Writing an Effective Essay: GED Test Prep (page 2)
Part II of the GED Language Arts, Writing Exam has only one question—an essay prompt. But this test is just as important as Part I, and you must pass the essay test to pass the entire GED Language Arts, Writing Exam. This article will tell you how to write an effective essay for the GED. You will learn six steps to take during an essay exam, including how to brainstorm and organize ideas and how to write with style.
On Part II OF the GED Language Arts, Writing Exam, you will be asked to write a short essay about a general topic. You will have 45 minutes to demonstrate how effectively you can express your ideas in writing.
A strong GED essay will have these five key elements:
- A clear main idea (thesis). Do you have something to say?
- Sufficient development. Have you explained your ideas?
- Strong support. Have you supported your ideas?
- Effective organization. Have you presented your ideas and support in a logical order?
- Grammatical correctness. Have you followed the conventions of standard written English?
As a general guide, you will need to write about four or five paragraphs to have a sufficiently developed essay. That includes an introductory paragraph that states your main idea, two or three paragraphs developing and supporting that main idea, and a brief concluding paragraph. Your essay should be approximately 250–300 words.
General Writing Strategies
To do well on the essay, you need to have a solid grasp of general writing strategies. These strategies are those basic techniques writers use to develop a readable and engaging text. They include the ability to:
- write in a way that is appropriate for audience and purpose
- provide appropriate and sufficient support
- craft effective introductions and conclusions
- use effective transitions
- revise for more effective writing
Audience and Purpose
Effective writing has at its core a constant awareness of and attention to audience and purpose. Good writers are always thinking about their readers: Who are they? What do they know about the subject? What prejudices or preconceived notions might they have? What will keep their attention? Good writers are also always thinking about purpose. Is their goal to teach a lesson? Provide information? Entertain? Answer a question? Convince or persuade?
Writing for Your Audience
Knowing your audience will help you make a couple of key writing decisions. First, it helps you determine your level of formality. Will you use slang or very formal language? It depends upon your relationship with your reader. On the GED, you will be expected to write for a general audience. That is, you should assume your readers are "everyday" people with a wide variety of interests and backgrounds. You will need an appropriate level of formality for this audience. Treat your readers with respect, but do not put them off by sounding too formal or pretentious. Avoid slang (too informal) or jargon (technical or specialized language). Let your writing be natural without being too informal.
Your audience also determines the level of detail and specificity in your essay. Because you are writing for a general audience and not friends, you cannot assume that readers know the context of your ideas and experiences. For example, if you are arguing that Internet sites should be censored, do not assume that readers have seen the kind of sites you are talking about—or even that they have been on the Internet. You will need to briefly describe those sites to give your readers sufficient context.
Knowing Your Purpose
As important as knowing whom you are writing for is knowing why you are writing. What is the goal of your essay? What are you hoping to convey through your writing? The more clearly you can articulate your purpose while you outline your essay, the more effective your writing and revising states will be.
Here are some verbs you might find helpful for describing your purpose:
Of course, your specific goals will be guided by the prompt you receive on Part II. In a narrative essay, for example, your main purpose will be to describe. In a persuasive essay, your main purpose will probably be to convince. In an expository essay, you may aim to inform, compare, propose, or explain, depending upon your topic. As you think about how to write your essay, think about how you would fill in the blank in the following sentence:
My goal in this essay is to _ _ _ _ _.
Beginnings, Middles, and Ends
As you know, essays have three distinct parts:
- beginning (introduction)
- middle (body)
- end (conclusion)
You will be expected to have all three parts in your essay.
First impressions count, and that's why introductions are so important in writing. A good introduction:
- indicates what the essay is about (its topic) and what the writer is going to say about the topic (its main idea)
- grabs the reader's attention
- establishes the tone of the passage
Techniques for grabbing attention include opening with:
- a question
- a quotation
- a surprising fact or statement
- an imaginary situation or scenario
- an anecdote
- interesting background information
- a new twist on a familiar phrase
For example, a more attention-grabbing introduction to the Batman passage in the pretest might be something like the following:
Pow! Bam! Zap! Batman triumphs again, saving the citizens of Gotham City from evil.
This opening plays upon a convention of comic strips and the Batman television series. And because it is unique and uses exclamation points, it generates interest and excitement in the reader.
Conclusions, too, should be powerful. After all, people tend to remember most what comes first and last, and the final words have the power to ring in readers' ears for a long time afterward. A good conclusion will:
- restate the main idea
- provide a sense of closure (not "open a new can of worms" by introducing a new topic)
- arouse readers' emotions to make the ending and main idea memorable
The Batman text, again, provides a good example. In Batman, Kane gave us an image of our own superhero potential.
This concluding sentence sums up what makes Batman so popular, rounding out the passage in a way that makes readers think about their own similarities to Batman and what sort of superheroes they could be.
Many of the same introductory techniques can be used to help make conclusions memorable:
- a quotation
- a question
- an anecdote
- a prediction
- a solution or recommendation
- a call to action
For example, the conclusion to an essay about a healthy diet might end with a call to action:
Take a good, long look in your refrigerator and pantry. What unhealthy foods call your icebox and cabinets their home? Find them, get rid of them, and stock up on foods that will help you live a longer, healthier life.
Effective Essays and the Writing Process
Experienced writers know that good writing doesn't happen all at once. Rather, it develops in stages. That's because writing is a process, not just a product. And it's difficult to get a good product without going through each step in the writing process.
The writing process can be divided into three basic steps:
- revising and editing
When you are under pressure to write a winning essay in just 45 minutes, you may be tempted to skip these steps and just write your essay in one shot. You may end up with a successful essay with this approach. But your chances of doing well on Part II of the GED Language Arts, Writing Exam—indeed, on any writing task—will increase dramatically if you take the time to work through each step. Even though you only have 45 minutes, the ten minutes you spend planning and proofreading your essay will be time well spent. In fact, for essay exams, the planning stage is so important that it has been divided into six separate steps in the following section.
Six Steps to a Strong Essay
These six steps will help you write a strong, effective essay on the GED Language Arts, Writing Exam.
Step 1: Understand the Writing Prompt
Before you can begin to plan your essay, you need to be sure you understand the kind of essay you need to write. As noted earlier, it is essential that you respond accurately to the writing prompt you are given on the exam. If you write about a different topic, you will not receive credit for your essay. It's therefore critical to understand exactly what the prompt is asking you to do.
Earlier in this section, we divided the essay prompts into three types: narrative, persuasive, and expository. How do you know which kind of essay the prompt is asking for? Each prompt will have key words that can help you understand what to do. These key words include terms such as:
tell describe identify explain
Notice, for example, the underlined key words in the following prompts:
The Internet includes many websites with images and content that are inappropriate for children. Other sites on the Internet promote violence or intolerance against certain groups of people. Should websites like these be censored? In your essay, state your position on this issueand explain why you take that position. Use your personal observations, experiences, and knowledge to support your essay.
Sometimes events take an unexpected turn and things end up differently than we imagined. Tell about a time when something unexpected happened to you. In your essay, describe what was supposed to happen and how things actually turned out. Use supporting details throughout your essay.
You are on your way to a successful essay if:
- You understand what kind of essay to write: narrative (tell a story), persuasive (make an argument), or expository (explain an idea or respond to a situation or scenario).
- You follow the directions exactly and directly answer the questions in the prompt. In the first example, you must state your position on the issue raised in the prompt—censorship of certain types of Internet sites. In the second example, you must tell a story about a specific kind of experience—a time when something unexpected happened.
Step 2: Formulate a Clear Thesis
Before you begin to write, you need to decide what you are going to write about. Once you are sure you understand the prompt, how will you answer the question it asks? Your answer will form the core of your essay. It will be the main idea that controls everything you write and determine the kind of support you will provide. In other words, your answer to the question in the prompt is your thesis—your main idea. It is the "argument" that you are going to make and the idea you need to support.
A thesis does not just repeat or paraphrase the question or prompt. It does not simply make general statements about the topic or state how others might respond to the question. A good thesis takes a clear, personal position. For example, look again at the following
Our relationship with our neighbors is very important. Sometimes these relationships are the source of great joy in our lives; other times, they can be the source of great trouble. In your opinion, what makes a good neighbor? In your essay, identify the characteristics of a good neighbor and explain why these characteristics are important for people living side by side. Use your personal observations, experiences, and knowledge to support your essay.
The following sentences are not thesis statements (they do not answer the question).
- There are all kinds of neighbors.
- What makes a good neighbor?
- There are many characteristics of a good neighbor.
These, however, are thesis statements. They respond directly to the question.
- Good neighbors are helpful and kind.
- The best kind of neighbors help when asked and otherwise mind their own business.
- Good neighbors are friendly, helpful, and respectful of boundaries.
Step 3: Brainstorm Support for Your Thesis
Once you have decided how to answer the question(s) in the prompt, decide how you will support your answer. On your piece of scrap paper, list at least three to five reasons, examples, or specific details to support your thesis or events to develop your story.
Because you are still in the planning stage, write down whatever comes to mind. You don't have to include everything you list in your essay. And the more ideas you put down, the more freedom you will have to pick the best (strongest) support for your thesis.
For example, here's how you might brainstorm support for the previous prompt:
Thesis: Good neighbors are friendly, helpful, and respectful of boundaries.
Friendly neighbors are pleasant to have around, make it nice to live where you live.
Helpful is important—know you can count on them for small favors, when you are in need.
Need to respect boundaries, not to take what is yours, not to get too involved in your life—otherwise they will not be welcome.
Friendly—my neighbor Selma and her family—always saying hello, often chatting, cookies at Christmas.
Helpful—lending tools to Dad, borrowing sugar etc., babysitting.
Respecting boundaries—don't just walk in, don't be nosy; they're your neighbors, not your family.
Listing is just one brainstorming strategy. You can also map your ideas. This is especially effective if you are a visual learner, as shown.
Step 4: Create a Detailed Outline
The next step is your opportunity to make sure the essay you write is both well organized and well developed. By creating a detailed outline, you can:
- put your ideas in a logical, effective order
- fill in any gaps in your support
Basic Outline Structure
Essays follow this basic structure:
- introduction (states thesis)
- body (explains and supports thesis)
- conclusion (brings closure and restates thesis)
Your outline should follow this basic structure, too. Because you are writing a very short essay, you should have at least one point in your outline for each paragraph. Thus, the "body" section of your outline should be broken down into the individual supporting ideas for your essay:
- support 1
- support 2
- support 3
This basic outline has three supporting points. If each outline item has one paragraph, you will have a total of five paragraphs in your essay. While there's no set rule about how many points or how many paragraphs you should have in your essay, this is a good guide to follow. Three supporting paragraphs will generally give you enough support to make a strong case (if you are writing a persuasive essay), to sufficiently explain your ideas (expository essay), or to tell your story (narrative essay).
Organizing Your Support
Obviously, you know where to put your introductory and concluding paragraphs. But how do you organize the ideas in the body of your essay? Which of the four organizational patterns you reviewed earlier—chronology, comparison and contrast, cause and effect, and order of importance—should you use for your support?
If you are responding to a narrative prompt, chronological order is clearly your best choice. Describe the events in the order in which they happened. Be sure to use strong transitions and details as you tell your story.
If you are responding to a persuasive prompt, order of importance is probably the most effective pattern to use. Because the prompt asks you to take a position, your main support will consist of the reasons that you took this particular stance. A logical and effective way to present those reasons is by rank. Organize ideas from the least important to the most important reason, from the least compelling to the most compelling example.
If you are responding to an expository prompt, your organizational pattern will depend upon your purpose. Often, order of importance will be your most effective choice. This is true for the good neighbor prompt. Notice, for example, how you might organize the support from the previous brainstorm:
Introduction: Good neighbors are friendly, helpful, and respectful of boundaries.
- Friendly neighbors are pleasant to have around, make it nice to live where you live.
- Helpful is important—know you can count on them for small favors, when you are in need.
- Need to respect boundaries, not take what is yours, not get too involved in your life—otherwise, they will not be welcome. (It's okay to not be friendly and not be helpful, I can live with that—but it's not okay to not respect boundaries.)
Ex: My neighbor Selma and her family
Ex: lending and borrowing things
Ex: physical boundaries (yard, house) and social boundaries (private family business)
Here, the characteristics that make good neighbors are organized by order of importance. The most important characteristic and most compelling examples come last.