Steps to a Strong Essay for Praxis I: Pre-Professional Skills Test Study Guide (page 3)
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.
Supporting Paragraphs—The Body of the Essay
Working from your detailed outline, begin composing the body of your essay (about three paragraphs long). Treat each of your paragraphs like a mini-essay, with its own thesis (a topic sentence that expresses the main idea of the paragraph) and supporting details (examples). Follow these guidelines for creating supporting paragraphs:
- Avoid introducing several ideas within one paragraph. By definition, a paragraph is a group of sentences about the same idea.
- Use at least one detail or example to back up each main supporting idea.
- Aim for about three or four sentences in each paragraph. Your PPST essay will be short. If you write more sentences for each paragraph you may run short on time and space. If you write fewer sentences, you may not develop your idea adequately
- Use transitions. Key words and phrases can help guide readers through your essay. You can use these common transitions to indicate the order of importance of your material: first and foremost, most important, first, second, third, moreover, finally, and above all. Do not use "firstly," "secondly," or "thirdly"— these forms are incorrect and awkward.
Active versus Passive Voice
For precise, direct writing, use the active voice. In English grammar, voice expresses a relationship between the verb and the subject of the sentence or its direct object. When you write in the active voice, the subject of the sentence causes, or is the source of, the action (verb). When you use the passive voice, the subject does not perform the action, but rather is acted upon. Sentences in the passive voice are often wordier and more difficult to understand. Here are some examples of active versus passive voice:
Active: We suggest that you organize your ideas by importance
Passive: It is suggested that you organize your ideas by importance. (Note that this sentence does not say who performed the action.)
Active: Her brother typed the letter.
Passive: The letter was typed by her brother. (Here the doer of the action is the direct object brother, not the subject of the sentence, letter.)
A strong PPST essay will show your ability to manipulate sentence structure for effect. Sentence structure is an important element of style. If all of your sentences have the same pattern, your writing will be monotonous and dull:
School uniforms are negative. They don't boost students' confidence. They don't make students feel trustworthy. They don't let students explore different styles and personalities.
Although these sentences are simple and direct, they are unlikely to captivate a reader. Because they all have the same length and structure, they create a monotonous pattern. Here is the same paragraph, revised to show variety in sentence structure:
School uniforms are negative because they do not boost students' confidence or make them feel trustworthy. Fashion choices allow students to explore different styles and personalities.
Four sentences are reduced to two; the pronoun they is no longer repeated; and verb choices are active and varied. You can also create emphasis in your writing through sentence structure. The best place to put sentence elements that you want to emphasize is at the end. What comes lasts lingers longest in the reader's mind.
He is tall, dark, and handsome. (The emphasis is on handsome. If tall is the most important characteristic, then it should come last.)
The last paragraph of your essay should sum up your argument. Avoid introducing new ideas or topics. Instead, your concluding paragraph should restate your thesis, but in new words. Your conclusion should demonstrate that you covered your topic fully and should convince readers that they have learned something meaningful from your argument. Here's an example:
School uniforms might be the easy answer: They create conformity and minimize distractions in the classroom. However, in order to teach students how to make good choices when they face tough decisions, school administrators need to invest students with the responsibility to practice everyday choices—like deciding what they wear to school.
The Last Step—Proofread
On the timed essay test, you should take about five minutes to proofread—a time allowance that does not let you substantially revise or rewrite your piece. Much of what happens when you rewrite—like reorganizing your argument or making sure you present adequate support—must occur during the prewriting process, when you are outlining your essay. The goal of proofreading is to give your essay a final polish, by checking your spelling, correcting grammatical errors, and if needed, changing word order or word choice. To proofread, carefully read your essay, paying attention to anything that doesn't sound right. The following checklist outlines some basic grammatical problems to look out for as you proofread. (All of these grammar trouble spots are discussed earlier in the chapter.)
- Make sure nouns and verbs agree. The subject of the sentence must match the verb in number. If the subject is singular, the verb is singular. If the subject is plural, the verb is plural.
- Make sure pronouns and antecedents agree. Pronouns and the nouns they represent, antecedents, must agree in number. If the antecedent is singular, the pronoun is singular; if the antecedent is plural, the pronoun is plural.
- Check your modifiers. Look out for modifiers that are easy to confuse like good/well, bad/badly, fewer/less. Remember: adjectives modify nouns and pronouns; adverbs describe verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs.
- Avoid double negatives. Do not use two negative words, like no, not, neither, hardly, or barely, in one sentence. See page 237 for a list of other negatives.
- Keep your verb tense consistent. Switching tense within a sentence can change its meaning. Generally, a sentence or paragraph that begins in the present tense should continue in the present tense.
- Review prepositional idioms. If you have studied the list of prepositional idioms on page 239, you may be able to "hear" whether a preposition (to, of, about, for, with, about, on, upon) sounds right with a particular phrase or verb.
- Check your sentence structure. Keep an eye out for sentence fragments, run-on sentences, comma splices, and misplaced or dangling modifiers.
Now, take the skills you have learned or honed in this review and apply them to the next practice test.