I do very well during class discussions and my professors tell me I have excellent ideas and am very articulate; however, I really struggle to write good essays because I can't seem to maintain my train of thought or the thrust of my argument. What can I do?


Nina Berler, College and Career Readiness Specialist

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First of all, you should feel really good for winning the praise of a professor. It means your comments are insightful and are an asset to the class. So what’s going on with the essays? My guess - of course we’ve never worked together - is that you lose focus because you attempt to write prematurely. So I’m going to offer the same advice I give students who are writing college essays, research papers, or DBQs. Start with a thesis that you plan to support or disprove in the body of your written work. From there keep a chart (particularly a Google Doc) in which you list each source and evidence from that source that supports your thesis. Document important assumptions. If applicable, make a timeline.

Knowing that you’ve received a comment already about your train of thought, pay careful attention to the structure of your written work; it’s best decided before you engage in the writing. And once you write, be sure to focus on editing, eliminating redundancies, catching errors and, if necessary, moving examples around to support the emphasis of each paragraph. Don't neglect the importance of a killer introduction and conclusion that restates your main idea but offers some thought-provoking ideas. You can do it!

Anonymous, Sam Museus is a professor of Higher Education

I am going to echo the recommendations to construct an outline before writing the paper. To add to what has already been sad, I think that the key is to use the outline to ensure that you can envision the entire paper from beginning to end and how all of the different parts are connected to each other. Each section should contribute to the thesis, and each subsection should help accomplish the purpose of the section. If you can make sure this happens, every thing springs from the papers thesis. Keeping this in mind can help you make sure that you map out the entire forrest and don't get lost in the trees.

Barbara Bellesi, Writer, Editor, and Educator

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Sometimes the mere thought of starting a writing assignment is enough to throw off your train of thought. Have you ever thought of starting in the middle, or even writing the end paragraph? As a professional writer, it is rare for me to start with the first line. Instead, I start off with whatever part feels like the easiest to write, which is sometimes the last line or paragraph. It can be motivating to know where you are going to end up with your essay or paper, even if you are struggling with how to start it.

Outline might be helpful to keep you on track, but I'm also a big advocate of letting an essay "creep up" on you. Keep a small notebook with you to capture ideas as you go about your day. Do you like to watch TV? Jot down some notes during the commercials. Sometimes, short bursts of writing like that elicit more work than you would have if you sat down for a solid hour and stared at a blank screen.

Good luck!

Lisa Hiton, Poet, Professor, Filmmaker, Writer, Arts Educator

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I echo Brianne Keith's comment: find out what kinds of writing resource center(s) your campus may have!

I think based on what you've written, you're already off to a good start--having central ideas and/or questions to guide your paper. You might try to build a timetable for your writing that allows you to approach it in parts. Maybe you come up with a main thought or question to start. Maybe you gather a few central passages that you love or that you're going to explore and place each on top of its own word document. Try to write the paragraph around it. If you break it down first, then you can spend the last few days before the paper is due revising. This will allow you to rework transition areas or braid it all together into one piece.

One way to test if you've followed your train of thought is to read the piece out loud. You could read it to yourself or to a peer. You can often hear those moments that are strong and the ones that wander off into a different idea. You could also have someone read it to you--you'll often hear them stumble or struggle at the parts that are more confusing.

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I would suggest you increase your concentration a bit as you said you do well during your discussions and lost it while writing, so it's probably due to lack of concentration during the writing. for help and support, anytime help.

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I would suggest you increase your concentration a bit as you said you do well during your discussions and lost it while writing, so it's probably due to lack of concentration during the writing. for help and support, anytime help.

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I would suggest you increase your concentration a bit as you said you do well during your discussions and lost it while writing, so it's probably due to lack of concentration during the writing. for help and support, anytime help.

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Maryann Aita, Writer, expert tutor, and creative writing MFA candidate

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There are lots of great ideas already listed here, but one suggestion I haven't seen is to try recording yourself speaking. If you are articulate in class and come up with good ideas on the spur of the moment, why not try talking it through? Ask your professor if you can record class discussion. Or, just record your own thoughts out loud. I realize it's a bit strange to talk to yourself, but if you can find a space alone and record yourself on a laptop or smart phone, no one else has to see you do it.

Another option would be to ask a friend to sit and talk with you or ask you questions. I often find myself saying great things out loud and then forgetting them. So if you record yourself, you can play it back and type out what you said to use as a basis for your paper.

I've also seen several suggestions for an outline or graphic organizer, which are excellent ideas. Start with a thesis--which you can always change if your argument changes--and focus on the MAIN IDEA of each paragraph. Try to capture those main ideas with TOPIC SENTENCES in your outline. These are the most important ideas that support your argument.

With an outline of topic sentences, you can work paragraph by paragraph to get through your paper. Once you have the topic sentence, all you need is some evidence to support it and your thoughts on that evidence (analysis). Just remember to work in pieces to make it easier to focus on your argument.

Anonymous, Former graduate student

You shouldn't feel bad about this. I myself have trouble with this very often and often found it hard to address my points toward an argument as well. So don't worry, you're not alone on this boat!

It sounds like you are having trouble staying on topic. One recommendation I would have for you is to write down your thesis. Your thesis should be a sentence that forms the crux of your argument and is the main argument that you are trying to make. Write this down on a sheet of paper and keep it visible next to you as you are writing out your essay. In the succeeding paragraphs, with every sentence and argument that you make to back up your thesis, look at your one-sentence thesis that you wrote down and ask yourself if you are remaining on topic and if what you are writing is supporting your thesis. If the answer is no, then you'll know that you need to stop and get back on track or make a stronger argument.

This is easier said then done, but over time you will improve upon this and learn to better develop forming an argument around your thesis as you write more and gain more experience. Keep at it and don't give up!

Colleen Clemens, College Professor, Writer, Editor, Tutor & Parent

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You are not alone! Writing is a great challenge that requires practice, practice, and more practice. You are getting great advice, and working through your work with the writing center is a great suggestion. That person can keep ensuring that you are coming back to the argument.

I often ask students to read the assignment given several times throughout the drafting process to make sure they are following the focus that the professor requires. Writing an outline can really help a writer who feels unfocused. You don't need to write some kind of fancy parallel outline. I often find myself writing outlines on the back of napkins and in a scribble. Finding what works for you when it comes to planning could really help you grow as a writer. I wish you well!

Regina Moreland, Middle School Literacy Coach with 17 years of English Language Arts Experience.

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You should first be commended for the focused praise you have received on your articulation and seemingly great ideas! Secondly, you are not alone in that writing is a struggle for many students at any stage of education. When you tend to lose your train of thought or the steam seems to go out of your argument, remember that good writers often go back to their original thesis, which can be found and formulated through prewriting. When you have a good base, such as an outline or graphic organizer that you can return to, you can refer to that in order to help get back on track. Before you know it, you'll find that your writing is sounding an awful lot like your spoken word, which means your personality will shine through your strong arguments. Once you are done, have an honest friend or colleague review your work to make sure it's at its best, and you'll be set!

Good Luck!

Above The Mark Learning, I am a teacher of language arts with a specialization in learning disabilities. My expertise includes instruction and strategy teaching in the following areas: grammar, written expression, close reading techniques, reading comprehension, study strategies

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As I teach writing from elementary school through high school, I always advise starting with a GRAPHIC ORGANIZER. A graphic organizer is a visual map to help focus ideas and develop an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. Organizers are available online and can be selected by the particular type of writing assigned. Fine tuning by following the writing process is essential, so NEVER start an essay the day before! Give yourself ample time to organize, edit, and revise.

Carrie Hagen, Nonfiction Writer and Researcher, Teacher

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Hi, Do you take the time to articulate your main point, or thesis/argument, prior to starting your composition? This can be an annoying step, but I think it's an essential one. Try free writing. Write down "What is my main point?" at the top of a piece of paper, and then journal your thoughts on the topic keeping this question in mind. By the time you finish this exercise, you should have an answer.

Then follow the same exercise when writing the topic sentences of your supporting arguments (at least 2-3). The thesis and these topic sentences are the most important sentences in your entire composition. I tell my students they should spend as much time composing these 3-4 sentences as they do writing the rest of their essay. If you have great topic sentences in place, it will be hard to get off topic because you know what your points are prior to the drafting process.

M. Erez Kats, Seattle Language Arts Teacher

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Writing is a muscle, and something that you definitely need to work at to improve. Practice indeed makes perfect, and although some writers are more natural at doing it, even the best writers need to keep producing draft after draft in order to really nail essay writing. Hopefully, you received the right kind of basic training in high school on things like intro, body and conclusion in terms of paragraphs, rebuttals included in persuasive writing, etc. Good essay writing starts with structure, and then of course, you have to develop a keen sense of how to research your topics effectively. Your ability to recognize and decipher the most important facts from the inane ones will be key, and the ability to take a specific quote or piece of data, and put your own unique spin and style on it are key. Again, this only comes with practice, and remember to always chose topics which you feel passionate about, or at the very least, interested in. If you don't have the spark of enthusiasm in your writing, you can't really expect the readers to garner it from your writing. And I do agree, utilizing resources like writing labs, creative workshops, and extra writing programs will help you immensely. There is alot of support out there so don't be discouraged! Best of luck to you, and always remember to keep the focus and structure in your writing and develop this skill before you try any tricks or gimmicks.

Amanda Morris, College Professor, Writer, Advisor, Writing Coach

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I see students struggle with this same issue all the time. And I will tell you what I tell them - don't start by writing an essay. The idea of writing an essay paralyzes a lot of people, so don't start by writing one. Start by creating a cluster of related ideas. Here's a classic approach - create an idea map. Draw a circle in the center of the paper and write your main topic idea in the center. Now draw four or five lines off of that circle. Draw a circle at the end of each spoke. Now concentrate on that main word - what other words come to mind when you think of that word? Think about situations that lead to that word or issue, problems and solutions related to that idea, related topics and issues. Write any of those words in that second level of circles. Now do that again. Each secondary circle gets three lines and a circle at the end of the line. Think about the word or issue in that second circle and write down three related words in the circles leading from that secondary word circle.

This is a visual exercise that will help your brain re-direct your thoughts away from the "essay" and toward the central and related points. Being able to see the words come together on the page in a more visual way might help you focus your ideas. I've seen many students use this technique to great success - it is really difficult to imagine all of those connections, but map them out and suddenly, they become clear! Once your ideas and the connections are clear, you will find composing and organizing your thoughts and ideas into essay form much easier.

Give it a try! :)

Brianne Keith, Senior Editor and Writer, WGBH Education

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Utilize your campus' writing center, or develop a relationship with another student where he or she can help you revise your essays and be a sounding board for your ideas to keep you on track.

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