Writing Well: When the Meter's Running

When the Meter's Running

So here you are, sitting in front of a crisp exam book and an equally crisp exam question. What to do? It's a piece of cake—if you follow these suggestions.

Write Angles

Be sure to use a writing style with sufficient complexity to handle the subject matter. In general, adopt a style suitable for educated adults.

1. Read the entire test before you start to write. If you have to write similar documents under pressure all the time, become familiar with the directions. This can save you valuable time you can apply to the writing itself. But when you're in a new writing situation, it's imperative that you read all the directions all the way through before you begin to write anything—even your name.

Here's what you want to know:

  • Audience. Who will be reading your writing? What do they expect from you?
  • Purpose. Are you writing to persuade or inform? (It's very rare that pressure writing situations involve extensive description or narration.)
  • Length. How long should your writing be? You're usually expected to write 350 to 500 words in an hour.
  • Time. How long do you have to write? If you have a choice of test questions, determine which one(s) you're best qualified to answer. Go for the one(s) you know the most about, the one(s) you can most fully answer in the time you have.

2. Figure out how to budget your time. Decide how much time you can spend prewriting, drafting, and revising. Don't gnaw your fingernails to the quick trying to stick to your schedule, but do have an idea where this experience is going, and how fast. For a one-hour writing exam, for instance, you can allocate your time this way:

Step in the Writing ProcessTime
prewriting10 minutes
drafting30 minutes
revising and editing15 minutes
proofreading5 minutes

3. Find key words. Writers under pressure often forget to answer an important part of a question. You can safeguard against this by underlining key words in the question. For example, if the question asks: “Summarize the key events in the French Revolution,” underline summarize and French Revolution.

4. Outline. Before you begin to draft, take a few minutes to decide how you'll arrange the details in your essay. Set them down in outline form.

5. Keep moving. Try not to get bogged down in details or rough patches. The single biggest time-waster (and therefore the single biggest point-stealer) is getting hung up on one aspect of the assignment. If you do get stuck, leave some spaces and keep writing. With pressure writing situations, time is key.

Pace yourself by taking a deep breath every five minutes, putting down your pen for a moment every 10 minutes, and so on. You want to work at a slow, steady pace. (Yes, slow and steady does win the race.)

6. But don't rush! In your haste to answer everything, don't write so quickly that you make silly mistakes—or even worse, that you misinterpret the entire question. In the anxiety of pressure writing, it's easy to lose your way and misconstrue something you really know very well. You might misread a word; even skipping over a prefix can throw an entire question off kilter. Pace yourself, just as you would when running a race or boogying the night away.

7. Cover all the bases. Make sure that your essay really does answer the question fully and completely. Have you addressed all the key points? Have you shown that you fully understand the material?

8. Stay on topic. When you're under pressure, it's tempting to remake the topic into something you feel more comfortable answering. Stand strong. You're not going to get any points for answering your own question when you've been asked to answer someone else's.

9. Go for brownie points. Even with recall questions, add some insight of your own, no matter how small. This not only shows that you've done some serious thinking about the issues, but also sets your paper (and you!) apart from the teaming multitudes.

10. Use all your time; never leave early. Unless you're about to give birth to a child (and maybe even then), there's no excuse for leaving a pressure writing test situation early. For 11 years, I taught an English class that culminated in a three-hour test, complete with two major essays. Students had to pass this test to graduate high school. An astonishing number of students left the test early. Guess what—the students who stayed the full time always did better. Why? They had time to rethink and rewrite so they caught their errors and polished their writing.

11. Proofread. So you've made some startling insights. So you've had some original thoughts. Maybe you've even been genuinely creative. To paraphrase the song, “That don't impress me none”—if your paper is riddled with errors. Instructors really do give writers some latitude when it comes to pressure writing; no one expects a perfect paper in these situations. But neither does anyone expect egregious errors. Sloppiness will undercut the best thinking and shatter the most original argument.

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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