Writing Well: What's the Big Idea?

What's the Big Idea?

There are more pressure writing situations than ants at a picnic, but odds are that you'll plunge into this particular ring of hell most often if you're enrolled in a class. Whether it's high school, college, graduate school, or any other kind of professional training, the essay test is ubiquitous. Like designer water and people who have no right wearing spandex in public, you can run, but you can't hide.

Author! Author!

Analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing are all examples of “critical thinking,” along with hypothesizing, predicting, inferring, drawing conclusions, and classifying. Critical thinking is the ability to solve problems; be flexible, creative, and original; capture and transmit knowledge, and express views and feelings appropriately. Effective critical thinkers use many of these skills simultaneously, and not in any prescribed order. In general, however, the hierarchy moves from recognizing, recalling, distinguishing, and classifying, up the ladder to sequencing, visualizing, predicting, drawing conclusions, inferring, evaluating, analyzing, and synthesizing.

Why do so many instructors make you show your stuff in a pressure writing situation? Here's what they're looking for:

  1. Recall. Your instructor wants to find out what's sunk in. Having everyone write en masse in class is the only way the instructor can be reasonably sure that you're dredging up your own learning and not cribbing from some poor sucker. In this situation, you must merely recall, to regurgitate facts and summarize them in a cogent essay. For example: “In an essay of 350 to 500 words, trace the primary events of the Russian Revolution.”
  2. Analyze. With these essay questions, your instructor wants to find out how well you've made sense of what you've heard in class and read at home. Did you get the Big Picture? In this case, you're being asked to analyze information. When you analyze, you separate something into parts, examine each part, and show how they relate to the whole. For example: “What crops or products have shaped the world? In what ways? You have one hour in which to write.”
  3. Evaluate. Here's where the teacher says, “Show me the money” by requiring you to make judgments. This is called evaluation and involves applying your own value system to the information that's germane to the topic. For example: “Are fathers necessary? Explain why or why not in an essay of no more than 750 words.”
  4. Synthesize. This is the toughest nut of all, because you're being asked to combine several elements to create something new. Synthesizing generally requires the most creativity because it includes all the other tasks—recall, analysis, evaluation—and then some. For example: “Describe a person, real or imaginary. Through the description, reveal something about that person's character.”

To do well on essay tests, then, you must first be able to figure out which of these skills the test demands, because each skill requires a different approach to writing. Let's look at each writing situation in turn.

Write Angles

Forewarned is forearmed: Most essay tests in English and literature classes ask you to analyze.

If the Assignment Asks You to Recall …

The pressure writing assignment changes dramatically depending on whether you're allowed to refer to your text and notes or not. Open-book tests are not likely to be recall tests, for instance, because it would be pretty silly to ask you to recall information if the book was sitting open in front of you. Open-book tests, in contrast, always call for higher-order thinking skills. This means that the teacher isn't generally doing you any favor with an open-book test.

At the very least, every closed-book test will ask you to remember information. How can you tell if the essay focuses on recall?

Read the exam closely to see if it's designed to find out if you've read the material or whether you've thought about it. If it's the former, then you're dealing with a recall essay. In that case, your essay should be chock-a-block with facts, details, and examples.

It's especially important that you find a solid method of organization for a recall essay. Otherwise, you'll end up with little more than a laundry list of facts. Here are two methods of organization well suited to recall writing tests:

  • Order of importance. Present the facts from most to least significant.
  • Chronological order. Present the information in time order.

If the Assignment Asks You to Analyze …

Writing tests that focus on analysis usually contain one or more of these key words:

  • analyze
  • assess
  • clarify
  • classify
  • describe
  • determine
  • examine
  • explain
  • explore
  • explicate
  • interpret
  • probe
  • review
  • scrutinize
  • show
  • support
Writer's Block

It's tempting to include a lot of summary in an analysis writing test because it pads the essay so very nicely and seems to fulfill the assignment. It doesn't, so resist the temptation to merely recall when you're supposed to analyze.

Start these essays by stating the analytical position you'll be taking. Then summarize the points that support your analysis. Many analysis essay tests are organized around cause-and-effect or comparison-contrast.

If the Assignment Asks You to Evaluate …

Questions that ask you to evaluate require you to give your opinion, to make a judgment call. This means you can't sit on the fence, partner—you have to take a stand. The stand itself isn't as crucial as the support you muster to back it up. Of course, you're going to consider pandering to the professor, because it seems that professors live to be pandered to.

Write Angles

Even before you get your writing back from the grader, think about your performance. What could you have done better? For example, did you allocate your time wisely? Did you find the best possible structure and present your points cogently? Depending on how you answer these questions (and others like them), you might wish to approach the next pressure writing test differently.

However, it's often the less obvious opinion that garners the better grade, because it shows the writer put more thought into the evaluation. Here's my advice: Make the judgment that's in line with your value system and the material you have to support it.

If the Assignment Asks You to Synthesize …

This is the one where you really get to strut your stuff, because you're being asked to pull together everything you've read on your own, heard in discussions, and experienced firsthand. You have to go beyond all three sources to make something new, to reach a conclusion, to show that you're thinking in depth.

Synthesis questions never have one “right” answer; what determines success here is the logic and originality of your thinking and how well all the pieces fit with your thesis. Obviously, you must have all the facts at your fingertips, so recall matters. But it's equally crucial that you tie that summary to higher-level thinking: analysis, evaluation, and synthesis.

Consider this organization:

  • Open with your thesis, an overview of the point you'll be making.
  • Bring in details to support your thesis, adding summary where necessary.
book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Well © 2000 by Laurie Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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