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Online Guide to Writing and Research

Thinking Strategies and Writing Patterns

Writing Essay Examinations

Organize Thinking Before Writing

Even professional writers fear the blank page. This fear is probably felt nowhere more acutely than during an essay exam. When time is short, words often fail to materialize. However, there is some good news. Your professor has provided help, and that help is located in your essay question. 

On the previous page, reading your essay question, we discussed how to spot keywords and sort them based on their centrality to your answer.

Once you have sorted the words, the next stage is to use them as a guide for organizing your thoughts. Remember, if your professor has instructed you to “compare and contrast,” this is no arbitrary choice of words. Your professor is guiding you to perform that very activity.

Take Note

Imagine a question that asks you to compare and contrast two different architectural styles. It requires you to describe both styles and then discuss their similarities and differences. To do this, decide which characteristics to compare and contrast and what criteria to use in selecting them. Then discuss the similarities and differences.


Essay Question Types

Below, you can find listed examples of essay questions that appear on examinations or in course assignments. Notice that these assignments suggest certain strategies for developing your essay.

Locating the type of essay you are to write will give you purpose as you organize the rest of your answer. Use the central analytic activity of your prompt to organize the assessment-related activities also required. 

Sample Organizing Strategy

Take, for example, the question above on Whitman, Thoreau, and Emerson. Although the central activity of the prompt is the requirement to synthesize the ideas of the three authors, the question also requires you to “examine” and “describe.” The challenge for this question will be to find a way to examine and describe while you synthesize. To meet this challenge, ask yourself, what activities will synthesizing require?

 Notice that developing conclusions about “individualism” drawn from Whitman, Thoreau, and Emerson will require you to describe each author’s thoughts on individualism. These conclusions should also come from an examination of what the authors have in common. Effectively communicating conclusions about individualism in the nineteenth-century United States will require describing and examining the writings of Whitman, Thoreau, and Emerson.


Key Takeaways

  • As you organize your thoughts before writing, use your prompt as a guide.
  • The essay type and the tasks you will need to structure the paper are often there in the prompt.

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