A little over a year ago, I decided to start a website where I would feature my attempts at creative writing. For the previous six years, I had spent most of my writing efforts on college studies, first undergrad and then grad school. I was eager to abandon the heavily referenced assigned papers and turn my energies towards subject matter of my own choice.  

I dedicated a section of my site to essays. I thought labeling some of my writing as “essays” would give them a more serious, literary branding. Although I was essentially starting a blog, I wanted to come across as more distinguished than a “blogger.” This vain desire did little to provoke my creative juices. With the freedom to try any topic I desired, I felt as blank as the slate I had given myself. Slowly, I began to come up with ideas as I untied my brain from the cold, severe sensibility I had previously attributed to the essay form.

The following are three lessons I learned during my foray into creative essay territory.

1. Don’t Be Afraid Of Inconsequential Topics

I prefer persuasive essays. So, while brainstorming potential airtight arguments to write and share with the world (okay, my small social media following), I started to think of meaningful, relevant topics. I was quickly discouraged as I thought of all the “hot take” blog posts that so often get circulated around the web. Why add to the opinion-laden, self-righteous deluge of “why my position is morally superior to society’s” articles? No, I wanted to write clever, silly little pieces. Not change the world.

I was reminded of a paper I wrote in graduate school for a persuasive communication course. The professor had provided a prompt: “Why Is Long Hair Better Than Short Hair?” The challenge of coming up with compelling reasons for such an inane contention and fleshing them out had been entertaining, and the result was satisfying. I decided that I would feature that very paper on my site with a few tweaks. This reminder opened my mind to the creative, fun side of essay writing.

By choosing ridiculous topics that don’t need defending in the real world, you free yourself from putting your name on a particular political, religious, or social stance. While you write you don’t have to fear the opinions of those you will share it with as much. At least, their opinions will most likely be about the writing itself, not the substance of the argument. Choosing silly topics is also a good way to work on wordcraft. String together those excessive, extravagant combinations. The reader will be more forgiving knowing the tongue-in-cheek topic doesn’t require as sharp of a critical eye as more somber material.

2. Acknowledge Differing Perspectives, But Stick To Your Thesis

Many times while I’m hammering out an argument, I’ll argue the counterpoint to each of my assertions in my own head. This internal editing can slow you down or it can be transformed into its very own section of your essay. It’s a classic rhetorical device to acknowledge those that disagree with you. Nodding your hat to differing perspectives shows the reader that you are aware of the full breadth of the topic you are writing about. Of course, this acknowledgement should not be a concession. Rather, use it as a strategy to refute possible disagreements before they are fully formed in the minds of your audience.

When I write about the counterarguments of my thesis, I like to give them their fair credit. If the word essayliterally means to try, then we can’t pretend that our point of view is perfect. We’re purposely taking a subjective view. Agree that reasonable people disagree with your perspective, but re-establish the reasons why you are convinced of your thesis. Sometimes, writers start off with a strong premise, which they water down at the end of their piece by arguing for moderation. Don’t start off your essay with the contention that social media is pure evil, then end it with a capitulation that giving yourself a media time limit is the best course of action. Commit to your thesis or don’t write the essay.

3. Put Your Own Spin On Life’s Built-In Writing Prompts

Life is filled with paperwork. We often run into writing prompts that aren’t fun in the moment. Applying for a scholarship or job requires that we sell our abilities and ambition. Emailing your boss and asking for time off requires a certain type of persuasion. Putting in your two weeks, applying for health insurance, putting in a ticket with customer service. All these writing activities include various prompts.

Why should we give you the job?

What have you done to deserve this scholarship?

What is your issue with our product and how can we help?

When we encounter these prompts in real life, there’s often a lot at stake. We need the job, we don’t want to offend our boss, we’d like to chew the customer service rep out but we know we should be polite. All of these things matter, so we tread lightly. We go with the formal reply. But, how much more fun would this paperwork be if we could be honest?

The creative essay is the proper outlet for your frustration with life’s paperwork. Write a resignation letter and go line-by-line why your boss was a terrible human being and the working environment was worse than prison. Write a college application letter and tell the admissions counselor that you don’t know what to do with your life but your parents will be disappointed if you don’t get into college. Let the full emotion of your disappointment with your malfunctioning blender erupt onto the page as you write an imaginary comment card back to the manufacturer. Reclaim all those lost hours of paperwork and transform your frustration into a masterful essay, full of rage, sorrow, and redemption—all the good things that life has to offer.

Anyways, the above lessons were a few of the things I’ve gleaned in my pursuit of crafting entertaining essays. I’m still very much at the beginning of my creative writing journey. Mostly, I’ve learned to not take myself too seriously and get the goofy ideas in my head out on the page. You can always go back and add in the profundity later.

Daniel Tiernan writes his short fiction and other creative pieces under https://danieltiernan.com/ and he co-hosts the podcast Cowboys and Unicorns Podcast.