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Essay Writing Basics: Classroom and Standardized Test Essays II

Updated on October 22, 2013
Continuing an Essay Exam
Continuing an Essay Exam | Source

The previous hub begins to discuss one means of successfully addressing timed writing activities such as in-class essay exercises and essay exams, one that can be outlined as follows:

  1. Analyze the Prompt
  2. Assert a Thesis
  3. Identify and Order Main Points
  4. Support Each Point
  5. Offer a Conclusion

The earlier hub addresses contexts of and offers background information on the topic of timed writing before addressing the first two steps in compiling an adequate answer to such assignments. This hub addresses the third through fifth steps, finishing what is hopefully a useful guide to the too-frequent task of writing under tight time pressures.

Identify and Order Main Points

Once a thesis is in place, so that there is a central point to which to devote the rest of the essay, it is necessary to sketch out what the main supporting ideas will be and to arrange them in an order that will make sense. An earlier hub addresses points and ordering in detail, but it does so in a situation offering a fair amount of time to re-read and revise the essay. The constraints of essay exams means that such considerations must be compressed, and it is helpful for compression to limit the choices available. Fortunately, options are available which, while perhaps not optimal in terms of writing as writing, are reliable in circumstances when time is short and a point must be put across solidly and in a hurry.

One of those options is the "traditional" reliance of timed essays on three points of support. Western rhetoric tends to operate in threes in any event; the Aristotelian rhetorical triangle offers one example, the need to consider topic/purpose/audience structures another. The study of English literature depends largely on a trifecta, as well: Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton. That timed writing--often found in English classes--would also operate in triplets makes a certain sense therefore. In addition, the three-point support compels broader consideration of ideas than a single-point support, allowing for the establishment of patterns which can then be taken as representing more authoritative proof and more effective demonstration of material mastery. The limitation to three points also aids composition within the time constraints; while longer essays and those written freely can use two or four or eight points of support, timed-writing essays do not have the luxury of deciding upon optimal numbers and developing all points appropriately. The limitation to three points helps writers remained focused on the process of drafting and demonstrating proficiency with the materials rather than spending time considering the most effective presentations. (Too, timed essays are generally also evaluated under tight time constraints, and the limit of support to three points eases that assessment while still allowing for some development of ideas.) Again, the writing is not the best it can be, but it should suffice.

Because there are generally only three points, they must be selected carefully. Generally, those which are chosen should be those which can be most abundantly supported from the available materials for consideration. They tend to be the strongest points in any event, and while other ideas may inform a thesis than the most prominent, without the most prominent, the thesis is likely to be unsupported. Choosing the three ideas in the materials for consideration that have the most evidence directed toward the thesis will therefore be advisable.

The three selected points cannot appear randomly, however. In a timed writing situation, such as an essay exam or an in-class writing assignment, the optimal organizational choices are chronological order and traditional rhetorical order. To paraphrase from the earlier hub, the former offers supporting ideas in the order of their appearance, while the latter arranges them from weakest to strongest (in terms of relative amounts of supporting evidence). Both have the advantage of being easily understood; writer and reader tend to experience time in a linear fashion, supporting chronological order, and long training insists upon traditional rhetorical order as the pattern for formal argumentation. Narratives, discussions of causes, and procedural pieces should follow chronological order, while most other discussions will benefit from traditional rhetorical order. The simplicity of choice works to the benefit of those who must write under constraints; they may not be optimal choices for all topics, but they are effective for them, and effective demonstration of understanding of materials is the point of the essay exam and in-class writing.

A statement of the order in which the points will appear helps to clarify the overall structure of the essay by forecasting it to the reader and giving the writer a guideline for composition. The constraints of timed writing typically preclude changing orders of discussion after points are developed, so having an idea of the order early on is helpful. It also offers a convenient way to move out of the statement of the thesis into the discussion of support for it (discussed below). Taking the example from the previous hub and offering a statement of point-order yields the following paragraph:

Superpowers such as those found in mainstream comic books prompt no small amount of discussion. Such discussion almost always ranges to asking which of them is best. The correct answer, of course, is super speed. Its supremacy derives from it allowing mimicry of a number of powers, negating the need for yet other powers, and assisting in navigating the world.

The sentence displays a number of features that should be kept in mind in composing such statements. The first is a commitment to treat the points in the order forecast; failing to do so is tantamount to lying to the reader, which undermines the impression that the writer knows the materials and will negatively impact the ability to succeed at the assigned writing task. The second is that the list of points follows parallel structure. Each of the three points is named in the same format, in this case a gerund followed by a prepositional phrase. Doing so presents the points at a relatively equal structural level, marking them as the things to look for in the essay. The task then becomes to support them in such a way as to demonstrate command of materials.

Support Each Point

Simply stating the main points, once they are determined and ordered, will not suffice to create an essay--at least, it will not create an essay that succeeds at its goals of bearing out the idea of the thesis and demonstrating sufficient command of material to pass the exam or adequately address the assignment. Accordingly, more needs to be done, and that "more" is to support the main points with specific evidence and explanations thereof--much as in any essay. As with other parts of an examination essay, written under tight time constraints and varying degrees of pressure, thinking through and composing excellent support must be streamlined, reduced to a functional minimum from a more desirable expansiveness.

An earlier hub lays out a pattern for development of support for theses that remains useful; it is repeated here with some amendment for the generally smaller scope of time-constrained writing:

  1. Transition into the New Paragraph
  2. Statement of the Main Idea
  3. Evidence Supporting the Main Idea
  4. Explanation of How the Evidence Supports the Main Idea
  5. Explanation of How the Main Idea Supports the Thesis

The first part of the pattern, transitioning into the new paragraph, is eased by the reduction in available options for organization and by the commonly narrower scope of such writing Because either chronology or traditional rhetorical order will be used, there are only two sets of transitions to track, and because there are relatively few points, there is little if any time in which the reader can become dissatisfied with the monotony of a single organizing pattern. In addition, the relative brevity of essays expected in timed exercises means that full-sentence transitions are not needed; instead, a word or a brief introductory phrase appended to the beginning of the statement of main idea (coming next) will suffice.

The second part of the pattern, stating the main idea, is what it appears to be: the statement of the supporting point. The statement should closely reflect the phrasing at the end of the introductory paragraph; doing so increases the appearance of unity throughout the essay as well as returning the writer's focus to the support of the thesis. Too, as with any statement of main idea, it gives both writer and reader a point upon which to fix their attention, a goal towards which to strive. For the writer, the goal is supporting the point and, through it, the thesis. For the reader, the goal is deciding upon the success of the writing--and it can only succeed it its aim is known.

How the transition and main idea function in conjunction can be illustrated by continuing from the earlier superpower example; the first sentence of the first supporting (or body) paragraph might well read:

One virtue of super speed is that it allows for the mimicry of other powers.

As in less time-constrained essays, however, a simple statement of the main idea will not suffice. Evidence supporting the main idea must be provided. For time-written essays, that evidence will be best derived from the materials for consideration; they should be used as much as possible so as to demonstrate command of them. Whatever the source, though, the evidence is introduced usefully as illustrative examples, using such entries into the evidence as "For example" and "For instance." Generally, one or two sentences will suffice for each example, and one or two examples will suffice for each point.

Note that composing in traditional rhetorical order will reward offering one example for the first and least important point, two examples for the middling-importance points, and three examples for the last and most important point. Doing so offers structural reinforcement of the relative strengths of the points and demonstrates superior understanding of how to handle the materials for consideration.

The fourth part of the pattern, explanation of how the evidence supports the main idea, follows immediately after the evidence. As in essays that are not written under the kinds of time constraints typical of in-class assignments and essay exams, the evidence does not stand on its own, and it makes sense to keep explanations in proximity to the things explained. As a rule, at least as many sentences should be used to explain the evidence as are used to present it; if two sentences offer evidence, two or more should explain it. The explanation of the evidence should focus on the main idea, drawing the connection between that evidence and the main idea clearly and consistently. This allows the reader to follow it easily and see thereby that the writer has sufficient command of the materials for consideration that the connections can be made clear, as it is only through high command that explanation can be eased.

The final part of the pattern, explanation of how the main idea supports the thesis, is too often overlooked even in essays which do not suffer from the time constraints of class or exam periods. However well the evidence may be tied to the main idea, the main idea is of no use if it is not similarly tied to the thesis, clearly and explicitly. Doing so may take only one or two sentences at the end of the paragraph, but those sentences are vitally important, for it is those sentences that demonstrate that the ideas have been sufficiently examined--and that the writer has sufficient understanding of the materials being considered to be able to give them that examination in the limited time available.

One thing to keep in mind when explaining how evidence supports main ideas and how main ideas support theses is that, although they may seem repetitive, they need to be done. When accomplished appropriately, they are not actually repetitive; each point of evidence and each main idea merits its own explanation. Offering each its own is not so much repetitive as thorough--although it will help to vary phrasing with each iteration. Being able to impart such variety does much to demonstrate command of the materials for consideration; it is through such command that variations become possible, so it is desirable to demonstrate it.

How the pattern can play out, as in an essay exam or in-class writing situation, is exemplified below, following from previous examples:

One virtue of super speed is that it allows for the mimicry of other powers. For example, super speed can emulate super strength. Hitting opponents lightly many times can do as much damage to them as hitting them strongly once. Super speed can also emulate heat-based powers. It allows for the generation of significant amounts of friction, producing much heat. In effect, super speed eliminates the need for a number of other superpowers. In doing so, it proves its supremacy.

As with the example in the previous hub, the prose may be a bit stilted; it would be easy to revise the paragraph to be more smoothly phrased and to include more examples and more detailed. But, within the confines of the available materials for consideration and the constraints of time, it suffices to articulate a point, offer sensible supporting assertions, explain them, and tie the supported point back to the thesis. In short, it does what it needs to do in the time and with the materials allotted, which is what timed writing ultimately seeks to do.

Offer a Conclusion

It is true that timed and in-class writing exercises admit of the possibility of incompletion; having only a set number of minutes to spend on a piece of writing may well prevent completing even the best-designed plan. It is also true that the thing most likely to be omitted due to the constraints of time is a graceful ending. That does not mean it is a good thing to neglect the conclusion; indeed, in some senses, a solid conclusion can be more important than a thoroughly developed body, owing to the recency effect discussed in one or two earlier hubs. Attending to the conclusion, then, suggests itself as worthwhile despite time constraints, and writers of timed essays are well advised to make the time to do so.

As noted in an earlier hub, the conclusion needs to do a few things, namely return to the thesis, refresh the main points of argument, and motion toward the importance of the thesis (since the body of the essay validates that thesis). This remains true even within the constraints of a timed essay; the conclusion, likely one paragraph, needs to return to the central point of the essay and its major supports before leading back out into the great, grand world. And even within timed writing tasks, it does not pay to flatly repeat what is stated in the body of the text in the conclusion; reference, rather than simple reiteration, is the way to go.

The references to the thesis and main points can usefully be consolidated into a single sentence, one which distills down the thesis and outline of the major point. Usually, that sentence will be something along the pattern of [Topic], because [major points in order presented], [rest of thesis statement]. The next few sentences--two to four, for timed writing exercises--will expound upon the significance of that thesis, addressing what the reader can do with it now that it has been proven to be valid. This can be a discussion of what the thesis can help to explain, a course of action that can be taken based upon the thesis, a warning of what will happen if things do not change, or any of a number of other ideas of which the thesis can stand in support. It lets the reader know that there has been some point to the argument, that there is some reason that what has been written is worth reading, and that will do much to ensure a successful writing experience.

Working from the earlier example can afford a concluding paragraph that looks like what follows:

That super speed is the best possible superpower--due to duplicating the effects of other superpowers, making others needless, and easing work in the world--makes it the most desirable of all. That the characters in popular culture who have it are generally given short shrift makes sense, therefore; they are so much more mighty than their counterparts that to focus upon them would eliminate the many other plot lines that those less-mighty characters make available. But when victory is needed, speed is sought, and that is not to be forgotten.

The reference to the original thesis and gloss of points of discussion are condensed into a single sentence, allowing more time to be devoted to motioning toward the importance of the thesis. In this example, it has explanatory power, demonstrating that the idea of the thesis exists for something more than itself. That such a demonstration can be made indicates that the person who makes it--in this case, the writer of the timed essay--has command of the materials informing the essay, since the demonstration cannot effectively proceed without deep and detailed knowledge of the materials for consideration. And that demonstration of command does much to help the essay succeed at meeting the requirements of timed writing exercises.

Final Notes

There are a few incidentals to keep in mind while writing under tight time constraints. One of them is that, although there is not likely much time for revision available, adherence to the standards of usage prescribed in any one given style manual, as well as to the spelling of words, will be appreciated. The more nearly "correct" in form the writing is, the more likely it is to be well received. Too, if the proofreading is good, it implies that the writer has sufficient command of materials as to have time to think through appropriate spelling and usage, which creates a favorable impression. So attending to correctness of form while composing the essay is advisable.

Another incidental is that of vocabulary. While it is true that writing an essay entirely in monosyllables is not desirable, over-inflated language will not work well. Overuse of polysyllables runs the risk of coming off as pretentious. It also runs the risk of appearing to be an attempt to cover up a lack of knowledge and understanding through dense materials, as if throwing up a wall to hide a gaping hole. Further, as essays written under time constraints do not typically reward looking things up to confirm them, reaching into "big, fancy words" may well run into the problem of grasping the wrong word, one that is connotatively--or even denotatively--inappropriate. None of these creates a favorable impression of the writer in the mind of the reader, making it more difficult to succeed at the timed writing task. Thus, keeping the vocabulary appropriate but relatively simple is suggested. A useful guide for the optimal level of vocabulary can be found in USA Today: competent without being arrogant.

A third incidental is a more global concern. Even in the context of a timed writing task, the process of putting together an essay should be an instructive one. Ideally, writers will know more about themselves and the world after completing any given piece of writing than they did going into it. While it may seem an unrealistic goal for an essay exam or in-class writing exercise to be itself an instructional device, there is something to be learned through work within such constraints.

© 2013 Folgha


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