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English Essay Tips

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AP students agonize over essay writing, knowing that their essays account for a major portion of their score on the exam. Understandably, there is concern. They want to do well. I wish there were a magic formula to essay success, but there isn't. I have tried to come up with a essay planner that works, but the trouble with something like that is that it cannot possibly account for all the variables that exist when a particular student reads and responds to a passage. Therefore, this little essay is an attempt to steer my AP students towards a philosophy of essay writing instead of trying to have an approach or a system.
Where to begin?
A few thoughts on beginning any essay
Before all else, as writers we must have something to say. And if it's not important or significant, then it is not generally worth saying. From what I can tell, all passages used on AP tests have something to reveal to readers. Before we write one single word about imagery or diction, we MUST figure out what that something is. What does this author have to say to us about being human, about our shared experiences, about our fears, our sorrows, our victories? Find this and you will have something to say. This something is what I call the "So What" and without it, your essay will be meaningless.
So, if there is a step one, it is this: read and understand the passage given. This understanding of the meaningful, of the So What, is what will allow you to write an insightful essay. When you have something to say, your voice will be heard in your writing and you will have a place to go. When you have something to say, all else falls into line to fit that purpose. When you realize, for example, that the passage from Obasan is about (for one thing) heroism in small acts of kindness, then you can write about the images that helped you see that. When you realize what the author wanted you to know, it suddenly becomes easier to see how she/he crafted the work to reveal the truth to you. You will see, almost as a revelation, that the structure of the passage gives us the universal contrasted with the individual. The hopelessness of the whole is contrasted with the hopefulness of the one. But until you see the human purpose in the writing, you won't have anything to say.
It seems the hardest thing for AP students to do is write literary analysis. Okay, then lets not call it that. Let's just say we're writing our ideas about a particular piece of writing. Why is it that when I supply thought-provoking questions about a novel or other work that the answers (small little essays, really) are often well-developed, thoughtful, empathetic responses that are, essentially, literary analysis, but when I present students with an essay prompt designed to effect the same result, the results are dismal and disappointing, not only for me but also for the writer. I am disappointed because I know what you can do. You are disappointed because you don't understand why you can't write.
You can write. You have simply fallen into the trap of trying to be a writer. Let's see, how do I explain this. When you just write what you think and know, you can write. When you try to write what you think I want (or worse, what the invisible omnipotent AP readers want), you can't write. Hmmm. Interesting. So it is a matter of your perception of the outcome and the pressure to perform that results in, perhaps, a negative emotional connection to the task, making it therefore, impossible!!!! I do understand your frustrations. I do. If I could change how you feel, I would. I guess this essay is my attempt to try to get you to think differently about how you approach writing in this class.
What if you begin each essay, this is step two now, thinking, "I am going to write what I think and what I know. These are my ideas about this work and I have something to say about it." Don't necessarily think about your audience (I can't believe I'm saying this). Write what you believe, not what you think I want you to say. When you remove the feeling that you have to be a writer and simply write, your prose will be more natural, more coherent and will be a vehicle for your voice. This is, after all, what we (I and those AP readers) want.
The typical AP essay (one that gets a big shiny 9 star) will have the following qualities:
• insightful analysis of the passage (define the effect of the passage and demonstrate how the author conveys the effect (through literary elements)
• control of rhetoric (you can argue a point: state a claim, support it and explain it; make specific references to the text)
• control of conventions (no comma splices or egregious errors in agreement, etc.)
• control of structure (you will be expected to have an introduction and a conclusion)
Does this list sound scary? Why? It's not asking for anything you cannot do. Very few 12th grade AP students have trouble with conventions. Whatever specific problems you have we will try to make right, so cross that one off your list of concerns. You also don't have to trouble yourself too much about structure: think essay, not paragraph, not answer to a question--think essay! That's two down. You have been learning to support your claims for years now, so why would you suddenly forget how to do that? Whenever you state something is true, you must show how or why with textual evidence and you must make your thinking evident to your reader, so you have to explain. Your thoughts are self evident to you (that's why they're self evident), but you MUST explain to your reader. But this is nothing new.
What is new in that list is this: define the effect of the passage and demonstrate how the author conveys the effect. We're back to the beginning now. This is step one: read the passage and figure out the So What. What is it this author has to say to us? This is absolutely the most important thing you must do. Without this there is no reason to write an essay at all. Without this insight, I will give your essay back and say, "So What?" To point out that the author has created an extended metaphor is meaningless unless you can explain the value of that metaphor in his/her overall purpose.
So let's start from here. Think about your writing as the opportunity to voice your ideas about engaging pieces of writing in an intelligent way. If you ever wonder why we read the kind of literature we do, the depressing stuff about human beings in situations that make them think about all the important questions, it is precisely so that you can think about all the important questions and from those great plays, novels, stories and poems and from our discussions, your ideas, your beliefs will further evolve. Then, when you get a little nugget (a prose passage or a poem) on an AP test and have to think about what it means, you will surely have a pretty good idea. Go with that. Write what you think. It is as simple and as difficult as that.
© Dawn Hogue, 2004

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