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What Can You Say About Chocolate-Covered Manhole-Covers?*

"Your assignment for tomorrow," the instructor begins, leering sardonically, "is to write a two-thousand word essay about the effects of Widget Distribution on Anti-Machiavellian Utopian Republicanism!" He throws back his head and laughs maniacally, spraying spittle over my notebook. The smarter students don't collapse into weeping masses of hysteria. They know by the way he's drooling and wringing his hands in anticipation that that's just what the instructor wants. I can tell by the look on his face that the person next to me is fantasizing about what it would feel like to thrust his ballpoint pen deep into the teacher's soft, warped brain. Another is wondering aloud where she might acquire some ink-soluble nerve toxin, or some other equally deadly literary device.

But while they are squirming in ecstacy with thoughts of revenge, I'm already trying to come up with a catchy title. I see this assignment, and all other required writing, as a personal challenge to my imagination and creativity, and accept it gladly. For if it were not for such requirements, I might never write anything at all and my life would be utterly dull and pointless. Writing might be hard, but that doesn't mean it can't be fun.

I always begin with a title. The title of a paper is its most important feature, because no matter how well written or original a paper may be, it will fall flat if it has a dull title. After all, you can't start an engine if the battery is dead. The instructor has just spent eight hours reading a cubic foot of students' papers, all on the same topic. He is on his seventh pot of coffee. He does not remember his name, much less the name of the student whose paper he has just finished reading. His comments are illegible because he can no longer feel his hand. He is beginning to hallucinate. Reaching up to take the next paper off the stack, he wonders for the umpteenth time what ever made him want to be a teacher instead of something more rewarding, like a gynecologist. He focuses bloodshot eyes on the title, half expecting yet another variation of the theme "Why I Think My Parents Should Be Shot." Instead, he reads the title: "Chocolate-Covered Manhole Covers." He reads it again, not believing his eyes. He takes out his roll book and checks that the student who wrote it is actually in his class. He pours a fresh cup of coffee and sits back to read the paper and find out what the hell is going on.

This is what a good title should do; get the reader's attention. If it can be tied in with the actual subject of the essay, no matter how loosely, so much the better. Its significance can always be explained in the last line, if necessary, or it can be left to the readers to figure it out for themselves. The important thing is to have fun making it up.

It is also important to find a unique perspective on the subject. I do this through what I call the Power of Positive Procrastination. I never write any of my thoughts down; it takes too long and seems too much like work. I'll compose, consider, and discard a dozen ideas in my head in the same amount of time it would take me to write just one of them. I generally like to Positively Procrastinate in twenty-minute bursts, though in practice I do it whenever there is nothing else to occupy my attention, like when I'm commuting or watching television. It also helps to keep moving. Sometimes I can come up with a new perspective simply by being someplace different than I was when I last thought about it. Pacing helps. So does wandering aimlessly. If all else fails, I can always lock myself in a dark bathroom or closet - this is certain to generate a new perspective on things.

Once I've chosen a new perspective, all that's left is to make it interesting. This is often easier than it may seem. Even for the most stultifyingly dull topic, a simple change of format can do wonders. For example, I once had to write a paper addressing the concept that an unexamined life is not worth living. This would normally require an unhealthy amount of boring philosophical introspection. So I turned the whole thing around: instead of being introspective, I was objective. To make it interesting, I wrote it as a dialogue between two non-humans - an old dragon complaining about human beings to his grandson. I enjoyed myself immensely writing the introduction, which set up the situation and gave some background on the characters. It had nothing to do with the topic at hand but was very entertaining. Even though the arguments I used in the discussion were really nothing new, the uniqueness and charm of the characters made them seem more interesting and entertaining.

After I've composed and refined the ideas I want to use, I'll sit down and crank out a single proofread draft, usually the day before the paper is due. Motivation is important, and nothing is more motivating than starting something at the last minute. This may not be the best method of writing, but it works for me.

Now, what have chocolate-covered manhole covers got to do with all of this? Quite simply, a chocolate-covered manhole cover is the perfect symbol of a good essay. The manhole cover represents the topic: it is heavy, has substance, and is generally quite dull. The chocolate represents the writer's style: it is rich, tastes good, and stimulates the brain. Too much chocolate gives the reader a stomach ache and too little lets him break his teeth on an old manhole cover. The fun of writing is in finding the right balance of chocolate versus iron: of style versus substance.

(published in Inside English, May 1992)
* This title was originally from a short story by Larry Niven which had nothing to do with essay writing.

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