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Essays

The Essay Checklist

Crucial Checklist to Help Your Essay Soar

Checklists can be crucial. Pilots know that when your brain is under pressure, you can’t always remember all the steps you need to take. This is why they use checklists as standard operating procedure on every single flight.  Essay writing can seem like flying a plane—intimidating and at times scary.  That’s why a checklist is a defensive way to get your essay done right–one step at a time, in order, no skipping and when completed, checked off the list.

Step 1

Check your flight plan.  Read the question. Carefully.  Make sure you know exactly what you need to accomplish in this essay.  Are there questions you need to answer?  Are there topics you need to cover?  Ask yourself what your audience is looking for. Establish the destination.

Step 2

Clear a runway (table or desk), fasten your seat belt, open your computer, put your fingers on the keys and just keep them moving.  You need to create impulsion.  Push the throttle and pick up speed. 

Keep your fingers flying–no editing, no worries about spelling, no thoughts of punctuation.  You need to get this essay off the ground.  Get an idea and go with it; don’t worry about direction, go with the flow. Do not let any critical thoughts weight you down.

Continue until you have what one famous author refers to as a ‘crappy first draft’ (CFD).  This is not your essay, this is the first step in your essay; it’s a way to capture your creative thoughts and it cannot be burdened with any editing or analysis at this point in the flight.  Keep climbing ‘til you reach the altitude you need.

Step 3

Step Away from the Cockpit!!!

After you have your CFD, take a creative break and refuel. Put the essay on autopilot.  Do something fun for at least 15 to 20 minutes– anything relaxing.  Ride a bike, take a walk, look at nature, jump on a trampoline, take a shower or a nap.  The purpose is to reset your mind. Give yourself some distance from the document.  It’s smart to take a piece of paper with you in case a new idea falls from the sky. All good pilots keep a log.

Step 4

Return to the essay and do a first easy edit.  Check the altitude and stay on course.  Start to clean it up, not perfectly, but begin the editing process.  It will be easier now that you have been away. Cut and paste to organize your ideas better.  Add transitions that connect the concepts.

Step 5

Repeat Step Two and add a reward like chocolate or ice cream.  Here comes the refreshment cart.  You deserve it.

Step 6

Do your second edit, looking for even more bumpy weather.  Check navigation.  Reread the assignment to make sure you are on course.  Add stuff to fill in any holes or to enrich the piece.  Adjust course if necessary.

Step 7

Edit a third time, really polishing the piece.  Check all systems.  Look for repeat words.  Adjust adjectives to be more exacting, real, and dynamic.  Check transitions to make sure the reader can follow your thoughts.  Break up long word blocks into separate paragraphs.  Remember a new paragraph allows the reader to breathe.  Spell check.  Wait a day if you have the time or take another mental break.

Step 8

Read it out loud and slowly as your fourth edit.  Clear approach to airport, radio air traffic control.  Make sure you have complete sentences.  Listen for errors or awkward phrases.  Make sure you have used words that flow together.  Look out for mixed metaphors.  Let your ear improve the piece—it’s a great editor and very different than the eye. Cut out things you say twice or don’t need—do not be afraid to throw words or even paragraphs off the plane to lighten the load.

Step 9

Read it to yourself word by word as your fifth and final edit. You may want to print it out and use a pencil.  Lower landing gear.  Make sure every single word you use is the right one. Check punctuation. Look for phrases that are just hanging out—eject them.   Check all the proper names for spelling and accuracy.  Check dates or any references.  Confirm everything is clear, concise and correct.

Step 10

Print, attach or upload. Land this baby.

Writing is a process much like flying a plane.  The first and most challenging part is getting it off the ground creatively by letting your mind fly.   The other is editing it five times, each time, making the piece more and more aerodynamic.

Four generations after the first aviation checklists went into use, a lesson is emerging; checklists seem able to defend anyone against failure in many more tasks than we realize.  They provide a kind of cognitive net.  They catch mental flaws inherent in all of us — flaws of attention and thoroughness.  And because they do, they raise wise, unexpected possibilities.”   The Checklist Manifesto — How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande