Before you begin the sentences that will become your essay or paper, start with a "Message Map." This process, known by a variety of names, is often forgotten, but is a valuable tool for writing. It works very simply, and it also allows you to get words on that blank paper pretty quickly. The benefit to that is that once you begin writing, the brain begins to engage, so the process actually promotes thought.
Here's how it works. In the center of that blank page, draw a circle and put your topic or essay prompt. Quickly, without giving it much thought, draw lines from that center circle outwards toward other circles and put words or phrases that come to mind when you read that essay prompt. They don't need to make sense or be well-planned at this point. Just write them down. Draw as many circles, as quickly as you can, with filled in phrases or words. Then, walk away for a minute or two. Get a drink of water, move around, etc., but give your brain a minute to refresh.
If you are doing this correctly, when you return to the blank paper, you will have only spent about five minutes total on this exercise, and you will return to a springboard of ideas from which to start your essay. The good news is that you will also have allowed your brain and subconscious mind to work on the essay prompts while you weren't even aware of it. Something in one of your first ring of circles will probably stand out as more interesting than the others. Repeat the circle process for that circle, as well as adding in any ideas that relate to other first-ring circles should they pop into your mind.
When complete, you should find that you have plenty of ideas and related prompts from which to begin your essay. Taking the second ring of circle ideas as they connect to the first one, you will begin to see patterns emerging. The ones that most interest you are the ones to write about. Those will be the points from which you will be able to make the most convincing arguments and propositions. You may even find that some of the other ideas on your paper will be worth saving for future writing, but there's a good chance that you will have come up with lots of creative ideas from which to convert that blank page into a well-planned, logical, and coherent essay.
You may have done this exercise while in grade school, but chances are you haven't used it in a long time. Some things learned in our youth really are worth repeating, especially when they lead to quick, effective use of time for such things as papers and timed essays.
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