How to Write Essays to a Prompt for Tests, Work, or School

Sample Prompt: Explain a complicated process that you can do well to someone who doesn’t know how to do it.

If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. Ernest Hemingway

Writing Is a Complicated Process                                         Do you struggle when you have to take a writing test, or write a report? As a teacher/consultant writing essays was my forté, yet writing to a prompt is a complicated task.  When I think about my professional life, I probably spent more time writing than almost any other single activity, either writing or grading essays for over 20 years.  Writing professionals have boiled essay writing down to a few steps which can be easily explained to someone who doesn’t write.  While most people THINK they know how to write if they can put words down on paper, they struggle to write even a simple five paragraph essay to answer a prompt.

Notice the blingy water.
Notice the blingy water.

Definition of an Essay

Commonly essays fall into four categories : expository, descriptive, narrative, and argumentative. Essays  convey information rather than tell a story, although they may use facts or short stories to persuade or convince readers to take action. An essay consists of three parts:  an opening paragraph, the body, and the conclusion.  Many teachers in our county use Step Up to Writing to teach this process to students and teachers alike.
  1. An opening paragraph restates the prompt stating three or more examples or facts.
  2. Body paragraphs expand on the three or four facts, one paragraph per main idea.
  3. The concluding paragraph points back to the opening paragraph and summarizes how the paragraph addressed the stated prompt.
PG and Pie
Ideas Matter: Brainstorm and Analyze  Before Writing 
Step Up to Writing  steps sound simple enough.  However, even though the process is simple, fuzzy ideas swim in the writer’s head and often come out jumbled.  Maybe the writer knows nothing about the prompt. Before I write anything I take a few minutes to ask myself questions about the prompt.  I usually jot down some notes in an informal list or outline.  If I can use the computer during the test or when writing for publication I search for a quotation and a definition or explanation of my topic. Most important: Make sure to answer the prompt.
  1. Analyze the prompt or break it into pieces.  Ask, “What DO I know about the prompt?  OR How can I relate it to something I know better and still answer the prompt?”
  2. Ask, “What can I write in a few paragraphs without repeating myself?”
  3. Consider, “Who is my audience?”
students-at-computers1
Research , Research, Research
Writing to a prompt is difficult for many reasons.  An author who does not know much about the topic may cut corners and merely copy the prompt word and repeat it multiple times throughout the essay. Unprofessional essays often start and end with the words, “Today I am going to write about (prompt words)”  This might be acceptable in first grade, but beyond that writers need to display more sophistication in their writing.
  1. Wikipedia is fine for quick bits of information partly because each entry has a bibliography which the writer can also check. It is good to have more sources than just Wikipedia. I use Google, but there are other ways of getting information quickly off the internet.
  2. Books and articles provide detailed information. Digitized books allow the writer to mark what he or she wants to remember and to sort out unnecessary information.
  3. If time is not an issue, articles and scanned documents can be processed into searchable PDF documents using inexpensive or free downloadable programs.
  4. When writers don’t have these options, note cards work well. I always note the title, author and page number, so I can go back and check my sketchy notes. I don’t take time to write detailed notes.
  5. Highlighting works well on printed material that the writer can keep.
  6. Post-it notes allow the writer to comment on materials and books he or she needs to return. Writers can color code these by book or article, topic, time period or any category they choose.
writing, blogging, book reviews, New_Office04
Weed Out All But the Most Important Information
Essayists can’t use it all.  According to the brain laboratory at UCLA, people have more than 70,000 thoughts per day. One short essay can’t utilize all these thoughts, so the first step is deciding which thoughts are keepers. When I write under pressure on a topic, use these techniques.
  1. Brainstorm on paper. Lists, webs, and tables all work well.
  2. Move to an outline. Find connections between the list of words. Sort them into categories. Writers may do this mentally, but it is more effective if they write it down. I use the old fashioned outline because it puts my thoughts into a hierarchy, most important first.Manny's Trip to Spain
Match Writing Style and Vocabulary to the Task
Prompt writing is a formal process.  Vocabulary, spelling, and style become issues.  My blogging style is informal, uses simple vocabulary and sentence structure, and I attempt humor. Formal writing style differs in several ways. 
  1. It uses a more academic lexicon or vocabulary.
  2. Sentence structure varies.
  3. The tone is generally, but not always, more serious.
  4. Each sentence starts with different words.  For example, after I have written this essay, I will go back over it and circle all the initial words.  If I have more than two or three of the same beginning word, I will change one of them.  I will look at how many of the same words I use within the sentence as well.  Word processing programs and the internet have dictionaries and a thesaurus at the writer’s fingertips, so there is no excuse for repeating the same word constantly. If the internet is not allowed during an essay, use the scratch paper to free-associate synonyms.
  5. Spelling is most difficult for me if the internet is not an option. When I can’t remember how to spell a word, I substitute a word I can spell.
  6. Punctuation errors show up, and even though there are differences about how to punctuate. Study Strunk and White before you take a test, or take it with you.
Ralph's remodel003
Keep the Conclusion Uncluttered
Students, test takers, or essayists who utilize these tips will have a passable essay for any project, exam, job application, or work-related report, and become an expert in writing to a prompt.
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Author: Marsha

Hi, I'm Marsha Ingrao, author, blogger and retired teacher/consultant. Read more about me here. http://wp.me/P7tP3I-2

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