Urban literary legend has it that, over lunch one day, Ernest Hemingway boasted to colleagues he could write a short story in six words. His colleagues doubted very much that even the great Hemingway could write a story in six words. They each wagered $10, betting a $60 pot against him. Hemingway scribbled these six words on a napkin, ‘For Sale: Baby Shoes, never worn.’ According to legend Hemingway won the pot. The phrase is often misquoted, and whether or not there is any truth to the story does not matter. It makes a vivid point about writing that is helpful as we prepare for exams.
Right now our online gathering places are buzzing with conversations about the sudden need to write in a very specific way. In the English Department our examination consists of three timed essays with no support materials allowed. You must have read, thought, and decided, and then in the exam room, respond with an argument to three out of 15 questions within the three hour time limit. Most of our anxiety about the process focuses on the amount of time available and the challenge of saying everything we want to in just one hour. Exams do feel like a puzzle sometimes and writing our first timed essays at home before exams can increase anxiety rather than abate it.
My perspective about exams has changed over the years I have studied in our wonderful program. I have been fortunate enough to do a lot of writing during the last two years, and, as someone who writes a lot, I can assure you that it is not easy no matter how enjoyable it is. When we get ‘faster’ at it, it is because we have either developed processes for the kind of writing we do or because we have developed greater knowledge about our topic and clarity about what we want to say. Maybe faster is the wrong adjective. For me, I have become more efficient with my professional and academic writing process.
My professional writing responsibilities do not include academic writing, though sometimes the criteria overlap. Academic writing is different in content, style, and tone. In exams we are required to argue, which can fairly be said to involve persuasive language. That means we know what we want to say, how it needs to be presented, and the conclusion we would like guide our reader to.
No matter how many times we sit exams, what level we are studying at, or how much or how little we write, spending some time thinking about what we are required to do in exams and how we prepare always helps. First, we need to answer the questions we choose. That’s all, just answer the questions. Remember our Hemingway’s six words? He came to that legendary lunch knowing what he wanted to do and say. There is a narrator, a structure, and careful word choice. It is a masterful example of condensation, no matter who wrote those six words. For me, preparing for exams is like how I imagine our Hemingway prepared for that lunch time challenge; all advance work, including the strategy about how to present it. That’s empowering. Here is something a little different; some links and a list of things I am doing to make my three exam hours as effective and productive as possible.
- Use ‘The Arts Good Study Guide,’ and our English Department handbook to review.
- Follow the advice in my second favorite book for essay writing, Joyce MacAllister’s ‘Writing About Literature Aims and Processes’.
- Practice analyzing specific exam questions, and research the issues they explore.
- Before attempting an essay, I write ‘mini’ essays, 100 or so words, focused on the various points raised in the analysis of my sample exam questions.
- When reading scholarly articles, I always look up references to any primary texts they mention whether I have read them or not. It really does help and almost every primary text is available free on-line.
- I like to write 300-500 word summaries about specific topics explored in practice exam questions for each particular text I am revising. For example, for each text I write at least two summaries for each topic using a different critical approaches for each, and select three topics for each unit I am studying. This way I always have ready references to specific pieces of text, critical argument, and key issues.
- I write essays in the ordinary way before trying timed ones.
- When writing an essay, especially a timed one, I make sure to have a thesis statement and a closing statement written down before I start to write anything else. A thesis statement is easy in exams. Just restate the question as a statement. A strong closing statement keeps me focused, and helps me make sure I have answered the question and did not contradict myself.
- Define the term argument and note what objections must be overcome to argue my point effectively.
- Make an outline.
- Leave space between paragraphs to add transition statements.
- Refer to the thesis statement throughout the essay. It keeps me focused and reminds me that my only requirement is to answer the question.
- Remember that I do not have an hour to write each essay; after using about 15 minutes to read all 15 exam questions and select three, there are only 45 minutes remaining to analyze one question, then plan, write, and edit an essay. And then do it two more times.
Here are some helpful links: