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.
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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?”
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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.
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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.
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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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Book Review: Through the Redwood Curtain by Robert Burke

Bob Burke is front and center at the Foundation Bologna Feed.
Bob Burke is front and center at the Woodlake Foundation Bologna Feed.

At a Woodlake High School Foundation Dinner I attended recently, Bob Burke, the 2011 San Joaquin Valley Council for the Social Studies High School Teacher of the Year, told me he had just published his first book, Through the Redwood Curtain.

Through the Redwood ForestI was thrilled for him, and anxious to read it, a story about places and times familiar to me.

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The main character, Steve, a long-haired student at the College of the Redwoods, transversed between his home, where he lived in a tiny trailer in an ultra-conservative, poverty-ridden McKinleyville trailer park with his brother and his brother’s wife, to his place of school and employment in Eureka, 13 miles away.  On the way driving south on Highway 101 in his rundown Volkswagen van Steve passed through the now progressive town of Arcata, home of Humboldt State University, just over five miles away from his home.  The two towns couldn’t have been further apart politically.  When folks for the two towns met and talked politics, it was like metal on pavement, driving on the rims.

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Through Steve’s naive eyes, the reader sees the battle lines  being sketched between two ideologies, environmentally conscious students, and lumberjacks and fishermen barely scratching out a living as they destroyed some of the most pristine forests in the United States.  The destitution of the residents contrasted with the privilege and unappreciated wealth of the majority of the Humboldt State students from Southern California created a dramatic backdrop of political sparks that fueled this book’s plot from beginning to end.

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The drama didn’t end with politics, however.  Steve had his own internal combustion engine when it came to the love of his life, Cheryl, and their lonely times of separation, the abundance of drugs, family differences, friendships, and betrayals.  In addition, the death of Steve’s mother, the lack of support from his drunken father colored his emotions, and his own desperate financial situation added to the intense conflict of forces within the story.

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Finally, the story wouldn’t have been complete without Steve’s $1.65 an hour job at Coastal Gardens Nursery in Eureka.  Steve worked with an assortment of characters, most of whom were paroles, students, or local tooth-free young women looking for good men – in all the wrong places.  Steve seemed to innocently bound through his mixed up world always seeing roses through his fog colored spectacles.

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All of the dramatic facets and interludes of Steve’s life seem inextricably intertwined into the life of his rusty, fussy old VW van.   Could it be that the opposing forces in Steve’s life wouldn’t begin to come together as long as he had the troublesome VW?  Or would his troubles only deepen if the old van ever died?  To find that answer you will have to read the book.

Common Core Standards

While this is a work of fiction, I think most high school teachers could use this with their students studying modern U.S. history, and would find Through the Redwood Curtain more than just a fun read.  Of course they could analyze the characters and setting, both of which are part of the new standards.  One of the important aspects of being a historian is to know the author, and understand the lens through which the book is written.  Robert Burke graduated from Humboldt State in the 1970s, so is a primary source when it comes to the issues found in the book.  So did Bob have an agenda when writing the book?  Did he see like as a wealthy college student, or did he, because of his own lack of funds, identify more with the conservatives who also had financial troubles bigger than the Redwoods?  How would the book have been different if written from the perspective of the owner of Coastal Gardens Nursery?  These are topics with which students have to grapple in their Common Core classrooms.  In my opinion this story would be an excellent one for examining perspective.

If you know Northwest California, and love the complexity of the simple life found there, you will love this book.  Read it and pass it on to a friend or two that went to Humboldt State in the 1970s.  They probably knew Steve – even though he is fictitious.  I felt like knew him – back when.

Book Review: Team of Rivals

Stephen Spielburg based the epic film,  Lincoln, on the book, Team of Rivals:  The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Amazon already has 1,588 customer reviews of this book.  Mine is not needed, and, although I read it two years ago as I prepared to visit Civil War Battlefields and museums, I can’t help but sing its praises as one of my all time favorite books!

Can you name Lincoln's rivals?
Can you name Lincoln’s rivals?

The rivals mentioned were the others that wanted the Republican presidential nomination in 1860:  William H. Seward – NY, Salmon P. Chase – OH, and Edward Bates – MO.  Most of the research about this book came from their personal journals, and those of their family members who knew and interacted on a personal level with Abraham Lincoln.

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Lincoln amazed and saddened all the pundits when he won the Republican nomination for President in 1860.  Goodwin maintains that he triumphed, not because of a fluke involving the swing state of Illinois, but because he controlled the nomination process with self-reliance, shrewdness, and canniness.  Lincoln’s greatness showed when he managed opinions that differed from his.  To add to more controversy than just having his party rivals for the nomination to the cabinet, Lincoln included former Democrats:  Gideon Welles, Montgomery Blair, and Edwin M. Stanton.  It was even-tempered Lincoln, who “dispelled his colleague’s anxiety and sustained their spirits with his gift for storytelling and his life-affirming sense of humor.”  (loc.211-214)  All his rivals eventually acknowledged his greatness.  Even the treacherous Salmon P. Chase eventually realized that he’d been out witted by the comedy-cloaked brilliance of the 16th President of the United States.

Her passion explains this book's excellence.
Her passion explains this book’s excellence.

Goodwin weaves the stories in this volume with such skill that you wonder what is going to happen next even when you know what happens.  It was the most valuable resource in studying for a Civil War tour that I had personally.  In the hands of language arts and history teachers, it has great use in the Common Core classroom.  The character details will thrill the language arts teachers.  “He lifted his whole foot at once rather than lifting from the toes and then thrust the whole foot down on the ground rather than landing on his heel.”   Details like these that came from Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, turn students into historians in the classroom.

Unflattering stories told of Mary Todd Lincoln are somewhat softened by Goodwin’s quotes from primary sources.  On their first meeting at a party Lincoln told the well-educated, lively woman, “I want to dance with you in the worst way.”  Mary confided to her cousin, “He most certainly did.”  (Hmmm, was he the worst dancer??)  Lincoln developed unflinchingly loyal friends during his circuit experience as an attorney.  “Lincoln and his fellow lawyers journeyed together throughout the state.  They shared rooms and sometimes beds in the dusty village inns and taverns.”  Lincoln was always the center of attention.

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Through the pages of this book, you come to understand why Lincoln became the unsurpassed successful president he was.  There is much more to this book than the movie, even though the movie portrayed a most crucial event during Lincoln’s presidency.  If you are a Lincoln fan, you probably already read it.  If you aren’t, it’s worth your time.  🙂

For other top reviews check out Amazon.com.

Book Review: The Worst Hard Time…

Before I start my book review, which I promised you last week, I want to thank you for responding to my poll yesterday.  I will be establishing a posting schedule in a few days based on your advice.

Attention English teachers!!!  The Worst Hard Time:  The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan reads almost like fiction. History and science teachers join forces by using this book as primary source background information to introduce or expand the topics including the Dust Bowl and the environment.

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Hundreds of thousands of people fled to Arizona and California to escape the worst natural disaster in modern times.  This book focuses on those who stayed, and lived in wooden shacks with no insulation to keep out the dust.

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You will experience the emotional debates raging in the hearts of the hanger ons when their lives blew away.

“In those cedar posts and collapsed homes is the story of this place:  how the greatest grassland in the world was turned inside out, how the crust blew away, raged up in the sky and showered down a suffocating blackness off and on for most of a decade.” p. 2

This book includes shocking facts beside the tragic stories of the nesters who had obeyed their government, farmed the land, and reaped a bowl of dust.

“…Black Sunday, April 14, 1935, … the storm carried twice as much dirt as was dug out of the earth to create the Panama Canal.  … More than 300,000 tons of Great Plains topsoil was airborne that day. … Jeanne Clark could not stop coughing.  … The doctor diagnosed Jeanne with dust pneumonia, … she might not live long….  Jeanne’s mother… had come here for the air, and now her little girl was dying of it.” p.8

The “great plowup” of millions of acres lasted only thirty years, but the consequences lasted a decade at its worst, and continues today with a cautionary tale for the future.

“The land came through the 1930s deeply scarred and forever changed, but in places it healed. … After more than sixty-five years, some of the land is still sterile, and drifting. … The (nearly 220 million) trees from Franklin Roosevelt’s big arbor dream have mostly disappeared.  … When the regular rain returned in the 1940s and wheat prices shot up, farmers ripped out the shelter belt trees to plant grain.” pgs 309-310

What is frightening after reading this book is the realization that it could happen again, and this time there would be no remedy.

“The government props up the heartland, ensuring that the most politically connected farms will remain profitable. …  To keep agribusiness going a vast infrastructure of pumps and pipes reaches deep into the Ogallala Aquifer, the nation’s biggest source of underground freshwater, drawing the water down eight times faster than nature can refill it. … It provides about 30 percent of the irrigation water in the United States.”  p. 310

This book is guaranteed to make you more aware of the extreme dangers of continuing in the direction we are going as a nation with regards to what and how we grow.

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In Central California where I live, the subject is especially poignant for two reasons:

  1. Many people have relatives still living in the Dust Bowl states.
  2. Central California depends on aquifers and agribusiness to exist.

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I recommend this book for use in Common Core classrooms grades 5 and up.  It covers science as well as social studies topics as it combines environmental issues with historical facts.

Please rate this review.  Thanks  🙂

Book Review: Soul’s Child

Soul’s Child, the 2012 award-winning spell binder by Dianne Gray, unearthed and explored a love/hate relationship between co-dependent father and daughter after the accident in which Aurora Jones’ mother and younger sister died, and left Aurora in a coma for three weeks.

Do you love a mystery?
Do you love a mystery?

The accident also gave Aurora an insatiable and uncontrollable urge to draw unnaturally realistic scenes she had never experienced.   Although she hid her drawings, her father, originally Mervin Oswald Jones, discovered their secret meanings, and began to capitalize on them.  Mervin legally changed his name to Clive Soul, and created a Hollywood TV show, Soul Search,  to “prove the reality of precognition, ghosts and demons.”  The show totally destroyed her trust in her father, when she learned he would do anything to take possession of her drawings.

Throughout the book, Aurora sought true friendship, and struggled to find those she could really trust in an increasingly hostile environment.  She finally discovered the significance of her scribblings as her father became more and more dependent on them.  She feared for both hers and her father’s life, as the webs between the pictures and real life inextricably entangled.

I usually connect book reviews to the Common Core and sometimes the History Social Science Standards.  This is definitely not a non-fiction piece, nor does it specifically teach any social studies, but the value lies in the fiction work, so students would analyze the book referring to the Reading Standards for Literature.  For example, asking seventh grade students to work with standard RL 6 Analyze how an author develops and contrasts the points of view of different characters or narrators in a text, will help them deeply understand the intricacies of this surprisingly complex novel.

I highly recommend this book to mature readers.