Writing with style

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Unpack the Essay Prompt

When you are assigned a topic on which to write, the first task is to “unpack” the prompt, or to figure out exactly what the question is asking.

Pay careful attention to the terms used. Make sure you understand what the prompt is asking you to do. (There is a list of key terms and their definitions in the next section.) Circle or underline each task in the question. Consider this question from an AP English exam:
Choose a work of literature that depicts a conflict between a parent (or a parental figure) and a son or daughter. Write an essay in which you analyze the sources of the conflict and explain how the conflict contributes to the meaning of the work.
Often essay questions contain several parts—which part logically should come first, which second, etc.? Arrange the tasks in the order of your response. Remember to include information that is assumed but not stated by the question:
1) Choose a work of literature depicting a parent/child conflict

2) [Identify the conflict]

3) Analyze the sources of the conflict

4) Explain how the conflict contributes to the meaning of the work


Outline Main Ideas

Once you have determined the tasks that the prompt is asking you to do, turn this list of tasks into a quick topic outline. While you will probably feel pressed for time, a few moments spent planning will keep your essay from going off track and help you remember all the things you want to say. You might write this outline in the margin of your paper or on a scratch piece of paper so that you can refer back to it as you write.

Taming of the Shrew by Shakespeare [choose a work of literature]

  1. Conflict between father and daughters [identify conflict]

  2. Baptista won’t let Bianca marry until Kate does [analyze sources of conflict]

  3. Baptista views Bianca as “perfect child”

  4. Kate is jealous of Bianca’s attention

  5. Kate gets attention by being a “shrew”

  6. Conflict shows impact of stereotypical gender roles [explain conflict’s contribution to meaning of work]


Write a Thesis Statement and Introduction

Once you have your topic outline, spend a moment to draft a strong thesis statement for your essay. What are you going to prove? (See the section on Thesis Statements for more information). You may not have time to write an elaborate creative opening for your introduction. Many writers find it easiest to start by echoing key ideas from the prompt in their first few sentences, and then to move directly into their thesis statement.

Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew contains many examples of parent/child conflict. Baptista Minola’s conflict with his daughters Kate and Bianca over the issue of marriage not only creates the plot but also highlights the stereotypical roles that women were expected to play.

Time Constraints and Drafting

Writing within a time limit is difficult, but most evaluators understand that an essay written in 45 minutes will not be the same quality as an essay written at home over the course of several days or weeks. However, they will want to see that you can put together a clear, organized, and intelligent response to the question.

A few tips to help you manage your time:

  1. Before you start writing, take off your watch and put it on your desk. Determine what time you must stop writing, and periodically check the time remaining.

  2. Be clear and specific. Do not try to impress the grader with grandiose vocabulary if you aren’t 100% sure of the meaning – simpler is better.

  3. Do not spend precious minutes playing with wording or trying to get a sentence to sound EXACTLY right. This wastes time and can give you writer’s block.

  4. Write legibly, but do not try to re-copy your essay at the end. Content is more important than neatness (as long as your writing is legible). If you make a mistake, NEATLY cross out the error and move on.

  5. Use your outline to keep yourself on track. Periodically check to make sure that you are still answering the question.

When you finish writing:

  1. Leave yourself about 3-5 minutes to re-read your essay and make some quick fixes.

  2. Correct any spelling, punctuation, or grammar errors.

  3. Double-check your thesis statement against the body of your essay. Make sure you prove what you said you were going to. If you find that your essay doesn’t really match your thesis statement, change the thesis – don’t try to change the entire essay!

  4. Check each paragraph and make sure it has a topic sentence that accurately reflects the content of the paragraph.

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