Essay Writing Experiments by Daniel Nester

Essay Writing Experiments
by Daniel Nester

  1. Epistolary essay. Write letters/emails to yourself. Write back. Repeat as needed.
  2. Five-act 1. Tell a story five different ways, from five different perspectives, human and object.
  3. Freytag's Pyramid (Gustav Freytag, Lajos Egri). Write an essay divided into five parts, or acts: Exposition/Premise, Rising Action/Problem, Climax (Turning Point), Falling Action/False Resolution, Dénouement.
  4. Captain's Log (Todd Colby). Write diaristic account of workday, including exact time and place of writing.
  5. Chronological Record of My Life (Amy Krouse Rosenthal). Write one sentence about yourself for each year you have lived.
  6. Self-Google. Write only with resulting text, editing it down to an essay.
  7. How To Oral History (Foxfire). Interview your oldest relative. Ask him or her to teach you how to do something: a skill that is no longer needed in our modern age, a cooking recipe, how to ask a girl/boy to a dance. Transcribe/edit using only your subject's words.
  8. Frequently Asked Questions. Write an essay by answering the Frequently Asked Questions of a random website. Take out the questions, or leave them in.
  9. Cento Essay. Construct an essay entirely made up of full sentences other than your own. Cite sources at the end. Alternate: Construct essay entirely made up of sentences that are from your own past essays).
  10. Recomination: Write a one-word sentence, then a two-word, a three-word, and so on.
  11. Recomination 2: Start with a sentence that is one-word long, two-word, etc. Double word count in each successive sentence.
  12. Make up your own outline. Write an essay according to that outline. Cut up the outline and throw on floor. Pick up. Use that order as your new outline. Cut and paste corresponding text.
  13. Serial Sentences (Bernstein): Select one sentence each from a variety of different books or other sources. Use that to begin each paragraph, and sentences of your own composition. Combine into one paragraph or reorder to produce the most interesting results.
  14. Deep listening (Sparrow, Barbara Louise Ungar, Joseph Bailey, et al.) Listen with eyes closed for 10 minutes. Offer account. Repeat as needed.
  15. Lipogram 1. Write an essay with no adjectives or adverbs.
  16. Lipogram 2 (George Perec). Write an essay that does not use one particular letter.
  17. Liponym (Wayne Koestenbaum). Write an essay without one word (examples: the, a, I). Write an essay without one word that is about that word (example: an essay about apples without using the word apple or apples).
  18. Univocalic Essay (Christian Bok's Eunoia). Write an essay that uses only one vowel.
  19. Journey Around My Room (Xavier De Maistre). From your bed, look slowly around your room, and write a full page of description (narrative, memory, lists) of at least five objects.
  20. Time-Specific (Bernadette Mayer). Write a paragraph at the same exact time every day for an pre-determined assigned number of days.
  21. Pictures at an Exhibition (Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky). Go to an image-filled friend or relative's house and write a paragraph on each picture, as if scripting a guided tour at a museum. Adopt art criticism-speak as needed.
  22. User's Manual. Write step-by-step, numbered directions to something you have no idea what to do, or a piece of equipment you have no idea how to use. Provide illustrations as needed.
  23. Recurring dream/confidence man. Provide a detailed account of a recurring dream. Do not mention that it is a recurring dream.
  24. Write an essay with a font/typeface you never use.
  25. I cannot/can't remember (Joe Brainard). Write a list of things you cannot remember from your own life. Provide details of what you cannot remember.
  26. Write an essay on only one computer that is not your own.
  27. Write an essay with only one hand.
  28. Anti-narrative (Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project). Write an essay that is an assemblage of quotations, observations, newspapers, and other published sources, arrange them in categories: some of the ones Benjamin uses are "Fashion," "Boredom," "Advertising," "Prostitution," and "Theory of Progress.
  29. Numerology. Adopt a numeric system for your essay. Examples: write 10 10-word essays, 20 20-word essays. Write an essay with only one-, two-, three-, or four-syllable words.
  30. Star number essay. Write an essay that has the exact word count of star number, which is defined in Wikipedia as a centered figurate number that represents a centered hexagram, such as the one that Chinese checkers is played on. The nth star number is given by the formula 6n(n - 1) + The first star numbers are: 1, 13, 37, 73, 121, 181, 253, 337, 433, 541, 661, 793, 937, 1093, 1261, 1441, 1633, 1837, 2053, 2281, 2521, 2773, 3037, 3313, 3601, 3901, 4213, 4537, 4873, 5221, 5581, 5953, 6337, 6733, 7141, 7561, 7993, 8437, 8893, 9361, 9841, 10333, 10837.
  31. Prime number essay. Write an essay that has the exact word count of prime number. A number is prime if it is greater than 1 and has no positive divisors except 1 and itself. The first prime numbers are: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, 37, 41, 43, 47, 53, 59, 61, 67, 71, 73, 79, 83, 89, 97, 101, 103, 107, 109, 113, 127, 131, 137, 139, 149, 151, 157, 163, 167, 173, 179, 181, 191, 193, 197, 199, 211, 223, 227, 229, 233, 239, 241, 251, 257, 263, 269, 271.
  32. Write an essay that can only be hand-written-i.e., with symbols, pictures, collage-and distributed by scanning/Xeroxing.
  33. Use terms from Gustavus Hindman Miller's dream dictionary (online; Google the term), and provide your own examples or explanations.
  34. Turing Test essay (Alan Mathison Turing). Submit yourself to a Turing Test, the first test for artificial intelligence in a computer, by writing your own answers to the various Turing Test questions found online (Google the term Turing Test questions").
  35. Write your own Profession of Faith.
  36. Architectural essay 1. Write an essay that is an architectural "event, by using, in some form or another, Bernard Tschumi's six concepts for postmodern architecture: defamiliarization, mediated metropolitan shock, destructuring, superimposition, crossprogramming, event. From: Johnson-Eilola, Johndan. "From Space | Action | Movement: Understanding Composition as Architecture. 5 April 2007.
  37. Architectural essay 1. Model an essay on webs, nests, burrows, tunnels made by animals.
  38. Write an oral history of a week in your life, using interview transcriptions from five people other than yourself.
  39. Pillow Book (Sei Shônagon, Murasaki Shikibu). Write a book of sayings, lists, quotations, opinions of others.
  40. Fragments (Sappho). Write an essay with the conceit that it has been transcribed from a notebook in which only a fraction of the text is readable/transcribeable.
  41. Collaborative Essay. Write an essay that is one word/sentence/paragraph at a time with collaborator(s).
  42. Five-Paragraph Essay Writing Roulette. Using standard five-paragraph parallel structure, write five standard academic essays in groups of three or more. Each writer writes a five sentence first paragraph (thesis, support subpoint-1, support subpoint-2, support subpoint-3, conclusion), and passes it on to the writer to his or her right, repeating until finished.
  43. Cut-Up Essay (John Cage, William S. Burroughs). Write an essay. Cut up into sentences/paragraphs. Throw on floor. Pick up. Re-edit essay according to this new order.
  44. Flarf Essay (Gary Sullivan, Degentesh). Type your topic/thesis/idea into Google. Copy and paste the text results into your word processing program, and use only this text for your essay, cutting as needed. Then re-write as needed. (Important: Do not tell anyone you used this method.)
  45. Indeterminacy (Cage). Group writes topics, assigns to another writer or is randomly picked from a hat.
  46. Indeterminacy 2 (John Cage, Lars Von Trier). Have someone else write your essay, with yourself as author of record.
  47. Each writer writes a sentence that must be included in another student's essay. It must make sense, and be used verbatim.
  48. Find five words you have never used, and use them in the essay.
  49. Walk to work: write a sentence at each corner.
  50. Sampling: Find a phrase from another work of art. Repeat in various forms in text.
  51. Scientific article outline #1
  52. Scientific article outline #2
    FIGURE 1:
    FIGURE 2:
    FIGURE 3:
    FIGURE 4:
    TABLE 1:
    TABLE 2:
  53. Forced Epiphany. Think of problem: Pose question. Then, go somewhere outside. Take notes of your surrounding. Then, have an epiphany. Attempt to answer your question ("Maybe the answer to ____ is ____" or "Maybe the question is really _____").
  54. Aphorism Essay: Write 25 aphorism on your subject or idea.

Inspired, stolen, and sometimes adapted from:

Bernstein, Charles. "EXPERIMENTS" 19 May 2008.

Mayer, Bernadette. "Bernadette Mayer's List of Journal Ideas"; 19 May 2008..

Daniel Nester is the author of God Save My Queen (Soft Skull Press, 2003) and God Save My Queen II (2004), both essayistic collections on his obsession with the rock band Queen, as well as a book of poems, The History of My World Tonight (BlazeVOX, 2006). He teaches at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY. Learn more about him at