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Copyright by Stephen Wilbers, Ph.D.


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When writing under pressure, take time to plan

by Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere



With her final exams imminent, Tracy Bell, an MBA student in the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, posed this question online to her fellow students and me (her professor):


“Can anyone offer any advice on how to approach writing for essay tests? I do OK when I can throw all my thoughts down in a rough draft and then go back to revise; however, when writing an essay, [I need] to obtain some logical flow immediately.”


Good question. It’s easier to produce a well-structured, coherent piece of writing when working in stages. But many writers—whether trying to get their thoughts flowing in a timed essay exam or responding to a urgent query from their boss—are called upon to perform competently in a single, hurried draft.


Here’s my advice for writing on the fly, whether for school or for business:


Begin by reading the question or thinking about the assignment carefully. Take a few moments to gather your thoughts. Note facts and examples you can use to support your main points. Reread the question. Be sure your intended response will answer it.


The more complex the question or assignment, the more you will benefit from having a plan. An outline helps you clarify your purpose and approach, identify key points, decide how much emphasis to give each point, and detect errors in logic and organization.


No matter how rushed you are, resist the temptation to skip this essential “prewriting” step. The precious moments you spend organizing your thoughts—or composing yourself—are an investment that will save time later by helping you write more fluently.


Now imagine you are sitting face-to-face with your teacher or reader, and just start talking.


Begin slowly. Compose your introductory paragraph deliberately. Consider offering an organizational statement, something like “The contention that small businesses need not establish themselves as ‘C’ corporations is unwarranted because . . . “ or “I recommend we purchase rather than rent a copier for three reasons: . . .” Identifying the major components of your response in your introduction will make it easier for your reader to follow your thought. It also will help you stay on track when writing.


Now it’s time to move quickly. Let the idea of each sentence suggest the next. Don’t try to find the perfect words. Just state your points as clearly and directly as you can and keep moving.


As you finish developing each main point, consider how best to conclude that part of your response. Think of your paragraphs as organizational units that mark the stages in your development. As you wrap up each unit, offer an explicit resolution of the point you are making. Then, to develop your next point, start a new paragraph, leading off with a clear statement of your topic.


Remember: This is not the time for subtlety and nuance. When writing in a rush, hit your reader over the head with your major points and conclusions. Save your gracefully turned phrases and exquisitely worded sentences for more leisurely writing.


When you come to your final paragraph, pause for a moment. Read the question or assignment again and look over what you have written. Make sure you have stayed on topic, and be sure you have answered the question adequately. Correct any problems in wording or punctuation that might obscure your meaning.


As you write your conclusion, consider restating your main points briefly and commenting on their implications. Don’t apologize for what you have written, and don’t say anything that undermines your response.


I hope you find this advice helpful, Tracy. Good luck with your exams—and good luck to anyone who writes under pressure.




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