As the essay prompts on standardized tests continue to evolve, so too do the many different methods that are taught for how to write a good essay. Many students find themselves confused by how to go about executing strong responses to varied writing prompts. The SAT’s essay prompt has changed from a simple “agree or disagree” question to an analysis-based response, and the ACT’s essay now requires the writer to synthesize three different perspectives. And, of course, English class essays can have many different requirements, from goals of persuasion to exposition to analysis. So it is important to understand some general guidelines to follow when it comes to writing essays and responding to prompts. Below, we highlight some basics that can help with standardized test essays and school responses:
Understand the prompt: Many times, we assume that an essay will simply require us to summarize and share our viewpoint. But be mindful that, particularly, on standardized tests, the essay prompt is not always that straightforward. The SAT essay, for instance, asks you to do three things: “consider how [the author] uses” evidence, reasoning, and stylistic or persuasive elements. Clearly, there is more to this response than a simple “yes or no” or report of your feelings on what you read. For English class essays, too, you are often asked to come up with a multilayered response that goes beyond just your personal reaction. So remember the importance of not assuming anything about an essay prompt; read it carefully and understand fully what you are being asked to respond to before you begin formulating your answer.
Don’t fluff it: “Fluff” in writing is kind of like a drawing with too many lines: it’s distracting. While it may be a tactic you use sometimes to meet word counts in papers, it doesn’t look good to a reader and grader of an essay when they have to wade through a lot of unnecessary elaboration to figure out what you’re trying to say. In essays, particularly ones in which graders have a limited amount of time to critique your work, it’s important to cut to the chase. English teachers, too, will appreciate your effort to get to the point, as chances are they have a giant stack of papers to grade. Click here for some exercises in brevity.
Don’t over-introduce or over-conclude: The well-meaning idea of the “hook” in an introduction is something we should reconsider. While you may be required to write one in certain English classes, in general, overdoing the intro can detract from your main point and, again, result in “fluff” which the reader will have the unpleasant task of having to navigate through. You honestly don’t need more than two or three sentences in your introduction. Writing blogger Sandro Etalle reminds us that “removing everything that is not really necessary is often a very effective strategy for improving an introduction.” The same goes for the conclusion: the briefer, the better. Essentially, don’t make the reader read a bunch of stuff he doesn’t need to or stuff he’s already gotten from the body of the essay. Clarity is key.
Avoid fragmentation: It can be easy sometimes to write in a fragmented fashion in which each paragraph has seemingly little or no connection to the ones around it. Simply put, an essay must be a cumulative effort: each sentence should build on the one before, as should each paragraph to create a response in which the essay becomes whole through its parts. Coherence in an essay is vital; jumping from one idea to the next with little regard for structure will result in a jumble which, again, will torment your reader. Always know your larger point then build towards it with everything you say.
Know your audience: If you haven’t noticed by now, keeping your readers in mind has been a repeated theme in this article. When you know who you are writing for, you are better informed as to what you need to do stylistically in your response. According to William Zinsser, author of the indispensable On Writing Well, we must not “visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience—every reader is a different person.” Writing for the “mass audience” can result in clunky, bland, dispassionate responses. Your response to an essay on a writer’s use of rhetorical strategies (much like what you will see on the SAT essay,) for instance, is not one-size-fits-all. What you focus on may be vastly different from the person sitting next to you, and that is as it should be; a “canned” response designed to delight the entire world will most likely fall flat. Zinsser also tells us that “the reader is an impatient bird, perched on the thin edge of distraction.” Again, pitfalls mentioned earlier, such as “fluff,” will plunge the bird into boredom, and result in a less than impressive score or grade on an essay response. Always remember who you’re writing for, and what they are looking for in your response.
Written by Phil Lane
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