Writing to Essay Prompts Study Guide (page 2)
Writing to Essay Prompts
If I can say something honest about my feelings and thoughts and problems as a minority of one, then won't it be meaningful to all the other individual minorities of one? - DORY PREVIN (1929– ) AMERICAN SINGER AND SONGWRITER
This lesson will help you learn how to respond to the various writing prompts your teachers are likely to assign. In addition, you'll learn how to adapt to other writing situations.
By Now You should be feeling fairly comfortable with the various types of essay formats and the organizational steps you need to take at the beginning of any writing process. In this lesson, you'll learn strategies and tips for responding to assigned prompts.
For the great majority of writing projects you do as a student, you will be writing in response to assigned prompts. A prompt is a word that describes the question you are being asked to answer or the writing assignment you are given. Some teachers use the word prompt and other teachers use the word assignment. Both mean the same thing. As you are aware, writing prompts can require you to write in numerous and varied situations:
- in-class writing sessions, either formal essays or informal journaling and freewriting
- homework assignments
- standardized essay tests, including grade-level exit exams
In addition to these formally assigned prompts, think of all the situations in which you find yourself writing in other formats that require you to conform to explicit or implicit expectations. Such writing situations include
- writing letters, including thank-you notes
- answering questionnaires
- filling out forms
- constructing your Facebook page
- texting your friends
When you stop to think about it, you'll realize that there are almost no situations, except perhaps freewriting, in which you are writing without some expectations of what your writing will look like, either in form or in content.
The basic principles of what constitutes good writing remain constant of course, but the specifics of any given assignment can have a great impact on what and how you choose to write. In that sense, every writing project is unique and requires expert tailoring if it is to succeed in its goal of communicating effectively. Here are guidelines to follow in your writing process, no matter what the specific assignment is.
Take Time To Plan
What may surprise you is that the most important portion of the time you spend on any writing assignment is not the time you spend writing. Rather, it is the time spent preparing to write. Taking the time to prepare properly, which includes taking time to consider carefully what the prompt expects of you, is the most valuable time you will spend on any writing task. Resist the temptation to start writing immediately, just to get your project over with. In the end, your essay will be better, and will take less time to write, if you've devoted a certain amount of your writing time to thinking and planning.
Timed essays, such as the ones you are asked to write during a specified amount of time during class, are usually the ones that strike terror in the hearts of most writers. There is a natural tendency to feel panicky, and to want to start scribbling right away. Resist that urge! Instead, stop and think and plan. Your best bet is to assign a certain percentage of the time you are allotted to be used solely for planning. This planning time will make the remainder of your writing time less stressful and more productive.
Indeed, you cannot go wrong as a writer if you think of every writing assignment as a timed assignment. Instead of fiddling around, complaining about the assignment, postponing getting down to work, and then interrupting your writing time with texting, phone calls, snacks, errands, anything to avoid getting down to the work at hand, try this: Establish a time (half an hour, one hour, two hours) in which you will get your essay written, set the timer, and begin. You'll have a time goal as well as a writing goal to reach, and you'll be thrilled when the time is up and the work is done.
- Budget your time within the writing period you have decided on. Remember to leave enough time to edit and revise.
Using your time carefully will help you stay on track. You'll have a schedule to keep as well as a writing goal to reach, and you'll be thrilled when the time is up and the work is done.
Analyze The Prompt
The first part of your planning time should be used to analyze carefully the intent of the prompt. In general terms, writing prompts are assignments; they suggest topics for your writing. Sometimes they are general and open-ended (Write about your favorite book), and other times, they are complex and present a topic that demands that you respond more or less in a specified way (Write a defense or a refutation of the following statement: The moon is made of cheese.)
Thus, your first task is to decide exactly what is being asked of you. Ask yourself these questions:
- Is the prompt structured in such a way that you will need to organize your essay in a certain format?
- Is the prompt designed to have you take a position on a controversial issue and defend your position?
- Is the prompt open-ended and general?
- Is the prompt asking you to write in a certain format, for example, a persuasive or an objective expository essay containing lots of factual evidence?
- Does the prompt allow you to reject the obvious response and find a way to go around the prompt and write your essay in a totally different way, perhaps by attacking the question?
Practice: Choosing A Response To A Prompt
Describe briefly how you would respond to the prompts listed here. In 15–20 words or fewer, explain the kind of essay the prompt is suggesting you write.
Include a description of the kind of details or organizing strategies you would use. Remember, there are no right or wrong answers, but there are both intelligent and careless answers. So, think before you write.
Write An Outline: Formal or Informal?
When told to write an outline, students frequently respond in one of two ways:
- I don't have time to write an outline.
- I don't know what I'm going to write until I start writing.
Both of these are faulty responses that will not contribute to your ease or efficiency as a writer. Take time to do a bit of outlining, even if all you write in advance is the kind of rough informal outline you learned about in Lesson 14. (If you can't remember what an informal outline looks like, go back right now and reread Lesson 14; that will be time well spent.)
If you are really, truly pressed for time, at least take a few moments to write down the following:
- Your thesis statement. It is essential that you have this in writing in front of you at all times during the writing process. Refer back to it throughout your essay to make sure that every sentence you write supports your thesis.
- The two or three main ideas you plan to cover in your essay. You should have these well in mind before you begin writing.
- The conclusion you want to draw. Your conclusion needs to be more than a simple restatement of your thesis statement. The conclusion should be an idea or statement developed out of and expanding upon your thesis statement.
Recheck Your Finished Essay Against The Prompt
Once you have written your essay, go back and take a good hard look at the writing prompt. Make sure that you have responded to it precisely.
- Have you covered all the points the prompt asks you to cover?
- If the prompt asks to you agree or disagree, does your essay clearly take a stand?
- If the prompt asks you to justify your position with evidence from two or more sources, have you done so?
- Have you included a clear thesis statement and a coherent, convincing conclusion?
If you have answered no to any of these questions, you must go back and correct your essay. If you've analyzed the prompt thoroughly during your planning time, and used your planning time well, your answer to all of these questions should be yes.
What Your Readers Will Look For
Your reader, no matter who that may be, will be judging your writing with high standards in mind. Even if it's your grandmother reading your thank-you letter, or your Facebook friends reading your description of last night's party, your reader(s) want you to deliver something interesting, informative, and fun to read.
As you write, keep in mind that your reader is asking certain questions and looking for certain qualities in your writing:
- Did you convince the reader to agree with your position?
- Did your argument develop logically?
- Did you make spelling and/or grammatical errors?
- Is your writing lively, vivid, and interesting? Or is it obvious, dull, and clichéd?
- Most important of all, did you write well enough so that the reader is engaged and wants to keep reading to the end of your essay?