bonus points for odd ideas, run-on sentences, and unique images or descriptions. 

Free-writing does several interesting things. First, it gets a bunch of material on the page, overcoming the inertia of a blank page. Second, writing fast brings my filters down. Somewhere around word 500, Perfectionist stands aside and Crazy Typist takes over. Suddenly, I see connections and associations I hadn’t appreciated. I discover the piece’s what and why. 

Finally, for pieces that require emotional insight, free-writing helps me reach deep inside. An introvert, I avoid talking about myself. In the middle of a writing frenzy, true thoughts and feelings find their way onto the page.

‘D’ is for Draw. 

Some people move directly from free-writing to a more formal piece. I can’t. After I’ve dumped a bunch of ideas onto the page, organizing them into a coherent piece is overwhelming and overwhelm destroys momentum. So, I move from writing to drawing. 

I start by highlighting key ideas in my free-write. Then I put them on a post-it, 3×5 card, chalkboard, or digital board (Scrapple is a favorite). I move the boxes around, grouping like arguments and supporting details. 

It takes time to visualize where each piece fits. I like to lay things out, go for a 15-minute walk, then revisit the board and shuffle as needed. Visualization helps me see where additional detail or information is needed. Similarly, a post-it stuck in the corner, refusing to link with other ideas, doesn’t belong in the piece and gets thrown out.

Instructions to authors and genre conventions can provide helpful scaffolding for these drawings. For a five-paragraph opinion essay, I separate the introduction, supporting information, and conclusion into different sections. Then I organize the various pieces of each section. If, instead, my task is a personal essay, I group the ‘why am I telling this story?’ pieces in one place, details about the event in another, and lessons learned in another.  

‘K’ is for Kraft®

Once I order all the pieces, I cut and paste them into Word. Like any cut and paste, the initial Word document is a messy assortment of bullet points and incomplete sentences. So, I add a little glue—connecting bullet points into sentences and sentences into paragraphs. I refer to this as the Kraft® phase, squeezing a little cheese here and there until everything sticks together.

Processed cheese isn’t healthy for my body and unpolished sentences aren’t healthy for my essay, so I add a little Craft to the Kraft®. I read the piece aloud, listening for places where the sentences aren’t connecting or a different word choice would improve connotation. Sometimes I read all the way through and then fix the rough spots. Sometimes I read and fix as I go. My goal is a document that moves smoothly, from the opening sentence, through the various paragraphs, to the epiphany and conclusion. 

‘A’ is for Audience. 

The last step is to tailor the piece to my audience. Is the piece persuasive or instructive, written for my peers, or the admissions board? I imagine how these people talk to each other, the language they use, word choice, sentence structure, and images. I work back through my piece, editing it to match this language. If I have time, I send the piece to someone like the person I am writing for and ask for feedback. My goal is not to obscure my voice, but to adapt it to the people I want to entertain, persuade, or inform. 

Whew! I’m almost done. I’ve Verified the assignment, Overcome inertia, Drawn connections between my ideas, Krafted an interesting essay, and tailored it to my Audience. Ideally, I let my piece sit for a week, then return for a final round of editing. And always, before I hit send, I run spell check and pass my essay through a grammar application like ProWritingAid or Grammarly. 

Then, I sit back with my tea and cream scone and celebrate. 

Kamm Prongay is a writer and veterinarian whose essays intertwine science, nature, people, and place. A child of the South, raised in the Pacific Northwest, Kamm spent time at sea as a Naval Surface Warfare Officer before coming ashore to pursue veterinary school, clinical practice, teaching and research. Kamm lives with her wife, Liz, and two curious cats in Portland, Oregon.

You can find her on her website.

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