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):
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
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,
advice for writing on the fly, whether for school or for business:
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.
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.
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.
imagine you are sitting face-to-face with your teacher or reader, and just
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
you find this advice helpful, Tracy. Good luck with your exams—and good
luck to anyone who writes under pressure.