What Was The Question?

This is going to be a snowy, beautiful weekend in my corner of Pennsylvania. It is crisp and cold; perfect ‘fireplace weather;’ I have 5 days to settle in with Jelly Bean and my treasured notebooks. This week I decided to schedule a 5 day break so I can have uninterrupted writing and study time. The submission deadline for essay marking schemes is very soon, on 1 February. Over the next few days I am going to write four papers under exam conditions, and schedule my writing to simulate taking exams 3 or 4 days in a row.  When I have to work out a plan for a challenge like this I start with an idea of how my day will ideally unfold, or what my ideal essay will contain.  My ideal essay is completed in less than an hour, answers the question completely and represents an organized, articulate argument. How do I reach the ideal I aspire to? That is a very good question.

There are several big days on the academic calendar that revolve around great questions. Essay submissions, seminar participation, revision time and exams come in quick succession. It still gives me a case of butterflies even with a few years experience taking exams and writing papers.  Over the next 4 days I am following the kind of schedule I would on an exam day by writing a paper under exam conditions then revising for the next day’s commitment, just like the experience of back to back exams. Practicing that way helps me to be prepared for the extra dose of stress and pressure that can make writing a bit more challenging.

For me, the most challenging part of managing one exam or multiple exams is choosing the question and creating an outline before I begin writing. I have to remind myself how effective and useful essay planning is. It saves time, helps me to produce a clear argument, and keeps me organized. Even though I know all of that intellectually, something usually happens in practice that prompts me to begin writing spontaneously instead of in an organized and disciplined manner.

What helps me to achieve the essay results I want, like writing within a specific time frame, producing a coherent argument, and including quotes from both primary texts and critical argument, is careful focus on the exam question. Focusing on the question starts by selecting the question I can best answer, and understanding what the question is asking me to do. Comparing, analyzing and discussing are different things; for me, practicing each kind of question is very helpful because I tend to default to one type. I also like to define any literary terms in a question and make sure I use them in my essay. Producing ‘clusters’ of ideas and key words in the exam question is also very important for my organization.

Organization of my argument, and even my writing speed, benefits even more if I summarize all those thoughts and ideas into thesis and concluding statements. Without those summaries I write slower and miss the chance to really engage with a great learning opportunity. For me, some thought about my essay writing ‘process’ from selecting the question to the final review of the essay is the crucial first step in marking schemes and exams. This week some students in our study groups asked where they can find ‘model essays.’ That is a very good question. I am glad they asked, because it reminded me to step backwards from my final essay to the point where my paper really begins. The best model I have found is not found in someone else’s essay. Instead it is the working model that takes me through the essay process step by step, does not allow me to get ahead of myself and gets my treasured ideas onto paper in an organized and efficient way.  I am looking forward to 5 days of great questions!  Happy Writing!

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