Thursday, June 25, 2015

Timed Writing: A Quick Guide for Better Essays

Here is a guide to help students learn how to quickly plan for and write a timed essay on a generic prompt.

(Directions and sample essays written by Elizabeth Collins; feel free to share this guide, but you must credit me and cite this blog as your source; it's only right.)

Notice that while the prompts here are taken from the current SAT (and are meant to be answerable by anyone--using academic, historical, social, or personal examples), the best responses are thoughtful and use outside knowledge taken from reading, studies, and observation. 

I am a big fan of current events examples, as I think they demonstrate intellectual curiosity, and as such, are more impressive than the old standard examples that everyone else uses.

Note: The SAT essay will change in spring, 2016, at which point it will become a "response to reading"--akin to a Rhetorical Analysis essay that might be seen on the AP English Language & Composition exam. Until then, you can use this guide. 

In fact, this guide can still be used for any timed writing, or any essay assignment in general, as the process is always the same: consider the prompt, brainstorm, plan, etc.

If we take apart the structure of a basic essay and look at it as a template, we can see that it is roughly crafted this way:

Intro paragraph

·      Strong statement.
·      Expansion of this statement.
·      Qualification
·      Thesis
·      Examples (optional—briefly hint  at the examples you will use)

Body paragraph 1

Notice that you can copy this structure, especially topic sentence/transition openers!

  •    Let’s first consider" (name historical figure)—this line is an introduction of your first example and allows you to relate your example to your thesis.
  • For the above: *You don't have to use these words; it's just to get you going.
  •  Expand topic sentence with a further idea.    
  •  Write a specific detail.   
  •  Connect your example back to your thesis
 Body paragraph 2:

  •         Transition into 2nd example—you might write: “Even ____  (name second example)  cannot…” (restate key part of thesis).
  •         Expand topic sentence
  •         Write a specific detail
  •         Connect example back to thesis.

Body paragraph 3 (counter-argument):

  •          “Of course…” (transition) “and no doubt…”
  •          But…[here comes your counter-argument!]
  •           Detail

  •  Finally, Thus, In conclusion… (use a concluding transition for the  SAT  essay to make it clear you have finished the essay).
  •   Restate thesis while varying phrasing!
  •     End on memorable note using keywords from assignment and thesis

Memorize the above template and use it in your own writing.

In the samples that follow, I have used the basic template, but I do not always use its wording; notice the changes and familiarize yourself with your writing options, especially when it comes to transitions.

Also, familiarize yourself with the other categories of prompts and read the following sample essays. Take note of the examples used here. Notice that they are varied; Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi are not mentioned in any of these essays for a reason: those are overdone examples. Try to mix it up and be sure you are comfortable using more than just the “same old” examples in your essays.

Ideas, Actions & Decisions

Sample boxed lead-in seen on SAT:

We value uniqueness and originality, but it seems that everywhere we turn, we are surrounded by ideas and things that are copies or even copies of copies. Writers, artists, and musicians seek new ideas for paintings, books, songs, and movies, but many sadly realize “It’s been done.” The same is true for scientists, scholars, and business people. Everyone wants to create something new, but at best we can hope only to repeat or imitate what has already been done.

Assignment QuestionCan people ever be truly original?

Step one:

Brainstorm examples.  

Note that this boxed lead-in strongly steers the writer in a certain direction. You are certainly welcome to go the opposite way, to argue that yes, people can truly be original, but you may find it hard to do so after being hit over the head with such a long, detailed lead-in.

Personally, I often ignore the lead-in because I don't want to be unduly influenced one way or the other. Consider the lead-in as an emergency life raft: only use it if you're about to drown.

Now, try to brainstorm both YES and NO examples because you might surprise yourself and find that that opposite view has more interesting examples. At the very least, you can use the opposing side’s examples in counter-argument.

This is what I did:

First, I asked myself, what is ‘original’? Snowflakes, fingerprints, the first ideas and creations of their kind, are original (think “origin,” as in birth, or birthplace).

This led me to think that creativity and originality cannot be the same thing, although they are linked somehow.

Art (the first example I thought of) is full of allusions to other art, other ideas—so art is seldom truly original. Specifically, Cubists started a new movement, but Cubists all did the same thing, as did Impressionists.

Movies these days tend to all be remakes. Why? We want proven money-makers, “sure things,” not new things.  (Maybe I won’t use this example, as I want something a bit more high-brow)

New things are risky—so people hesitate to either create or accept original ideas and products, preferring to see what everyone else is doing.

I kept thinking that, “Original ideas are seldom truly original.”

Consider the airplane (first built by the Wright brothers).

Consider the atom bomb—Einstein developed e=mc squared, the formula that made it possible to split atoms and create nuclear weapons, but he only released this equation because he know someone else would eventually get it, too, and he wanted to take the credit…the development of a massively powerful weapon was in the air, in the zeitgeist.

The zeitgeist is “spirit of the times” and a zeitgeist always feels new, but in reality, the change or spirit has been brewing for a long time…

Is there a quote that deals with new ideas? The one I thought of is, “There is nothing new under the sun.”—Shakespeare.

Sample “Originality” essay response:

“There is nothing new under the sun,” wrote Shakespeare. The playwright’s observation that there is no such thing as utter originality is an apt statement—and it was made centuries ago. In the ensuing decades, artists and inventors have worked and struggled to develop fresh ideas, only to find that their creations remind the public of something else, or that other people were thinking the same thing, or that society isn’t yet ready for their original creations. Humanity’s long existence has made true originality virtually impossible. Even though we attempt to develop new ideas, we may come to find that it’s all been done before, or that by the time our “original” idea gains support, more people have also been thinking the same thing.

Original ideas challenge people in uncomfortable ways, but original thought is usually part of a larger movement. No single ideas in art, for example, stand alone; rather, many artists together work to promote a new style. An example of this is Impressionism. Impressionist art was unpopular when it first appeared because it looked to art critics who were used to Realism like a motley collection of smudgy, even messy, blobs of paint. Now, the Impressionist works are the most popular art, and the “original,” modern art of countless unknown artists is widely disparaged because the public isn’t used to it yet and doesn’t understand it. Certainly, 100 years from now, modern art may be a big draw for museums the way Impressionism is today. It takes people a long time to accept new ideas, and these ideas must be promoted by more than one person—indeed, they must have the support of a group. By the time new ideas are accepted, they are no longer “original.”

While art can be a hard sell, innovations in machines and business seem a bit easier to appreciate as new. Still, even those “original” ideas take time to catch on. Consider the Wright Brothers: they toiled for years to create an airplane, and appeared to be the inventors of the first flying machine. Yet we know that Leonardo da Vinci had sketched the same ideas centuries earlier. Moreover, as can be seen in the myth of Icarus, humans have always longed to fly. The Wright brothers were certainly not the only humans to ever conceive of flight, so their airplane idea was hardly original. No, the Wright brothers were merely the first people who actually built a working airplane. By the time they had done so, the airplane was an internationally popular idea. The concept and design of an airplane cannot be ascribed solely to the Wright brothers; flight was simply an idea whose time had come.

Any original ideas have followers who band behind the idea to help get the masses to accept it, or else the “original” idea is simply one that people are ready to embrace. This build-up can take time, but we seldom notice new ideas taking shape while this is happening; instead, we suddenly realize that a seemingly “new” idea has become popular. The zeitgeist, or spirit of the times, does not suddenly blow in out of nowhere. All original ideas are rooted in what came before and take time to germinate into beautiful flowers we can appreciate. Therefore, there are no truly original ideas; instead, humanity collectively wishes for certain changes that manifest themselves with inventions.

Modern Life

This topic can be among the most challenging if you have not watched many television shows or movies. These essay prompts are often about popular culture (so you need to know what that is!)—and might even be about the popularity of reality television (so be sure you’ve seen a few episodes of “Jersey Shore” or “The Real World”).

The technology prompts in this topic area tend to be easier, as do the materialism prompts, but the point is: familiarize yourself with past “Modern Life” prompts so that you will not be blindsided and so that you will know how you might answer any question that falls under this topic heading.

Here a few examples of “Modern Life” prompts.

Boxed lead-in: This is a time for shallowness. Seriousness is so rare these days that we tend to make all kinds of allowances for those who only seem to possess it. In this way, shallow ideas are not recognized for what they are, and they are increasingly mistaken for deep thoughts. –Adapted from Margaret Talbot, “The Perfectionist.”

Assignment question: Do we live in a time when people do not engage in serious thinking?


First, break down the question into its two essential parts:

1. What are some instances of serious thinking in our current society?
Peace negotiations, such as the never-ending Israeli-Palestinian peace talks;

Trade agreements, such as TPP

Matters of international diplomacy, such as inflicting sanctions upon Russia as punishment for its annexation of Crimea;

Environmental legislation, such as the Kyoto Protocal;
financial planning by nations and individuals;

Public health issues, such as how to stop the spread of AIDS, SARS, MERS, Measles, etc.

2. What are some instances of “shallow” thinking in our current society?
Our obsession with celebrities, especially those who are famous just for being famous;

Also, worrying about what other people think of our clothes, our techy gadgets (constantly upgrading our smart phones, for example);

Dressing to impress others.

3. Put it together now: “Shallow” thinking could be any thinking about matters that do not have future consequences, such as political legislation that fails to consider future generations, an example being offering tax relief or avoidance for mega corporations while failing to invest in the nation’s  infrastructure.

Once you’ve brainstormed some examples, you are ready to write your THESIS statement.

A thesis can be pro (for) or con (against), or qualified (somewhere in the middle)—a qualified answer is best used if the issue is complex, but normally, you will want to choose a stance because that makes for a stronger argument.

Sample thesis:  We live in a time when issues that demand serious thinking are so overwhelming that people tend to focus their energy on shallow topics because they don’t know enough or have not read enough about serious issues to be able to engage in deep thought.

Keep brainstorming specific examples and write your own sample essay.

Be sure to fill up two pages of lined paper with neat handwriting. Have a strong argument, organized clearly and logically.

Here is the infamous reality television prompt:

Boxed lead-in:

Reality television programs, which feature real people engaged in real activities rather than professional actors performing scripted scenes, are increasingly popular. These shows depict ordinary people competing in everything from singing and dancing to losing weight, or just living their everyday lives. Most people believe that the reality these shows portray is authentic, but they are being misled. How authentic can these shows be when producers design challenges for the participants and then editors alter filmed scenes?
Assignment question: Do people benefit from forms of entertainment that show so-called reality, or are such forms of entertainment harmful?


First, notice that the lead-in is actually quite different from the question, but that the lead-in will help you if you were unsure what “reality television” is—though it won’t help if you’ve never seen a show in this genre.

Be sure to break down this question so you can brainstorm YES and NO examples (yes, reality entertainment has benefitssuch as...; no, reality entertainment does not have a benefit to people because...).

See my sample reality television essay, here:

The truth is stranger, and more compelling, than fiction. Reality television, which often depicts real people in real-life situations, is everywhere because, as writers have been saying for years, “You can’t make this stuff up.” People benefit from the recent spate of reality shows because most of these programs depict actual people who are struggling with tremendous problems, and as such, viewers can vicariously experience these same issues and learn “what not to do” or, how to get help.

Many reality television shows are about people with serious problems such as hoarding, drug addiction, or morbid obesity. Viewers may at first tune in to see the suffering people’s misery—this is the “Thank God that’s not me” effect—but the public also watches in order to see people get help to overcome their problems, and ultimately, triumph. Therefore, reality television programs that are about people with mental and physical issues can be inspiring. People who watch these shows also may learn to recognize signs of incipient problems in themselves, as in, “Wow, maybe gnawing on coal is a problem!” Or, “Maybe I should stop sucking on the baby’s diapers because other people think that’s unhealthy and disgusting.” (These problems are called pica, and both have been covered on reality television programs; this is another important thing viewers may learn: the names for problems they didn’t know about before.)

Even when reality television shows are clearly artificial—as in the preponderance of “bachelor” and “bachelorette” contests where superficial contestants claim, illogically, that they are “deeply in love” with the single man or woman whose hand in marriage they are vying for—viewers can learn valuable lessons. Just as real life is about relationships with other people, so too are these love contest shows. A young person who watches these programs may at first be dazzled by the pulchritude and wealth of the purported “bachelor,” but it will quickly become apparent that these people are acting fake and cannot truly be establishing meaningful relationships. It is all “too good to be true”—which is a valuable life lesson in and of itself.

Finally, despite the fact that shows based on so-called “reality” have burgeoned in the past decade for reasons of both economics and the human urge for competition, our society has changed for the better because of reality entertainment. Although many young people may believe, for a brief time, that they don’t need to study in order to get a job because there will surely be a good-paying reality show made about them and their life, as viewers mature, they realize that would not be good thing. Fame has always been the goal of the majority of people, yet the famous are the first to say that fame is a burden. We see this first-hand in the “train-wreck” stories shown on reality television. By watching them, we learn what not to do, and we learn to handle our issues in private. The reality is that reality television’s “stars” usually only agree to be on TV in order to help other people not make their same mistakes.

**apologies for the funky and constantly changing font on this post; I have no idea why Blogger does this and I cannot spend any more time re-formatting this post.