Monday, July 27, 2009

Aagh! It's a timed essay!

When most people think of timed writings, sometimes also called "day essays" or "in-class essays," their stomach performs strange gymnastic maneuvers. Writing under pressure might be one of the least favored forms of exam known to humankind. However, as always, there are tips and tricks for breaking the process down that can help students feel more prepared and less worried. Here are some of those:

1. If you are typing your essay, ask your instructor if you can also open a timer that helps you keep track of your remaining time. This is available on the gadget at the top right of this blog. Set it for the total number of minutes remaining in your class period, or as your instructor indicates.

2. When you receive the topic/prompt, if you do not have time to think about it overnight, but must begin writing now, read through the question and sketch out a quick idea of structure. Ask the teacher any questions you have about the nature of the question and your plan to write about it, so that you will stay within the bounds of the assignment. Some teachers and all standardized test proctors refuse to answer these questions, but as you are becoming more familiar with the timed writing, you can probably ask your teacher a question or two.

3. Assess how much time you will have for these stages of the writing:

reading prompt and brainstorming, pre-writing, listing ideas, etc.

writing the intro and conclusion paragraphs (unless it is a one-paragraph paper)

writing each body paragraph

carefully re-reading it for grammar and content mistakes

Since you have--by definition--a limited span of time, you need to budget it carefully. Most of it should go to the body paragraphs and proofreading. However, you need to plan adequately and frame the writing with an intro and conclusion for effective results.

So, if your class period is 50 minutes, try to give 5 minutes or so to the reading/planning; 5 minutes to the intro; 15 minutes per body paragraph; 3 minutes to the conclusion; and 5-7 minutes to self-editing for mistakes.

As you can see, this will be tight! Setting up the timer may be the best way to monitor your progress; however, take heart!--you also may find yourself needing less and less planning time as you become accustomed to the type of writing your instructor expects.

Now, a suggestion most of you will not find enticing: Practice this at home. When you have an hour, set yourself up on the computer, use your timer, and begin working on one of these topics:

1. Which is more important, talent or effort?
2. What are the two most important qualities in a friend?
3. What two places should everyone visit?
4. Should PE be a required course?
5. What season is your favorite?
6. What are the benefits of having a pet?
7. What are the benefits and drawbacks of the internet?
8. What are the most important qualities in a leader?
9. To paraphrase, Mark Twain once said that someone who will not read has no advantages over someone who cannot read. Do you agree?
10. Is year-round school preferable to the standard 9-month plan?

When you are practicing timed writings, keep these benefits in mind:
*You will benefit from learning to budget your time.
*You will be better prepared for real writing situations if you are surprised by the topic. Sometimes, ask someone to choose one for you.
*You do not have to stand behind your words as if they were sworn testimony in court. Just write something sensible if you find yourself getting "blocked."

As you finish writing, put a sensible title on the essay. Do not do this first! It's easier when you know what you are summing up.

To effectively proofread, you need to take four steps--correct any repeated first words in a paragraph (N2SSWTSW); spell check and grammar check effectively; use "edit/find" to locate Nasty No-Nos and remove/replace them; slowly read the essay aloud to yourself (or in your head), touching each word as you say it, to verify that you removed edited out words and put in all the words you intended.

Ideally, you will find your stomach feeling less and less queasy on timed writing days as you become more experienced and expert at writing in this high-pressure mode.


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