Jerz > Writing > Academic
If you’re facing a timed essay very soon, this handout offers some very basic, very quick tips.
- Plan your time wisely.
- Answer the right question.
- Collect your thoughts.
- Leave time to revise.
- Revise your thesis statementbefore you turn in your paper, so it looks like the conclusion you stumbled across was the one you planned from the start. (This small step can often make a huge difference.)
1. Plan your time wisely.
If you are, at this moment, frantically cramming for tomorrow morning’s exam, that first tip may not sound all that useful. Procrastination is probably the biggest reason why bright students sometimes get poor grades. (Start early!)
You can also plan your time during the test itself. Your professor knows which paragraphs are harder to write, and will evaluate them accordingly. Does the question ask you to “evaluate”? If so, don’t fill your page with a summary. Likewise, if the question asks for “evidence,” don’t spend all your time giving your own personal opinions.
- Start with the larger essay questions, so that you answer them before you burn out or run out of time.
- If one essay question is worth 50% of the test score, spend 50% of your time on it.
- If you finish early, you can always go back and add more detail. (As long as your additions and changes are legible, your instructor will probably be happy to see signs of revision.)
2) Answer the right question.
Before you begin your answer, you should be sure what the question is asking. I often grade a university composition competency test, and sometimes have to fail well-written papers that fail to address the assigned topic.
If the question asks you to “explain” a topic, then a paragraph that presents your personal opinion won’t be of much help. If the question asks you to present a specific example, then a paragraph that summarizes what “some people say” about the topic won’t be very useful.
3) Collect your thoughts.
Resist the urge to start churning out words immediately. If you are going to get anywhere in an essay, you need to know where you are going.
To avoid time-consuming false starts, jot down an outline, or draw anidea map. An idea map is like a family tree for your thesis. Start with the “trunk” (a circle in the center of your paper). Draw lines that connect that central idea to main branches (circles that represent subtopics), and keep fanning out in that manner. If one particular branch is fruitful, cut it off and make it a separate entity.
If a branch doesn’t bear fruit, prune it off. You should identify and avoid the deadwood in advance — before you find yourself out on a limb. (Sorry… I’ll try to leaf the puns alone… I wood knot want you to be board.)
Get right to the point. Don’t bury your best points under an avalanche of fluff.
The Great Depression was an important time in our nation’s history. Unemployment, urban decay, and a sense of hopelessness filled almost every part of human life. Yet, even in the midst of great misery, people needed to entertain themselves. People tried many different ways to relieve their tensions, from religious revivals, to Jazz music, to membership in the Communist party. But a whole lot of average people who were suffering in their daily lives often sought escapist entertainment in the form of movies. One such movie was Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. In Modern Times, “The Little Tramp” symbolizes the simple human values that are threatened by industrialism.
The author of the above passage not only wastes time composing six sentences before getting to her thesis (the very last sentence), she also clouds the issue by bringing up topics (religion, music, and Communism) that she has no intention of ever mentioning again. She could have spent that time on more depth, or on proofreading, or even on some other section of the test. If she had at the very least crossed out the unnecessary introduction, she would not have mislead the instructor.
In Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, “The Little Tramp” symbolizes the simple human values that are threatened by industrialism — leisure, self-reliance, and compassion.
The revised example is simply the [slightly edited] last sentence of the original wordy and vague paragraph. This clear, direct thesis statement helps the student focus on the communication task at hand.
Too often, the only revision students do is crossing out their false starts, or explaining their way out of a corner by adding to the end of their essay.
4. Leave time to revise.
Note: simply tacking on additional paragraphs or inserting words is not revision (see: “Revision vs. Editing“).
Sometimes, in the middle of a difficult paragraph, students will glance back at the question, and get a new idea. They will then hastily back out of their current paragraph, and provide a rough transition like: “But an even more important aspect is…”. They continue in this manner, like a builder who keeps breaking down walls to add new wings onto a house.
- To avoid this problem before it starts, see the previous tip, or this nifty handout on “Blueprinting.”
- To handle this problem when it occurs, don’t automatically add to the end of an essay — write in the margins, or draw a line to indicate where you want to insert a new paragraph.
- Leave space to revise too — write on every other line and leave the backs of pages blank, so you will have room to make legible insertions if you need to.
- Obviously, if you are writing your test on a computer, you should just insert and rearrange text as you would normally.
5) Revise your thesis statement
If inspiration strikes while you are in the middle of an essay, and your conclusion turns out to be nothing like you thought it would be, change your thesis statement to match your conclusion. (Assuming, of course, that your unexpected conclusion still addresses the assigned topic.)
When a writer realizes that an essay is veering off in a new direction, and handles it by tacking more paragraphs onto the end, the result can be extremely awkward.
- Joe Student writes a thesis statement that examines the relationship between “independence” and public morals.
- Midway through his essay, Joe hits upon a different idea that relates to “prosperity.”
- To mask the transition, he writes a sentence that refers to “independence and prosperity”, as if the two concepts are interchangeable.
- After writing a few more paragraphs on “prosperity”, Joe realizes he needs to unify the two ideas in his conclusion. He writes a new paragraph that examines the connections between independence and prosperity.
- He then writes a conclusion that “proves” that independence and prosperity are inseparable.
Unfortunately, Joe started out by making a claim about independence and public morals. If Joe tacks yet another paragraph onto the end of the paper, he will further dilute his conclusion. If he ignores the problem, his essay will appear disorganized. Such hasty additions will rapidly obscure the original structure.
Joe will have to wrap up his essay with something ghastly like “Therefore, this essay has discussed such important issues as A, B, C and D, all of which shed an important light on [rephrase essay question here].”
To avoid linear additions, you should ideally avoid going off on tangents. But even a very short paper is a result of a process. If you stumble onto a good idea in the middle of your paper, go back and change your thesis statement to account for your new ideas. Then, revise the subpoints and transitions so that your whole essay points towards that conclusion. Your professor will be pleased to see that you were able to make the connection, and your whole essay will be much stronger.
Dennis G. Jerz
04 May 2000 — first posted
26 May 2000 — typos corrected; puns added
26 Jul 2000 — minor edits
04 Dec 2002 — revision
It’s not a perfect world. In a perfect world, there would be no direct writing assessments. Elementary and middle school students would not compose to the tune of the ticking clock. High school students would not write fearfully, knowing that the on-demand writing task on the high school exit exam could be the difference between walking the stage with grandparents, aunts, cousins, and siblings cheering or sitting at home with completion certificate in hand. College students would not spill their all-nighter, coffee-laden, infusion of knowledge into blue books under watchful grad student eyes. Prospective employees would not be forced to produce a timed writing sample in the Human Resources office as part of their interview process. Life could be better. All writing tasks could make sense, but they don’t. Students don’t care about our friendly debate regarding process vs. on-demand writing. However, until the revolution comes, teachers do a disservice to their students by not preparing them for the on-demand writing tasks of an imperfect world.
Here are ten tips to teach on-demand writing as part of a thriving writing curriculum:
1. Teachers need to assign the types of writing tasks that the on-demand writing task will be assessing. For example, seventh grade students in California are potentially assessed on these writing applications: narrative, response to literature essay, summary, and persuasive essay. Students need to write both full process papers in these domains (genres or applications) and practice on-demand writing for each of these tasks.
2. Teachers need to develop a common language of instruction for Writing Direction Words, especially writing direction terms that will appear in on-demand writing tasks. Checking out on-demand release questions, commonly referred to as the writing prompts, is a must to ensure that the language of the direct writing assessment will be familiar to your students.
3. Students need to practice composing thesis statements. Since the preponderance of on-demand writing tasks from the fourth grade through college involve informational or persuasive essays, the focus of both process papers and on-demand writing should be the essay form. The key to an effective essay is the thesis statement. Learning to dissect the writing prompt, to use the language from the writing prompt, and to formulate a specific thesis statement that concisely states the purpose or point of view of the ensuing essay is critically important.
4. Learning the structure of an informational or persuasive essay is essential. The foundational structure should be a flexible model that students can use to adjust to the form demanded by the writing prompt. For example, a response to literature essay can use the same essay structure as a persuasive essay with a few “tweaks” such as including paraphrased quotations for the former and a counterpoint argument for the latter. Here is a step-by-step method that teaches students to memorize the essay structural components in order of the overall task.
5. Practice each stage of the on-demand writing process on its own, in sequenced clusters, and as a whole: writing prompt analysis, reading an excerpt—if provided, formulating a thesis statement, completing a brief pre-write of the body paragraphs, composing the essay, revising the essay, and proofreading the essay. Teaching these components will build writing flexibility and develop writing fluency.
6. Practice on-demand writing under loosely timed (with instructional interruptions) and strictly timed (no teacher interruptions) conditions. Time management is key to success. Students need to learn how to gauge time and allot time to each component of the writing process based upon the amount of time that they will have with the direct writing assessment.
- Gauging time is not common sense; it must be practiced. In fact, many students have a completely unrealistic sense of time. Try this exercise: Students close their eyes and raise silent hands when they believe two minutes has passed. Stop the exercise after all hands have been raised. Keep track of their times with the aid of a few open-eyed students. Repeat this practice weekly and see how students will improve their recognition of time.
- Allotting time to each component and practicing under simulated testing conditions will give students confidence in the process. Teachers who skip this instructional practice are in for trouble on exam day. For example, all teachers tell their students (as do the writing assessment directions) to pre-write, but students know that this stage of the writing process earns them no points. So many students routinely skip this step and jump into the essay itself. Or worse yet, students will pre-write way too much and not have time for composing.
7. Tell students to write a lot. Although we like to believe that brevity and concise wording gets points, this is not the case on direct writing assessments. Teach students to focus on their audience. Graders are trained to read the thesis statement carefully, skim for main points or arguments, search for evidence to back each up, and quickly read conclusions. Tell students to use all of their allotted time and reward them for doing so.
8. Model and have students practice writing specificity. Specific descriptions (show-me diction) for narratives and evidence (a variety needed) for informational and persuasive essays get students points. Transitions are keys to writing coherence and unity. Have a transitions poster clearly displayed and frequently reference the categories and examples of transitions at the beginning, end, and within sentences. Give students practice in revising unspecific writing and writing without transitions.
9. Teach students to vary their sentence structure. The best way to do so is to teach the “50-50 Rule.” 50% of the writing should be concise subject-verb-complement sentences. The other 50% should be expanded sentences with different grammatical sentence openers. Teach the most useful grammatical sentence openers that are appropriate to the students’ grade levels.
10. Manage the stress levels and motivate your students for success. Test anxiety inhibits this success. Students know that direct writing assessments are high-stakes tests—either for the school or themselves. Keep the instructional focus positive when working with on-demand writing. Work with student attitudes toward the assessment itself. For example, teaching students that excitement and anxiety have the same physiological response, so they can choose to be excited, not anxious about the challenge. Let them know that you have high expectations, but they are capable of achieving your standards. Build their self-confidence through successive approximation. In other words, success with each component of the on-demand writing process will lead to success with the assessment. Teach students that their voices are valid ones and that they will each have a unique perspective to impart in their essay. Knowing your students helps ensure their success at all developmental levels: pre-teen,middle school,high school, andcollege.
See attached sample of an On-Demand Timing Guide, Reading Passage, Graphic Organizer and Writing Prompt from Pennington Publishing’s Teaching Essay Strategies.
On-Demand Timing Guide, Reading Passage, Graphic Organizer and Writing Prompt
Find essay strategy worksheets, on-demand writing fluencies, sentence revision activities, rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum, Teaching Essay Strategies.
Teaching Essay Strategies
Study Skills, WritingCAHSE writing, CST writing assessment, direct writing assessment, essay tests, how to teach essays, on demand writing, on-demand writing assessment, SAT essay, SAT writing test, standardized writing tests, STAR writing test, writing tests