As I was grading my first round of exams this week, I was reminded that many students have no idea how to approach an in-class essay. Too many students come out of high school having never had to write an essay for an exam, and the prospect of having to do so is daunting.
Unfortunately, most of these students do not realize that essay writing is a skill that can be acquired. Our education system focuses so much on content that students do not realize that using the content is a skill that needs mastering. Consequently, when students are faced with poor marks on an essay, they work harder at learning the content, and often make the same mistakes in writing the essay the very next time. Or, they merely throw up their hands and declare, “I’m not good at writing essays.”
Here are my suggestions for how to get good at writing essays.
1. Read. Make sure you read the prompt carefully. Too often, students will read an essay prompt, have an initial gut reaction, and think, “I know what this question is about.” But in actuality, a key word or idea has fooled them. For example, every year I have many students who read the name “Martin Luther” in a prompt and then write me an essay in which they tell me everything that they can remember about Martin Luther and his 95 Theses. But what if the prompt is asking about a specific aspect of Luther’s life, or what if it’s asking how he affected later German society, or how he related to his political context? If you don’t read the prompt carefully, then your essay will go astray, and it will not receive very high marks.
2. Brainstorm. Before you begin writing, take the time to jot down key ideas that should be included in the essay. Brainstorming is particularly useful if you are presented with multiple prompts to choose from. Brainstorm for all the options, and then you can choose the prompt that you know the most about, not the one that your gut told you you knew the most about. Sometimes the gut leads us astray in essay writing.
3. Outline. Once you’ve brainstormed, take your ideas and put them into an outline, which will aid you during the actual writing. Making an outline will keep your essay from sounding like a random collection of facts. Design your outline around the prompt. Does the prompt have multiple issues that it asks you to address? Make sure those issues are represented in your outline.
4. Write. Now it’s time to get busy writing the essay. First, write an introduction. Often restating the prompt briefly suffices. Then, begin following your outline, fleshing out the points. I shouldn’t have to mention this: use paragraphs. An essay has paragraphs. If your writing doesn’t have paragraphs then you haven’t written an essay. Each paragraph ought to explain one of the points on your outline. State the point, explain the point, and then illustrate the point with some evidence from the lectures or readings. Professors love for you to back up your assertions. Every paragraph of the body: point, explanation, example. Finally, throw together some sort of concluding sentence or two to wrap it all up.
Even though having a plan for writing will ensure that your next essay is better, students occasionally protest that they don’t have time to brainstorm and outline. I have two responses. First, making an outline will save you time because you won’t be as tempted to throw in all the irrelevant trivia that you learned. You’ll stick closer to the prompt. Second, making an outline saves time because you always know what to write next. In every exam, I watch students write a sentence and then stare off into space thinking of what’s next. Then they repeat this process until time expires. If you have an outline, you won’t have to spend so much time staring into space, and you’ll be a lot less likely to leave out a key point.
Have you lived in fear of the in-class essay? Leave a comment below.