Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
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How to Focus Your Essay and Respond

I recall taking a final essay exam several years ago that I was pretty happy about because I knew all about the topic of one of the essay prompts. I was so excited to see a prompt that I knew so much about that I decided to explain everything I knew about that topic to my instructor, just spilling out detail after detail. In hindsight, I didn’t pay all that much attention to the specifics of the prompt, just the major topic that it was asking about. I didn’t end up getting a particularly good grade on that exam.

Do yourself a favor and don’t make the same mistake. Even as the seconds tick by during a timed essay exam, take some time to pay close attention to what the prompt is really asking and think about how you’d get back on track if you find that you’ve lost your way while writing your answer.

Look for Key Terms in the Essay Prompt

You’ll rarely find an essay prompt that says ‘Hey, why don’t you just tell me whatever you happen to know about topic X.’ If you did have such a prompt, it would be easy to just write a bunch of random, disconnected facts as you remember them.

Unfortunately, that’s what some of us do – just start writing whatever we know about a subject – when we see the topic of a prompt, particularly when we’re already worried about how much time we have. But it’s much smarter to take a more organized and logical approach. For example, let’s say that you’re responding to an essay prompt that asks you about the debate over legalizing drugs in the U.S.

Your first move should be to figure out what approach you need to take by looking for key terms. Are you being asked to analyze certain arguments about legalizing drugs, to describe certain arguments, to compare and contrast certain positions, to make an argument regarding which side of the debate is correct?

Make a note to yourself regarding what approach you’re being asked to take. And keep in mind, too, that essay prompts can be nuanced. If you’re being asked to construct an argument, it may not be the case that you simply have to write about which side is right. You may be asked to synthesize an argument based on specific source material that’s provided to you. In this context, synthesize means to combine separate materials to form a single product.

So you might be asked to put together very specific ideas to reach your conclusion. And you may also have to address opposing viewpoints as you do so. Or you might also be asked to evaluate specific arguments that have been provided to you. For example, you might be presented with a short argument in favor of legalizing drugs and a short argument opposed to legalizing drugs. You might be asked to assess the worth and significance of those arguments.

Be sure to read through the essay prompt a few times, and then jot down the key term or terms that let you know what approach you should be taking. Whether you’re working on a timed exam or a long-term assignment, you want to be sure that you’re responding directly to the essay prompt.

Develop a One-Sentence Response

As you plan your essay, try to come up with a brief one-sentence response to the prompt right off the bat. As you do so, be sure that it matches the approach that’s been called for by checking for key terms. If you’re working on a paper for a class, you’ll have plenty of time to mull over your one sentence, but even if you’re taking an essay exam, the tactic is the same: come up with a very brief response that echoes the prompt.

For example, if you’ve been asked to compare two differing views, be sure that you draft a sentence that sums up the major similarity or difference between those views. If you’ve been tasked with writing an argument, be sure that you set forth a persuasive position. So if you’ve been asked to construct an argument about whether drugs should be legalized in the U.S., you might jot down ‘Drugs should not be legalized in the U.S. because it would increase the number of addicted people and crimes committed by drug users.’ If you’ve been asked to evaluate specific statements, then you should draft a statement that weighs the merits of those statements. You might explain that one statement is more logically sound than another.

An additional benefit of taking this step is that you can use this statement as the basis for a thesis for your paper. But for purposes of staying on-track as you write your essay, having this short response sketched out in your notes can be helpful. You can glance back periodically at your core response and ask yourself whether you’re still supporting that statement or if you’ve wandered off on a tangent with a lot of irrelevant details.

Sketch out an Outline of Your Major Points

Writing effective sentences at the same time that you work to convey your large-scale points can be a challenge. Putting together an outline of your major points is useful whether you’re writing a timed essay for an exam or a term paper for a class. In a timed scenario, you can sketch out a very short, basic outline. With a term paper, you’ll have time to add more detail. Either way, by plotting out the major points of your essay at the start of your writing process, you can concentrate on expressing your main points effectively within a well-organized structure for your main ideas. Having a plan can also keep you from panicking about how much time you have to write.

For example, if you’re constructing an argument that drugs should not be legalized in the U.S., you might decide to structure your paper around three major points. Let’s say that you focus on these three main ideas:

  1. Legalization would lead to increased drug use.
  2. Legalization would lead to more young people becoming addicted early in life.
  3. Legalization would lead to more crime due to an increase in the number of addicted drug users.

By planning out your major points in a rough outline – and by sticking to that plan – you can help yourself stay on track with what you set out to say in your paper. As you write each paragraph of your paper, you can ask yourself: ‘Does this paragraph support my main response that drugs should not be legalized in the U.S.?’ As you write each paragraph, quickly refer back to your one-sentence response to the prompt and to your major outline points to ensure that you’re staying on-track with what you need to be writing about.

What to Do if You’ve Strayed off Point

If you do find that you’ve wandered off course, you’ll want to rein yourself back in and answer the prompt as fully as you can. If you’re working on a term paper and have plenty of time, this is a manageable problem, but if you’re working on a timed essay exam, this can be a cause for stress.

Many essay exams are administered on computers, which makes it easier to go back and revise your already-written paragraphs. If you’re working on a handwritten exam, it may be a good idea to write on every other line of your paper, leaving enough space to cross out lines and rewrite them if you need to.

Let’s address what to do if you find that you’ve gone off on a tangent with seconds ticking away. Examine the paragraph that’s gone astray. Determine the nature of the problem. Have you used the right approach in that paragraph but overloaded it with too many irrelevant details? You can take another look at your earlier one-sentence response to the essay prompt. If you find that you have sentences – or even a whole paragraph – that doesn’t directly support that response, you’ll know that you’ve gone off track. To solve this, edit out any information that’s not central to the main point of the paragraph. You may need to add a few more supporting details or examples that actually work to support the main point of your paragraph.

Perhaps irrelevant details aren’t the problem. Perhaps you haven’t used the right approach in the paragraph. In other words, perhaps the essay prompt asked for you to make an argument about a topic, but instead, you’ve devoted a paragraph to simply describing the issue with no actual argumentation going on. This is a common mistake that students make in persuasive papers. If that’s the case, then work on adding persuasive statements to the paragraph. It may be the case that the descriptive information that you’ve written would actually provide good support for your arguments and that you’ve just forgotten to make the actual argumentative statements. It shouldn’t be too difficult to make your arguments explicit in those types of paragraphs by adding a couple of sentences stating what you think should happen with the issue you’re discussing.

Lesson Summary

It’s important when writing an essay to be sure that you’re responding directly to the prompt that’s been asked and that you haven’t gone astray.

To keep yourself on track, remember to:

  • Look for key terms in the essay prompt so that you can be sure to provide an argument if you’re asked to argue or provide an analysis if you’re asked to analyze and so forth.
  • Develop a one-sentence response to the prompt that reflects what’s being asked before you write your essay so that you can be sure that your full answer is on-point. You can develop this one sentence into your thesis statement.
  • Sketch out an outline of your major points and stick to it as you write. This will keep you from going on any major tangents.
  • If you find that you’ve strayed off-point, work on editing out irrelevant information or adding points as needed.

With a little bit of planning, you can be sure to stay on the right track with your essay.

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