Steps to a Strong Essay for Praxis I: Pre-Professional Skills Test Study Guide (page 2)
The prewriting—or planning—process is essential to developing a clear, organized essay. Because of the time limit, you may be tempted to skip the prewriting stage. However, the 5–10 minutes that you spend planning will be worth it. Prewriting consists of some quick, basic steps: carefully reading and understanding the writing prompt, formulating a thesis, brainstorming for examples that will support your thesis, and drafting an outline or basic structure for your essay.
Step 1—Create a Clear Thesis
To begin, carefully read the statement presented in the writing prompt. Make sure that you fully understand it. Then, decide what your position is: Do you agree or disagree with the statement? Consider to what extent you agree or disagree with the position: Are you in 100% agreement or do you only partly agree with the statement? Your answer to these questions will make up the main idea or thesis of your essay. It will form the foundation of your essay and will determine what kind of support, or examples, you will provide.
A strong thesis does not merely repeat or rephrase the question or prompt. It does not state how others might respond to it. Rather, it presents your point of view.
A thesis statement should:
- answer the question given in the writing prompt
- tell the reader what your subject is
- inform the reader what you think and feel about the subject
- use clear, active language
Don't waste time making your thesis statement a masterpiece. You will be able to grab the reader's attention by clearly stating your purpose in simple words
Consider the following prompt:
"Focusing on fashion and clothes can distract students from learning. School uniforms should be mandatory for all high-school students."
Discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with this opinion. Support your views with specific reasons and examples from your own experience, observations, or reading.
The following sentences are not thesis statements:
- Many private schools already require school uniforms.
- Some students prefer school uniforms, while others detest them.
- Why do schools use uniforms?
The following are thesis statements; they relate directly to the prompt:
- School uniforms discourage high-school students from learning responsibility and developing individuality.
- School uniforms are effective in creating a positive learning environment.
Remember that you can also impose some conditions on your answer. For example, if you disagree with mandatory school uniforms, you can still qualify your answer: "I disagree that students should be required to wear school uniforms, but I believe a dress code helps create an effective learning atmosphere."
Step 2—Brainstorm for Ideas
Your answer to the question in the writing prompt will form the argument that you present in your essay. Once you have decided what your position will be, you will begin to brainstorm—think up ideas—that support your thesis. For your PPST essay, try to generate about three to five reasons that back up your main idea.
Brainstorming is a prewriting process in which you imagine or write down any ideas that come to mind. To brainstorm effectively, do not judge your ideas initially—simply put them down on paper. If you are stuck for ideas, try these brainstorming strategies:
- Try the freewriting technique in which you write nonstop for two minutes. Keep your pen to paper and your hand moving. Doubtlessly, your ideas will emerge.
- List as many ideas as you can. Don't edit for grammar or structure; just write down whatever comes to mind.
- Now get selective. Choose three to five of your strongest ideas for your essay.
For example, here's how you might brainstorm supporting ideas for the writing prompt mentioned earlier:
Thesis: Mandatory school uniforms are not effective tools for creating a positive, learning environment.
- Uniforms don't give students the opportunity to make choices.
- Uniforms send a message to students that they cannot be trusted.
- Students find distractions in class even when they are wearing uniforms.
- Teenage years are a time of self-exploration.
- Learning isn't only something you read in a book—it's about finding out who you are.
- Students need to learn about making good choices.
- Personal experience—In my parochial high school, kids wore uniforms.
- Lack of trust—We couldn't be trusted to do even a simple thing like dressing ourselves.
- Found other ways to rebel—smoking, wearing makeup, dyeing our hair to attract attention
- Distractions in class other than clothes—note writing, gossip, cell phones
- Self-exploration—Clothes let teens try on different identities (sporty, punk, artistic).
- Learning about good choices—Introduce a forum for students where they can talk about making choices? Encourage kids to talk about how they present themselves when they wear different clothes; talk about choices teens make that can be dangerous; talk about choices adults face.
Step 3—Outline Your Essay
To make sure that your essay is well developed and organized, draft an outline. An outline will help you put your ideas into a logical order and identify any gaps in your supporting details. Essays follow a basic three-part structure:
- Introduction: Present your position to your readers. State your thesis.
- Body: Provide specific support for your thesis.
- Conclusion: Bring closure to your essay and restate your thesis.
Your PPST essay should follow this basic structure, too. Because the essay is short, plan on writing about five paragraphs, listing one point on your outline for each paragraph. The body of your essay will be broken down into three supporting ideas:
- Body: support 1
- Body: support 2
- Body: support 3
Where you put your introduction and conclusion is obvious. However, you need a pattern, or structure, to organize the ideas in the body of your essay. The four most common patterns are chronological order, comparison and contrast, cause and effect, and order of importance. The following chart lists each organizing principle's key characteristics and effective uses in writing:
Best Bet: Order of Importance
What is the most effective way to organize your PPST essay when you don't have much time to consider the options? Because the prompts on the writing exam ask you to take a position on a subject, you are essentially developing a brief argument in your essay. A logical and effective strategy for making an argument is to organize your ideas by their importance, or rank. Using this pattern, you can arrange your ideas in two ways:
- by increasing importance (Begin with your least important idea and build up to your most important idea.)
- by decreasing importance (Start with your strongest, most persuasive, idea and end with your least important idea.)
Either arrangement works. However, if you develop your essay by the principle of increasing importance, you save your strongest idea for last, creating a greater impact in your conclusion.
Now it's time to make a detailed outline based on the writing prompt described earlier in the chapter. The outline organizes the supporting ideas by increasing importance. It includes reasons that support the thesis and examples that support each reason. Because this outline is so detailed, it offers a guide for almost every sentence in the body of the essay.
Thesis: Mandatory school uniforms are not effective tools for creating a positive, learning environment
Reason 1: When students feel that they are not trusted, they "live down" to expectations.
- Examples: Feel need to prove individuality through attention to makeup, hair; draw attention through risky behaviors like smoking; continue to find distractions like gossip, note passing, cell phones
Reason 2: School uniforms discourage self-discovery and individuality.
- Examples: Can't try out looks that come with different identities (sporty, punk, artistic); fashion is harmless way to find out who you are
Reason 3: Students don't learn to make good choices.
- Examples: Students aren't prepared for making decisions, simple (clothes, nutrition) or big (college, jobs, whether or not to engage in risky behaviors, friends, romantic relationships)
- Robbing students of choice discourages self-discovery and does not prepare students for making decisions. Allow students to make choices about their clothes, but also provide a class or forum for discussing how to make good choices, both big and small.
Target Your Audience
Effective writing pays close attention to its audience. Good writers consider their readers: Who are they? What do they know about the subject? What preconceived notions do they have? What will hold their attention?
On the PPST, you will be writing to a general audience, meaning your readers are people with a variety of interests and backgrounds. Knowing your audience helps you make key writing decisions about your level of formality and detail. Your level of formality determines whether you will use slang, an informal tone, technical jargon, or formal language in your writing. A good guide for the PPST test is a balanced approach:
- Treat your readers with respect.
- Don't put off your readers with language that is too formal or pretentious. Don't try to use big, important-sounding words.
- Avoid slang (too informal) or jargon (technical or specialized language).
- Aim for a natural tone, without being too informal.
Your level of detail is also based on your audience. Because you are writing for a general audience and not for friends or family, your readers will not be familiar with your background or experiences. For example, if you are arguing against mandatory student uniforms, do not assume that your readers know whether your high school implemented such a rule. Give your readers adequate context by briefly describing your experience as it applies to your argument.
First Impression—The Introduction
Once you have completed your detailed outline, you are ready to write. Because you only have 15–20 minutes to write, you don't have time to perfect the wording of your introduction. Instead, use clear, direct language to introduce your reader to your thesis and focus. A good way to begin is to restate in your own words the quotation given in the prompt and then state your thesis. Here is an example using the prompt discussed earlier:
Although fashion and clothes can sometimes distract students, mandatory school uniforms are not the answer to creating a good learning environment.
Another useful technique for creating a strong introduction is to begin with your thesis and then give a summary of the evidence (supporting details) you will be presenting in the body of your essay. Here is an expanded version of the above thesis statement:
Although fashion and clothes can sometimes distract students, mandatory school uniforms are not the answer to creating a good learning environment. School uniforms can be a negative influence in that they send a message that students can't be trusted to make good choices. High-school students need to explore different identities through the harmless means of fashion.
Notice how this introduction outlines the first two main points of the essay's body: how mandatory school uniforms (1) send a negative message about students' ability to make decisions and (2) discourage self-discovery.