Prepared in part by John Troynaski of Queens College 's Writing Center and in part by Mikhail Gersovich of Baruch College 's Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute
I. Organization, Structure, and Coherence
It is important that your essay hold together and have a structure that makes it easy for the reader to follow your ideas. Your essay needs to have :
- A beginning : Your opening paragraphs need to establish what you will be doing in the essay and the texts you will be working with. Your early paragraphs set up what happens throughout the rest of the essay.
- A middle: This is where you work to make the points you wish to make. The paragraphs in the middle of your essay will present most of your ideas about the two readings in response to the exam question. Remember that each main point gets its own paragraph and that you need to move smoothly from paragraph to paragraph. It's crucial that you stick to the plan you set forth in the beginning and do what the beginning of your essay suggests you'll do.
- An end: This is where you bring together everything you've done earlier in the essay. For example, if you've devoted the earlier sections of your essay to considering and synthesizing readings A and B, your ending paragraphs should consider what the two readings say in light of your own experiences. The end is important – don't ignore it. Develop the end as fully as you can.
Plan your essay before you start writing. Begin by preparing the middle section of your essay (the body) first .
- Outline what you are asked to summarize in the long reading that you were given in advance. (Hint: be sure to summarize only what you are directed to summarize; don't bother with “extras”; don't summarize the entire essay.)
- Outline the points you plan on discussing that relate the long reading to the short reading you received at the test. Focus primarily on what you find in the two texts. (Hint: usually the end of the sentence in the writing assignment that begins “Draw a relationship between” provides you with some focus on what you should choose to include in your discussion.) Save your personal experiences for later in your essay.
- Outline what you know or have observed about the shared theme of the two texts that you have been asked to write about. (Hint: you can include things that you have learned in classes or that you have read about or have observed in your community or at work or among your friends and family, for instance.)
- Outline your personal individual perspective on the extent to which you agree or disagree with either or both of the authors. (Hint: this is the part of your essay where you can be as subjective as you like.)
Now you need to prepare a beginning (introduction) for your essay .
- The first sentence of the “Writing Assignment” declares the general theme that your essay is supposed to discuss. So, thinking about the ideas in that first sentence and what you now know you are prepared to do in the rest of your essay, plan a few sentences that will relate the theme of the two texts you are writing about with what you know and think about this topic.
- You might begin by identifying the two texts and their authors and state the general theme they both address in their writings. You can then state (briefly) whether they generally agree or disagree in what they say about this theme. Then you can state (and this, really, will be your essay's thesis statement) how your knowledge, experience, and thoughts cause you to adopt a particular perspective on what these authors say about this theme.
Briefly note what you might say to conclude your essay. Try not simply to say again what you have already said in your essay .
Remember, the above suggestions present only one, very “linear” way to prepare to respond to a CPE writing assignment. There are others. For instance, in the body of your response, once you summarize what you are asked to from the long reading, you can mix together in a less-structured fashion points from the middle section that you outlined above. However, this “looser” method is recommended for more experienced and successful essay writers.
Your essay is made of paragraphs. To have a well-structured essay, you need paragraphs that are themselves well-structured.
- Each paragraph of your essay needs to develop one, and only one , main point or idea.
- Make sure that your reader knows what that point or idea is right from the start. The topic of a given paragraph should be obvious right away (the first sentence of a paragraph is often called the “topic sentence”).
- Develop the main point of each paragraph as fully as you can. Use specific detail to back up your point. Avoid brief, undeveloped paragraphs.
- Each sentence of the paragraph must relate to the point you are trying to make and, it follows, to every other sentence in the paragraph. Sentences which do not support the idea a given paragraph will appear to stick out and will take away from the unity and coherence of that paragraph and the essay as a whole.
- Avoid switching topics mid-paragraph. If you find yourself moving off the topic in a given paragraph, begin a new one.
- Avoid rough transitions from paragraph to paragraph. Make sure that each paragraph follows smoothly from the one before it and leads easily into the one that follows it.
It is a good idea, as you move to a new idea from another, to indicate that shift with some sort of transitional word or phrase. There are many of these, but the most common ones and the sort of relationships they signal are:
- Addition: moreover, likewise, further, again, furthermore, in addition, besides, next, also, equally important;
- Comparison: similarly, likewise, in like manner;
- Contrast: however, in contrast, still, otherwise, nevertheless, at the same time, after all, on the contrary, on the other hand, notwithstanding;
- Result: hence, thus, therefore, then, accordingly, consequently, as a result;
- Give examples: for example, for instance, to illustrate;
- Summary, intensification: to sum up, to be sure, in brief, in other words, on the whole, in sum, in short, indeed.
One of the most important parts of your essay is your summary of the long reading. This is where you illustrate that you understand the author's ideas by briefly restating them in your own words.
- Use you own words and, if you quote from the passage, use quotation marks (see the section on paraphrase and quotation below). If you merely copy from the text, it is not clear to the grader that you understand the author's ideas and you will receive a lower grade.
- Accurately reflect the author's ideas, and do not include your own interpretation or opinion. If you want to include your own analysis of the ideas being summarized, make sure you identify which ideas are yours and which ideas come from the text.
- Identify the author whose work you are summarizing. Again, it is important that you give the author credit for his/her ideas.
- Give the main points and include a limited amount of details, facts, examples, illustrations and other specifics. Readers do not want to read unrelated information. It is more important for you to get the main ideas of the text right than for you to expand you essay to fill more pages.
- Be brief. Use fewer words than the sources being summarized.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”
--Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Thoreau went to live in the woods so that he could find the essential truth of life—whether it was terrible or wonderful—so that he could live fully and not regret how he lived when it is time for him to die.
III. Referencing Texts—Paraphrasing and Quoting
You can also refer to the texts when you discuss them by paraphrasing or quoting from them. But it's important to remember that you need to clearly separate your ideas from other authors, so be sure you mention the author's name each time you introduce a summary, paraphrase, or quote.
Paraphrasing is expressing someone's ideas, sentence by sentence, in your own words. You have to be careful; you cannot use the same sentence structure and merely substitute your words for the author's.
Let's take part of the passage used above:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”
--Henry David Thoreau
Unacceptable Borrowing of Structure : The basic structure of the sentence is the same as the author's, but the writer has replaced some of the words.
Thoreau went to live in the woods because he wished to live thoughtfully, to confront only the basic parts of life.
Unacceptable Borrowing of Words/Phrases : Words and phrases are copied from the author's sentence without quotation marks.
Thoreau isolated himself in the woods so that he could live deliberately and only deal with the essential facts of life.
By living in the woods, Thoreau hoped to learn about life's basics.
Quoting from your sources is a good way to support the argument you're trying to make. However, when you quote, make sure you put the quoted matter between quotation marks, and that you copy the passage exactly.
Many American writers have extolled the virtues of the simple life. One of the first of these was Thoreau, who wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”
Thoreau acknowledged the need to focus on the important things in life when he spoke about trying to “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life” in Walden .
Some things you should keep in mind as you quote:
- Direct quotations must have a lead-in to identify the author and at least one or two sentences following the quote to explain it and its significance.
- Quote only strong, well-written and/or memorable statements.
- Quote to be accurate and to avoid misinterpretation.
- Short direct quotes are set off from the rest of the sentence they appear in by a comma and the first set of quotation marks; the period at the end of a short quotation appears within the second set of quotation marks: Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.”
- NOTE: Your CPE essay should be primarily your own writing, NOT a series of connected quotes. Quoting extensively, in an attempt to pad your essay, is a poor strategy and may indicate that you do not fully understand the text.
It's a good idea to budget your time during the writing so that you have some time left over at the end to proofread what you've written. After all, you'll be under a great deal of stress and you can't be sure that your hand wrote what your mind thought unless you take some time to actually read what you've written. You can also use this opportunity to catch any mistakes you might have made.
While rereading what you've written for its sense, you might also check to make sure you've avoided the most common errors of grammar and punctuation: sentence fragments and run-ons, comma-splices, subject-verb agreement errors, verb form errors, verb tense mistakes, pronoun problems (pronouns with no antecedents or pronoun-antecedent agreement errors), incorrect noun plural forms, and word form errors. If you are not sure of what these are, any writing handbook will refresh your memory, or you can review these problem areas by accessing the CUNY Writesite online by going to http://www.writesite.cuny.edu
Don't worry too much about these surface problems; what's most important is that the reader understands what you're saying.