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Tips for Better Writing: How to Tackle the Exam Essay
This is another piece in the Tips for Better Writing series in collaboration with the Writing Center, which is part of the Writing Program in the College of Arts and Sciences and available to all University students. In this edition, Stacey Wright, a professional writing instructor in the Writing Program, offers some advice on short answer and essay writing on exams.
Q: What’s the first thing to consider once you have read an essay question?
A: The first thing to do is really pay attention to the key words that are in the question. Does it say discuss, analyze, argue, explain? For example, arguing needs to have much more persuasive language and take a stance on what the writer has discovered. Analysis is writing critically from multiple perspectives on a topic—not stating that one perspective is better than the other.
Also, from class to class, the word “argue” has different requirements. In one class, argue might mean to write a one-sided persuasive essay. In another, it might mean to write a debate—arguing for one side, acknowledging the opposition and then refuting it. Yet still, arguing may be trying to argue a way to understand something without taking a side. You have to think about what kind of argument you are being asked to produce and be attentive to what you’ve been doing in class all semester long.
From there, be aware of terminology that your instructor wants you to explain and what kind of content you are being asked to write about. There may be particular terms to remember and certain sources to use from class or outside sources.
Q: Is it helpful to work up an outline first?
A: I was just talking to someone who was feeling anxious about a test. She said she jumps right into answers, and she asked what I would suggest. I said, “Don’t just jump in. That’s the worst thing you can do.”
Once you understand what the prompt asks of you, imagine in your head some of the possible topics you can write about. Jot those down and then give yourself a loose order, maybe numbering the order that you may logically put those topics in. I think giving yourself a rough outline, whether it’s numbers or bullets, is very helpful.
However, you do have to be flexible. Halfway through your work, you may decide to revise some ideas. So you should be open to that kind of change.
Q: Even for short essays, do they need to have an introduction, narrative and conclusion?
A: You should always have some type of a topic sentence. If it’s a two- to three-paragraph answer, you might have one or two sentences that establish what you will be doing in that piece of writing. If you have a one- to two-sentence opening, then you should have a one- or two-sentence closing just to have some sense of closure at the end. Even if it’s a one-paragraph answer, you should still have a solid topic sentence and then a solid sentence at the end in conclusion.
Q: What sort of quick copyediting should you do on an exam essay?
A: If you have two weeks to work on a paper or take-home exam, there is going to be a different level of expectations than writing for an in-class exam that you only have an hour to work on.
Content is always the most important, but of course, if you don’t use the right punctuation, then that can actually create miscomprehension in a sentence. Some students are aware that they have spelling errors or they know they struggle with commas, so just being aware of what they struggle with is helpful.
When you are done with the content, go back through your writing. I always suggest picking one or two things to look at at a time. Skim through your paper at first and look at each sentence; for example, “Did I put commas in the right place?” And then go back and look at your spelling.
Sometimes it’s even helpful to look at each sentence one at a time, starting at the end and then working your way to the beginning. Focus your attention not on the content but on the sentence structure. What happens sometimes is that you know what you meant to write, so you read right over any errors, especially if you’ve looked at something over and over in an in-class test and there’s a certain level of anxiety.
It is natural to have one or two mistakes, but there is a difference between the person who has just one or two mistakes versus someone who struggles.
At the Writing Center, we can help provide strategies. We don’t correct papers, but we will talk to students and say, “Let’s talk about why you need to have commas or verb agreement and how to do that,” so when they leave they are equipped with that knowledge.