Writing an Effective Essay: GED Test Prep (page 3)

Updated on Apr 24, 2014

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.

Ex: My neighbor Selma and her family

Ex: lending and borrowing things

Ex: physical boundaries (yard, house) and social boundaries (private family business)

  1. Friendly neighbors are pleasant to have around, make it nice to live where you live.
  2. Helpful is important—know you can count on them for small favors, when you are in need.
  3. 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.)

Here, the characteristics that make good neighbors are organized by order of importance. The most important characteristic and most compelling examples come last.

Strong Supporting Paragraphs

Outlining your ideas not only sets up an effective organization. It can also show you if your essay is sufficiently developed. For an essay to be effective, each paragraph must be effective, too. And that means each paragraph must be sufficiently developed.

While there is no magic formula, there are some general guidelines regarding paragraph length. A paragraph with just one sentence—unless that sentence is specifically set off to create a special effect—is too short. It doesn't sufficiently develop its idea. A paragraph with ten sentences, on the other hand, is probably too long. There's likely to be more than one idea developed in that paragraph. (Remember, a paragraph, by definition, is a group of sentences about the same idea.) For an essay of this type, paragraphs of three or four sentences each should be enough to explain and provide specific details and examples for each of your supporting ideas.

To help you develop your paragraphs, expand your outline. For each main supporting idea, list at least one specific detail or example. Imagine each paragraph as a mini-essay,with its own thesis (topic sentence) and support (specific examples and details).Notice, for example, how the previous outline can be expanded as follows:

Introduction: Good neighbors are friendly, helpful, and respectful of boundaries.
  1. Friendly neighbors are pleasant to have around, make it nice to live where you live.
    • Ex: my neighbor Selma and her family—
    • always saying hello
    • often chatting
    • cookies at Christmas
  2. Helpful is important—know you can count on them for small favors, when you are in need.
    • Ex:
    • borrowing sugar etc.
    • Hank lending tools to Dad
    • Selma helping Mom sew curtains
  3. Need to respect boundaries, not to take what is yours, not to 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:
    • physical boundaries: don't just walk in; it's not your house, don't take things
    • old neighbors, the Wilcoxes, taking things from our shed w/o asking
    • social boundaries: don't be nosy; it's not your family; respect privacy
      • what happened when Uncle Andy's neighbors got too nosy
        • neighbors got involved in divorce
        • made painful experience more complicated and confusing for everyone

Notice now how clearly the order of importance of the organizational pattern stands out, especially in the last section. And because this outline is so detailed, it offers a guide for just about every sentence in the body of the essay.

Step 5: Write Your Essay

Now that you have a clear, detailed outline, you can begin to write. If you can quickly think of a catchy way to begin your essay, terrific. If not, don't spend precious minutes trying to come up with the perfect opening line. You don't have the time. Remember, you have only 45 minutes for the whole essay—planning, writing, and editing. You need to start writing as soon as you organize your thoughts. One good way to jump right in is to paraphrase (repeat in your own words) the key discussion note stated in the prompt and then state your thesis. Here's an example of this kind of introduction:

It is very important to have good relationships with our neighbors. In my opinion, there are three characteristics that make it easy to live side by side with someone. Neighbors should be friendly, they should be helpful, and they should respect boundaries.

Notice how this introduction also outlines the three main topics that will be developed in the body of the essay: being friendly, being helpful, and respecting boundaries.

Once you have written your introduction, write the body of your essay paragraph by paragraph, following your outline. Make sure each paragraph has a clear topic sentence and specific support. Don't forget about transitions between paragraphs. Key words and phrases such as more importantly, similarly, etc. help guide your reader through your argument. (See "Transitions" to review transitional words and phrases.)

After your supporting paragraphs, write a brief conclusion. Restate your thesis, but not in exactly the same words. Don't introduce any new topics. Instead, make readers feel as if you have covered your topic thoroughly and that they have gotten something meaningful from reading your essay. Here's an example:

When you live side by side with someone, it's important to have a good relationship. To be a good neighbor, you need to be friendly and helpful. Most important, you need to respect boundaries. Your house is your house; your life is your life. It doesn't belong to your neighbor.

Writing with Style

Style refers to the manner in which something is done. For example, we all buy and wear clothes that fit our own personal style—the way we like to look and feel when we are dressed. The same is true of our writing; each person has his or her own individual style, and the more you\ understand stylistic techniques, the more effectively you can express yourself in writing.

Style in writing is created by several different elements, including:

  • word choice
  • consistent and appropriate tone
  • variety in sentence structure and use of punctuation and other techniques for effect

Word Choice

One of the most important decisions writers make is a constant one: word choice. As you write, you are always, in every sentence, thinking about the right words to express your ideas. The "right" word has three essential characteristics:

  1. It expresses the idea you wish to convey.
  2. It is exact (precise).
  3. It is appropriate for the audience and tone.

Notice how effective word choice cuts back on wordiness and creates much more powerful sentences in the following example:

  • He walked very quickly into the room.
  • He rushed into the room.
  • He raced into the room.
  • He burst into the room.

Each of these italicized verbs has much more impact than the verb walked and its two modifiers, very quickly. These exact verbs create a vivid picture; they tell us exactly how he entered the room.

Exact nouns will improve your sentences, too. Here's an example of a general sentence made more precise:

  • The machine made a loud noise and then stopped.
  • The generator made a loud bang and then stopped.

The second sentence, with its exact nouns, tells us what kind of machine it was and what kind of noise it made, giving us a much clearer picture of what happened.

Adjectives, too, should be precise. Instead of writing:

  • I am very tired.
  • Try an exact adjective:
  • I am exhausted.

Exhausted means very tired—and it's a much more powerful word to convey your idea.

Appropriate Level of Formality

Word choice determines level of formality, and vice versa. Would you say to your boss, "Yo, wassup?" Probably not. But you certainly might talk that way to your friends. We're usually careful to use the right level of formality when we talk to someone. The same should be true of writing. Writers must decide how formal or informal they should be when they write, and they make this decision based on their audience and their purpose.

Level of formality can range from the very informal (slang) to the very formal (esoteric, ceremonial) to everything in between. Writers use word choice and sentence structure to manipulate the level of formality. Here's an example:

A: It was so cool. I mean, I never saw anything like it before. What a great flick! You have to check it out.
B: It was really an impressive film, unlike anything I've ever seen before. You should definitely go see it.

These two sentences are drastically different in style and in particular in the level of formality. Though they both tell the same story and both use the personal firstperson I, there's clearly a different relationship to the reader. From the word choice and style—the short sentences, the very casual language—we can tell that the writer of passage A has a more informal, more friendly relationship with the reader than the writer of passage B. The emotion of the writer in passage A is much more transparent, too, because the language is more informal and natural. You get the idea that passage A is addressed to a close friend, while passage B might be addressed to a colleague or supervisor.

In your essay, be sure to write at an appropriate level of formality. Do not use slang, but do not be excessively formal, either.

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