Writing the In-Class Essay
1. First, if this is a reading based essay (an essay based on an in-class reading, read the essay assignment carefully before you read the assigned reading. Pick out the salient points and annotate them. You need to be able to differentiate between what is required and what is just suggested as a way of helping you to brainstorm the topic. What are you being asked to do with this? Discuss? Contrast? Agree/Disagree?
2. By reading the prompt first you will have a better idea how to annotate the essay itself. I cannot overemphasize the importance of this active reading strategy for the in-class essay. In any college level essay that is based on a reading passage, you will be required to bring in the text for support. So the object here is to make connections between the assignment prompt and the reading and then annotate those connections so that you can quickly access them when it comes time to write the essay.
3. Next, make a few very quick notes in answer to the question or in response to the topic as a way of setting up your own ideas on the topic before you do the reading.
4. Read and annotate the prompt.
5. Now make a very brief (very rapid) outline:
a. What is your thesis? What will you argue? Remember that your thesis is your promise to the reader: You are promising that by the end of this essay, you will have convinced the reader of such and such and nothing else. Once again, check to make sure the thesis responds directly and specifically to the question. The thesis will keep you honest as well as help prepare the reader.
b. Create a list of the points you'll need to make to prove your thesis. Throw out any point that only shows off another bit of information you have in your head rather than builds the argument for your thesis. Each point should be in the form of an assertion, a mini-thesis and will serve as the topic-sentences for your body paragraphs.
c. Arrange these topic sentences in some sort of logical order rather in the order they have just occurred to you. What piece of information does the reader need first? Second? etc. Each point should build on the one that comes before and towards making the case for your thesis.
6. Stop and take a breath. Read over your ideas and ask yourself which ones directly address the question or essay prompt. Throw out whatever is irrelevant to the task at hand no matter how much you love it.
7. Now start writing the essay. Do not let yourself write a long introduction. You don't want to take time away from the argument itself. You should still use the elements you have been working on with regards to good introductions, like an interesting hook and building to the thesis at the end, but limit your length here.
8. As you work your way through your body paragraphs—as specified in your brief outline—remember that each assertion needs an example as evidence. Your position means very little if you haven't demonstrated an ability to support it. That's what your professor is looking for. So specific, concrete evidence is crucial. If you have statistics to work with, by all means include those and annotate for them when you read the prompt. Also remember that drawing the argument down through the paragraphs is crucial, making the PIE (Point, Information, Explanation) paragraph a very helpful tool.
9. Always try to leave yourself a few minutes at the end to look over your essays. They won't be perfect. No one expects that. But they should be clear, logical, and easy to read.
The steps I've outlined here aren't much different from the ones you'll use to write take-home essays, except that at home you'll have time to do lots of brainstorming and freewriting. In-class exams leave precious little time to be creative. But if you come to class prepared and then carefully tailor your insights to the questions being asked, you'll be able to express your ideas with grace and intelligence while staying on-topic.