My experience with students is that few want to spend any time outlining (discussed infra) or preparing to write. The better students will learn to use these tools, however, because using them can bring your grade closer to an “A.” Study the writing prompt in its entirety. If you fail to do so, you are likely to write a paper in some part or entirely unresponsive to the prompt, which will earn a failing or low grade. Be aware that professors have varying skills at writing clear writing prompts. If you are unsure of what is intended, always ask for clarification.
The first consideration is the text being read and the subject of the text. Some courses require memorization and the successful methods you have learned should be used. If you have trouble with memorization, you are strongly urged to find out why. Don’t use a history of weakness with memorization as an excuse for a low grade. There is a functional and discoverable reason for the problem and there is help available to remedy it. Professional assistance may be appropriate and one should not be afraid of obtaining it. Neuropsychological testing can reveal amazing things about a person’s abilities and disabilities.
Once you are sure the writing prompt is comprehensible, consider what the prompt asks you to do. As a writing teacher, I don’t like to categorize writing prompts because the differences can be subtle. Be sure you know what your professor wants. If it asks you to summarize the text author’s purpose, claims and supporting evidence, the task is to study the text and annotate it or make separate handwritten notes of:
A summary description of the content of the text to introduce it in your essay
Describe what the author’s goal is to educate the reader – how this is shown
In the text, highlight or underline the claims made and make a note to the side explaining why it is a claim (what words are used to make it clear it is a claim)
For each claim (using a different colored highlighter or separate notes), mark or list the evidence or suppositions related to the claim
For this informative form of writing prompt, the professor probably does not want you to infuse the essay with your ideas and doing so will likely lower your grade. On the other hand, this prompt is not a request for a book report, which you may mistakenly assume when you read the word, summarize. Mere summary fails to focus upon and distinguish purposes, claims and supporting evidence. Finding the thesis of a text is not as easy as looking for a sentence that provides a thesis statement. You might find one but, as often, you will find that the thesis statement must be gleaned from a few different sentences stating purpose.
Some writing professors like to write writing prompts for analytic essays that contain questions. This I avoid because I have discovered that when asked questions, the first year students have a very strong inclination to merely answer the questions because they think that’s what you want. Even when you couch the question in a phrase like, “These questions are for thought and consideration only and are not to limit your analysis,” the result is the same. Asking questions focuses the student on finding textual content that helps to answer the question and the remainder of the text is usually ignored. The resulting essay is often short or replete with wordiness as the student strives to write enough to meet the words or page requirement. Teaching students critical thinking skills is crucial to teaching them to write analytically. One of the most difficult steps first-year students have to learn in an analytical writing class is that they must write about their study of the taking apart of the text and the relationship of each part to others. Students frequently will take the first step, breaking apart the text, but they stop there. In essays in which this occurs, what the reader (professor or peer critique) will see is that the student quotes or paraphrases a part of the text, but will then write comments (commentary) about that singular textual part and not relate it to any other part, either the major quote chosen or other contextual evidence.
When a student writes commentary between contextual quotes related to the major quote chosen to focus upon, they fail to take the step that makes analysis: writing about how the parts of the text relate to each other in meaning. Making meaning is what analysis is all about – interpreting the author’s meaning and the student making further meaning from studying the relationships of the parts of the text. Interpreting what the author is teaching through the meaning of his carefully chosen words, is the easier of the two steps. It produces some analysis but fails in responsiveness to an analytic essay prompt because the student does not take that crucial second step. It is not enough to simply compare the meaning of one quote to another but to study the relationship of the contextual quote or paraphrase to the major quote, the lesson, how it relates to the student’s claim and how it relates to other previously used quotes in the same area of analysis.
Writing prompts for analytic essays vary between professors. Here are some examples:
A selection of an essay from the book, 50 Essays – A Portable Anthology, 2nd ed., is “Death of a Moth,” by Annie Dillard:
Professor Dillard is a prolific writer and teaches at Wesleyan University, Connecticut. She is renown for her closely detailed descriptions, metaphors, and transition from reality to the spiritual or metaphysical.
ASSIGNMENT: Due [date]. Format according to syllabus. Last name and pagination in header, right justified. Minimum three (3) full pages (not less).
Dillard describes a spider’s web and moths and how she helped to kill one while camping in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Similes are vivid and meaningful. Identify her argument, thesis, and the underlying emotional and spiritual themes she uses. Use specifically chosen quotes (or paraphrases) to form a foundation for each arguments and claims for an analytic essay. You may include brief personal experience (no more than two or three sentences) to emphasize your arguments. Her story demonstrates her commitment to writing well. Think about how she does this in her personal essay as she teaches her writing class.
Please note that I use no questions in the prompt. I have previously explained my choices to the class. For the first few essay assignments, I choose to discuss the assigned text with my students before providing them with the prompt. I find that doing so stimulates critical thinking. I assign them the text to read for the next class. They are informed that in the next class, they will be required, as individual students, to demonstrate that they have studied and pondered the meaning in and of the text. In the discussion class, they can use their notes (hopefully made during their reading) and the text but, if they are discovered to have no previously studied the text and have no notes, they will be counted absent for the day but may stay to learn from their peers. This encourages students to read, study and take notes because the absence counts as one of their four allowed unexcused absences.
The discussion of the text entails asking them to participate in a class-wide conversation, guided by me, to elicit from them what they think the text is about. I ask them to identify parts of the text, segregating the parts in a rational way according to content and meaning. I annotate the parts on the whiteboard horizontally to leave room vertically to identify more specific parts and their purposes. Once the text is broken into parts, they are asked to provide quotes or paraphrases that represent the major idea for each part. All discussed ideas from the students are added to the whiteboard as the class proceeds so that students may reflect on their choices when we conclude the discussion. Once each part is given a major quote, they must provide, for each part, contextual evidence from anywhere in the text, which is useful to support an analysis or discussion of the major quote. Those are annotated vertically below each part.
Beginning with the first identified part, they then create a lesson (e.g., purpose) for the major quote based upon the meaning of the major quote and the contextual evidence. The lesson is always written in their own words, not those of the author and may not be factual. This compels them to interpret the author’s meaning into their own vocabulary and to write the sentence so that the student owns the sentence. It cannot begin with “Dillard said … ,” or “Dillard means that … .” It may begin with, “The lesson is …,” or “Dillard is teaching the reader that … .” Or they may simply say what the lesson is: “Possessing a home and obtaining sustenance is necessary for one to provide for an adequate living and place of contemplation to think and write.” Giving the text part lesson, based upon the textual evidence, requires critical thinking skills to interpret facts for the intent of the author. It is not factual: that a spider built a great web and has evidence of its food kills on the floor beneath it; but the interpretation of the text from three paragraphs, as they relate to the remainder of the text, and the point being made to her writing class.
The students are asked to create an argument or claim, using the ideas they have thus far. They are asked to sit in groups and come up with four separate claims. By agreement of the group, we then select the claim that they believe is best and that is added to the whiteboard text parts. They discuss what they have come up with and reach a consensus for a conclusion sentence.
The next assignment is to create a focused outline using what has been gleaned but adding the important portion of the outlining process: ideas for analysis. The ideas are written on the right side of the outline by studying the questions provided in the analytic writing handout and pondering the facts (e.g., quotes, paraphrases) then noting the ideas they come up with as answers to the questions, thinking about what meaning they can attach to the textual evidence. Included in the outline are the major quote/paraphrase, lesson, contextual quotes/paraphrases, ideas, claim, and conclusion. This enables them to write an essay that is focused on the text and they have an opportunity to avoid vagueness, over breadth, commentary, excessive summary, wordiness and irrelevancies.
The final assignment related to the text is the three-page analytical essay.