Writing Essay Examinations

Organize Thinking Before Writing

Essay questions often fall into types calling for specific organizational strategies. For example, a question that asks you to compare and contrast two different architectural styles requires that you 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 for selecting them. Then discuss the similarities and differences.

On the other hand, a question that asks you to contrast these two architectural styles as expressions of the beliefs of the architects about what a house should be is asking you to look at the similarities and differences as aesthetic expressions of the philosophies of the two architects. In this case, you might discuss the characteristics of the different styles, one at a time, and then describe how these characteristics arise from the different views of what a house should be.

The types of questions presented here are typical of the kinds of essay questions on examinations or in course assignments. Notice that these assignments suggest certain strategies for developing your essay.

Essay Question Types

Think through your general answer before you begin to develop your essay. Identify the strategy that is suggested or directed. If you cannot figure out exactly what your teacher is asking of you, ask for an explanation. If an explanation is not possible, then try rephrasing the essay question using wording that suggests a strategy. When you decide on a specific rephrasing of the question, then write that down in the form of a thesis statement or topic sentence. Express your thesis as a probing question, if necessary, to begin exploring and discovering your ideas.

This is the time to rely on some of the idea-generating techniques we discussed in chapter 2. Make lists of related ideas that suggest themselves to you from your thesis statement. Ask yourself the journalist's questions to get your ideas flowing. Use the multiple perspectives strategy to look at the subject from different points of view. For most students, making lists, brainstorming, or using one of the formal idea-generating techniques will be enough to suggest a direction. For others, framing a topic sentence or thesis statement will get them started writing. Keep your working thesis statement in front of you to check periodically that you are staying on target, but don't hesitate to refine or change your thesis when your thinking and writing have led your thoughts in a somewhat different direction.