Essay writing is hard and annoying.
To make it easier to understand, we can divide essays into two types: the “filet mignon” essay and the “truck-stop burrito” essay (these labels can be credited to my role model and high school philosophy teacher, Mr. Dollimore).
The “filet mignon” essay is the type of essay you write for an assignment. This requires you to make it all nice and pretty, add all the extra creative details that make professors sleep easy at night, and doll it up with a fancy cover page. You can fill it with fluff and still get a decent mark. Teacher expectations: HIGH.
The “truck-stop burrito” essay is the type of essay you write on a test. Picture writing a test like being on a road trip. After a long, tiring journey, you find your stomach grumbling. Do you head for the fancy filet mignon, or do you feel satisfied with the oily, week-old truck-stop burrito? In that moment, even the cheap, no effort food tastes delicious. That’s the level your test essay should be at. You just have to nab the points and add enough words to make full sentences, but be careful: every point counts. Teacher expectations: LOW.
Each type requires different tips and tricks. To ace a test essay, here’s some advice you should take with a grain of salt follow:
No, seriously. Just dump words everywhere. Every little relevant point you can think of, every small jot you can think of, any pieces of a definition, just vomit it all down on the paper. When it’s there, you can use it. When it’s in your head…not so much.
For example, let’s say you’re given the question:
To what extent is morality a matter of context? How important are circumstances in determining what is moral?
Your paper might look something like this:
Immediately, what I did was TAKE A POSITION/STANCE THAT DIRECTLY ADDRESSES THE QUESTION (in this case, I said morality IS based on context). If you’re struggling to find a position, use the one you can think of more points for.
Another notable point: I wrote down some EXAMPLES. This will form the chunk of your paragraph. If you can think of examples, even just regurgitating those examples will cover the point for you.
Another notable point: after writing a whole bunch of stuff, I identified some things I could define. Definitions eat up word count, directly confront material, and make you look super smart and knowledgeable. Checkmate.
Lastly, if you don’t understand the question, write stuff down anyways. I saw the word morality and context, so I wrote down “moral realism vs. moral relativism” which I know deals with that. Didn’t even think about it. Once you’ve written some initial ideas down, you can reread the question to see if you can take something away or add something else.
ORGANIZE your brainstorming.
This will help you form actual paragraphs. It helps here to know the general structure of an essay, which is an incredibly guiding tool during a test (though don’t feel too stuck to it):
You know out of all that junk you just made, you need to somehow materialize three paragraphs, and those three paragraphs all have to connect back to some unifying topic you haven’t thought of yet. How do you do that? By grouping similar ideas. For example, let me take my garbage jots and turn it into something a little more organized:
That’s a lot of illegible scribbles, so let’s turn it into actual paragraph points:
Write your THESIS.
Now I’ve got my paragraphs! But…what was the question asking again? What’s my thesis? Don’t I have to have a thesis?
Exactamundo, my friend! And this is the prime time to write one! How can you write a general statement without any points? Using your organized brainstorming, write down your thesis. Now, here’s the secret formula to the perfect truck-stop burrito thesis:
Yada yada, you get the point. Basically, just stick your three points together, address the question with your chosen position, and add enough words to make it make sense and line up with your argument.
In this case, we might write:
Moral Realists, deontologists, and those who follow virtue ethics would all agree that circumstances as well as concrete principles determine what is moral.
Note: when you’re done writing your essay, REREAD THE THESIS! I’ve gotten marks off many times for silly reasons, because I changed my point midway and my thesis and essay didn’t agree anymore. (In this specific example, I didn’t realize that deontologists and virtue ethics were practically the same thing, so I lost marks there).
Start writing your BODY PARAGRAPHS.
If you’re like me, the introductory paragraph will elude you. You’ll sit there trying to think of something witty, and when nothing comes up you’ll scratch your head as time is ticking. What do you do?
Write down what you know. What’s that? Your body paragraphs!
Remember: you can leave a space for your intro and get back to it once you’ve written the rest of it. Don’t try to waste time writing something perfect. This is TRUCK-STOP BURRITO people, not the filet mignon.
For your intro: a few relevant sentences and your thesis is enough. It’s enough.
Your body paragraphs can be structured using this wonderfully efficient formula:
Convenient and easy! What’s hard is actually writing it, but this little structure does the bulk of the work for you. Take notice of the guiding questions!
Piece everything TOGETHER.
Ergo: WRITE IT. JUST WRITE IT.
You’d better sharpen that pencil and crack those knuckles, because time is ticking and you need to start writing. For the pen users. I recommend a smooth pen with black ink. Beautiful and therapeutic. For the pencil users, sharpen that thing until it makes a satisfying scratch against that paper (because dull pencils are the abomination of this world).
There’s no way around this, but now that you’ve gotten a little organized, you can piece things together easily. That’s about all I can say.
Strategies for Keeping Your Cool
Neck aching? Fingers throbbing? Make sure to take breathers so you’re not losing your point and losing your mind:
- Look up, straighten your shoulders, breathe. This’ll help you gather your bearings and keep a clear head.
- Stop writing and skim over your paragraph. If it makes sense, read the end of the previous paragraph and then read your paragraph. Still make sense? Read your thesis and reread the topic sentence of your paragraph. Still good? Then you’re doing great!
- Keep extra pencils and pens. Not for if one breaks or runs out of ink, but for a nice, smooth replacement when your current utensil becomes a little hard to use. Keeping a smooth flow really helps.
- Drink water (but not too much). Taking a sip is like taking a mental breather.
- As much as you can, flex your fingers! They deserve a break, too.
Do these, and you’ll be on your way to acing that essay question!