Thursday, July 10, 2014

How to Write An A+ Essay From Any Prompt In 5 Easy Steps

Essay writing... the bane of students everywhere! I find there are two kinds of people: we'll use the characters Norma and Jean as examples.

1) Norma hates writing in general. It just feels like every time the teacher hands out a writing assignment, she has no idea where to start, and she just can't think up the right words, the right topic--the paper sits blank until the night before the deadline, at which time she is compelled to slap together haphazard sentences of words that sound cool and professional, whether she actually knows the meaning or not... and the result is a paper that only just barely passes muster according to the word limit and content guidelines specified by the teacher.

2) Jean enjoys writing--but only stories. She feels that essays are dry, boring affairs that hamper her creativity and plague of her existence. Outline? What good are outlines, anyway? Why can't she just write what she feels on the subject and leave it at that? The essays that she writes (reluctantly, sometimes under duress) are rambling, prolific affairs that she feels answer the question, but the teacher is constantly correcting her grammar and questioning her thought process.

Are you Norma or are you Jean? With all the "instructions" out there, wouldn't you want to be able to use them? Most instructions begin with "Write Your Thesis"... but what if you don't have a thesis? How can you come up with a purpose for your essay? How do you deal with a prompt that says you can agree or disagree with a topic you barely even care about in the first place?

Take the essay at its most minimal: the complete sentence. Can you make a complete sentence? Just one? Okay, that's good enough. Sentences together, consisting of the same topic, is called a paragraph. A paragraph is typically at least three sentences long. If you can make one complete sentence, do you think it would be possible to make three? Probably; I'd say most likely. All right! So now you have the paragraph principle down... An essay should be at least five paragraphs long. So: five paragraphs, of three sentences each, and you have at least fifteen sentences! This is the Bare Bones Basics of The Essay.

But... how does that help you know what to write when given a prompt?

No matter where you're writing: homework assignment, in a testing situation, the very first section of the SAT--you'll most likely be given general guidelines for your topic, such as:

-A famous person said a well-known quote; do you agree or disagree? Explain your answer.
-A recent poll of seniors claim that cats make good pets for the elderly. Defend or contradict this conclusion.
-Explain the difference between texting while driving and talking on the phone while driving, with regards to how much it distracts the driver. 

Can you feel your brain seizing up already? Stay calm. Deep breaths; here we go!

Step 1: Introduce Your Topic

If you're the sort that sees a prompt and has no idea how to start the essay, go with the simple approach: Just introduce and repeat the prompt. Pretend you're explaining the prompt to someone who's just going to read your essay, not the prompt. Set the stage: What is the issue? What are the choices? What question can you pose that you will go on to answer?

For example, if I receive a prompt such as:
Some people like to live by the old expression, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” This expression reflects the widely shared belief that one should always try to be polite and to have consideration for another person’s feelings. While such an approach may make it easier to get along with people, no real relationship can truly thrive unless it is built on a solid foundation of truth.
Is it more important to avoid hurting people’s feelings or to tell the truth?*
*This prompt actually taken from an SAT example page: SAT-Essay Prompts

I might start my essay with one paragraph (remember, only three sentences) explaining what the question is:

"Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me." How many times have we heard this expression? Is it ever really true? Words are powerful things; they can give a person courage and motivation, or they can tear a person down. Some people believe that a good relationship should always be based solely on truth, whether it might hurt the other person's feelings or not. Others believe that the truth should be dependent on how the other person will receive it; these people would rather lie than hurt the other person. Which is better: to fudge the truth and keep a friend happy, or to forgo pleasing the other person all the time in an effort to be "real" with them?

Do you see what I did there--or, more importantly, what I didn't do? I did not give any further information than what was already presented in the prompt. Sure, I might have stretched out a few of the details over a couple sentences--but there is nothing in this first paragraph of my own idea; it's all just about the information I've already been given. This is totally "legal" essay writing, and it makes it so much easier to get started, right? And hey! That's definitely more than three sentences!

 The Principle of The Introduction can be summed up thus: Tell the audience what you're preparing to say.

Step 2: Take One Side

Now that we've got our introduction, it's time to pick one side of it. It doesn't matter whether you're comparing one thing to another or explaining yourself. Your job is to make a 5-paragraph essay out of a 1-paragraph or 1-sentence prompt.

Using the prompt I started with, I might go ahead and start with the side that says to tell the truth all the time.

Telling the truth as a matter of facts and knee-jerk reactions is very easy. If you think a dress looks terrible on your friend, the honest thing would be to come right out and tell her so. Yet this kind of rote honesty does not take into account the differences between you and your friend. You might not be the sort of person to go out and buy a dress like that, but maybe your friend has a different sense of style, and she has worked hard to save up the money to buy that dress. If you must be honest, then, take a step back and consider: do you just not like the dress very much, or does it honestly look terrible on her? Is your assessment truly a fact, or is it just a matter of opinion?

Boom; a second paragraph down in only minutes. "Quick and dirty" essays like this one don't require lots of research and planning, and they're usually on a short time limit, so the object is to get your thoughts down as quickly and concisely as possible. You might not notice that I repeated myself a couple times in the above paragraph, just to make it seem longer. As long as you change around the way you phrase things, you just might find out how easy it is to "get away" with doing the same thing yourself.

Step 3: Take The Other Side

No matter which side you took in Paragraph 2, take the other side in Paragraph 3. Still, your personal feelings and opinions don't have to confirm one way or another. Go ahead and act like you support both ideas. Making the distinction can come later.

Being kind as opposed to being honest can also have its perks. There is very likely no one in the world who does not enjoy hearing good things about themselves. Society today is all about hyping a positive self-image, and receiving the encouragement from others just boosts that self-esteem even higher--but is this really a good thing? You and your friend might both feel good about yourselves if you choose not to tell her that the cut of the dress really isn't her style--but what will that do to your friendship when she discovers that you haven't been honest with her? Sure it was a nice thing to say, but a really nice deception still stings of betrayal when it's between friends.

Again, I diddled about the point, I repeated myself, I repeated a previous paragraph--but I'm making a point, I'm writing the essay, and I'm making good time on it!

Step 4: Compare/Contrast, Combine, or Choose

Depending on the sort of essay you needed or decided to write, Paragraph 4 is your chance to either compare the two contrasting items that you talked about in Paragraphs 2 and 3, combine two distinct elements into a third point in the body of your essay, or choose the side that appeals to you the most.
For my sample essay, I'm going to combine the two choices of "tell the truth" or "say nice things" and present a third option of a balance between the two.

The key to discovering the correct perspective in all of this is balance. Words do hurt, and it is easier to hurt than to heal. On the other hand, choosing to say nothing when it might be harmful in the long run is not a very good idea, either. Ideally, you will want to start by being kind. It is a rational assumption to believe that kind people attract more friends. As more people become acquainted with you, use honesty to take the relationship to a closer level. Those shallow friends who crave the adulation of others and only want others to pamper their insecurities are the ones who have a false perspective on the way life really works. A true friend knows how to be both kind and honest in its turn.

Step 5: Conclusion

All right, so you've "said what you're going to say" (Introduction), you've "said what you have to say" (Body)... Now it's time to "say what you just said" (Conclusion). The first paragraph and the last paragraph are by far the easiest--and Paragraphs 2-4 only take a small amount of extra effort to make that happen. 
Basically, repeat and summarize everything you just put in the last 3 paragraphs (2-4) and end with a punchy sentence.

In conclusion, being nice at the expense of being honest can potentially drive others into insecurity as they depend on others opinions to make themselves feel better. Telling the truth at the expense of other people's feelings will repel people and make you seem like an abrasive, rude person. The secret to being a great friend is to know how to use both of these qualities in the right balance. The question is not whether one is better than the other; the question we must ask ourselves is: right here, right now, what can I say that would most benefit my friend?

Total word count: 600+, which is slightly longer than an average minimum requirement of 500 words, but that just probably means I repeated myself more than necessary. Take a moment to look back as I leave you with a Bonus Point:

Decide on an idea that will be your "checkpoint." To help your essay stay on topic, try and incorporate that "checkpoint" into every paragraph.

For the above example, my checkpoint was "the power of words." It relates to the prompt topic, and I had a mention of it in just about every paragraph, which gives a sense of consistency through the essay that will also go a long way in helping the conclusion practically write itself!

If you're a writer like Jean, one idea might lead to another, then on to another, and another... and pretty soon you're rambling and you're almost out of time and you have no way to bring it back around for any kind of a decent finish. A "checkpoint" will keep your essay on task, and help you avoid following the "bunny trails" that will take your essay too far off topic.

If you're a writer like Norma, the "checkpoint" is useful if you are having trouble thinking of something to say. Do you have a paragraph that just feels to short to you, and it needs a little something extra to make it sound really great? Add a "checkpoint" reference.

Just In Case You Forgot:

Basic 5-Step Essay:
1- Introduction
2-One Side
3-The Other Side
4-Compare, Combine, or Choose

BONUS: Three-Step Guide to Any Kind of Essay You Will Ever Write:

-Introduction: Say What You're Going To Say (1 Paragraph)

-Body: Say What You Need To Say (3+ Paragraphs; longer papers such as Research essays with multiple elements that each require their own paragraph, or short essays that only need the standard three)

-Conclusion: Say What You Just Said (1 Paragraph)

You're Welcome!

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