Writing Strategies

Lori White

Beginning Your Essay

Marisela wrote her first essay about her pen pal, Christian, a guy in prison for murder. He was the one person in her life who motivated her to do better, her go-to person whenever she had problems or needed advice. When she was tired of school and wanted to drop out, he was the one who told her to stay. Her friends didn’t understand how she could be with a murderer. They don’t see the big picture like I do, she wrote at the end of the essay. It might be a rocky road for us, but I know we can make it through together.

I wanted to ask her what she thought “be with” and “make it through” meant, phrases that sounded more like middle school than community college. Instead, I tried to redirect her to the assignment’s objective—to focus more on her learning than on Christian, a response that I now see offered nothing.

Classifying and Dividing

To open the discussion of Gloria Naylor’s essay “Nigger: The Meaning of a Word,” I called myself a white, kike, dyke—an absurd rhyme that raised eyebrows and drew a few uncomfortable chuckles. I reminded them of Naylor’s thesis: words alone are harmless; it’s context that gives them power. Then I asked students for the names they’d heard, the ones that still sting to say aloud.

Amir was the first to raise his hand: sand nigger and towel head. Jorge called out terrorist, and Amir slid a little lower in his seat. Yeah, he said, terrorist.

Next, Yesenia raised her hand: illegal, beaner, Mexican. Several in the class agreed.

But you are Mexican, another student said.

Yesenia crossed her arms. Not like that, she said.

Lionel ruffled his faux Mohawk, a move I mistook for his wanting to contribute. He shook his head. None of those words bothered him. I asked what word did bother him, and he thought for a moment. Strawberry picker, he said, and the class laughed. I pressed him to explain. Because that’s what my family does, he said. We pick strawberries.

Guiding Your Reader

Oscar asked me to edit his next tattoo. He wrote out two sentences, and handed the paper to me. I can’t decide which is better, he said. Life’s sweet or Life is sweet? I said he should use contractions based on what they convey, which only confused him more.


Two sisters, Kassidy and Jessyca, were enrolled in my Introduction to Creative Writing class. They were short and wide, like round, unhappy trolls whose names I always confused. Each week they arrived late and setup breakfast at their desks in the back of the class. I warned them about their chronic tardiness, for which they supplied a battery of excuses: they got locked out of their house, they had a flat tire on the way to school, their printer died.

Kassidy wrote a sonnet about the drive-by that killed their mother. The sisters dodged children’s services for a year until the eldest (Kassidy? Jessyca?) turned eighteen. I praised her use of imagery and figurative language. After class, I found her poem in the trash.

Comparing and Contrasting

Aurelio had to miss class for a court date. He was worried the absence would count against his final grade. Three weeks passed before he showed up again, wearing a stained sweatshirt and dusty jeans. He averted his eyes as he explained that he might be going to jail for stabbing a guy in Oxnard. Under the circumstances, I agreed to accept his research paper late.

Analyzing Causes and Effects

Wikipedia had written the first two pages of Ivan’s essay for him. I reminded him that plagiarism was a guaranteed fail with no chance of revision. After class he emailed to apologize: i thought it will be a good idea if i would paraphrase some ideas from the internet to impress you with the writting. I hope this mistake don't make you feel any different from me.


Michelle was late for her meeting; her plane from Dallas had been delayed. I asked her what kind of work she did. She unzipped her pink velour hoodie and fanned her face with the latest draft of her essay. She said she was a poker hostess at high roller, underground games. That’s when I made the mistake of asking her to explain.

The games begin at 10 p.m., she said, and last past dawn. I serve drinks and meals prepared by a personal chef, make Armenian coffee, and give back massages at the table when the players get stiff. On a good night, she added, I make a thousand dollars in tips—tax-free.

Sounds like a great gig, I said, picking up my pen to shift the attention to her draft.

Yeah, she said, except for the matching bra and panties and six-inch heels I have to wear.

From the time Michelle was young, her mother set three rules for her daughter to follow: go to college; don’t rely on a man to support you; and never take your clothes off for money. Two out of three isn’t bad, Michelle said as she crossed her legs, careful not to scuff her white sneakers.

Ending Your Essay

Marisela stopped coming to class and ignored my emails that threatened to drop her from the course. One afternoon, I found her smoking in the faculty parking lot. Her red hair was a nest of wood shavings and ash. She said she’d been trying to write her paper on her phone, but the battery kept dying. I almost asked if Christian knew she was cutting class. Instead, I encouraged her to try to find a place to start. That night she texted me her opening sentence: I have been using crystal meth since I was 17.