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How to Focus Your Essay and Respond to the Essay Prompt

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Bonn

Amy has taught college and law school writing courses. She holds a master's degree in English and a law degree.

Some essays, such as academic papers, are written in response to an essay prompt. Learn how to identify an essay prompt's key terms and prepare an organized outline of an essay focused to appropriately respond to the essay prompt and explore techniques for refocusing an essay veering off-topic while writing it. Updated: 03/08/2023

How to Focus Your Essay and Respond

I recall taking a final essay exam several years ago that I was pretty happy about because I knew all about the topic of one of the essay prompts. I was so excited to see a prompt that I knew so much about that I decided to explain everything I knew about that topic to my instructor, just spilling out detail after detail. In hindsight, I didn't pay all that much attention to the specifics of the prompt, just the major topic that it was asking about. I didn't end up getting a particularly good grade on that exam.

Do yourself a favor and don't make the same mistake. Even as the seconds tick by during a timed essay exam, take some time to pay close attention to what the prompt is really asking and think about how you'd get back on track if you find that you've lost your way while writing your answer.

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Look for Key Terms in the Essay Prompt

You'll rarely find an essay prompt that says 'Hey, why don't you just tell me whatever you happen to know about topic X.' If you did have such a prompt, it would be easy to just write a bunch of random, disconnected facts as you remember them.

Unfortunately, that's what some of us do - just start writing whatever we know about a subject - when we see the topic of a prompt, particularly when we're already worried about how much time we have. But it's much smarter to take a more organized and logical approach. For example, let's say that you're responding to an essay prompt that asks you about the debate over legalizing drugs in the U.S.

Your first move should be to figure out what approach you need to take by looking for key terms. Are you being asked to analyze certain arguments about legalizing drugs, to describe certain arguments, to compare and contrast certain positions, to make an argument regarding which side of the debate is correct?

Make a note to yourself regarding what approach you're being asked to take. And keep in mind, too, that essay prompts can be nuanced. If you're being asked to construct an argument, it may not be the case that you simply have to write about which side is right. You may be asked to synthesize an argument based on specific source material that's provided to you. In this context, synthesize means to combine separate materials to form a single product.

So you might be asked to put together very specific ideas to reach your conclusion. And you may also have to address opposing viewpoints as you do so. Or you might also be asked to evaluate specific arguments that have been provided to you. For example, you might be presented with a short argument in favor of legalizing drugs and a short argument opposed to legalizing drugs. You might be asked to assess the worth and significance of those arguments.

Be sure to read through the essay prompt a few times, and then jot down the key term or terms that let you know what approach you should be taking. Whether you're working on a timed exam or a long-term assignment, you want to be sure that you're responding directly to the essay prompt.

Develop a One-Sentence Response

As you plan your essay, try to come up with a brief one-sentence response to the prompt right off the bat. As you do so, be sure that it matches the approach that's been called for by checking for key terms. If you're working on a paper for a class, you'll have plenty of time to mull over your one sentence, but even if you're taking an essay exam, the tactic is the same: come up with a very brief response that echoes the prompt.

For example, if you've been asked to compare two differing views, be sure that you draft a sentence that sums up the major similarity or difference between those views. If you've been tasked with writing an argument, be sure that you set forth a persuasive position. So if you've been asked to construct an argument about whether drugs should be legalized in the U.S., you might jot down 'Drugs should not be legalized in the U.S. because it would increase the number of addicted people and crimes committed by drug users.' If you've been asked to evaluate specific statements, then you should draft a statement that weighs the merits of those statements. You might explain that one statement is more logically sound than another.

An additional benefit of taking this step is that you can use this statement as the basis for a thesis for your paper. But for purposes of staying on-track as you write your essay, having this short response sketched out in your notes can be helpful. You can glance back periodically at your core response and ask yourself whether you're still supporting that statement or if you've wandered off on a tangent with a lot of irrelevant details.

Sketch out an Outline of Your Major Points

Writing effective sentences at the same time that you work to convey your large-scale points can be a challenge. Putting together an outline of your major points is useful whether you're writing a timed essay for an exam or a term paper for a class. In a timed scenario, you can sketch out a very short, basic outline. With a term paper, you'll have time to add more detail. Either way, by plotting out the major points of your essay at the start of your writing process, you can concentrate on expressing your main points effectively within a well-organized structure for your main ideas. Having a plan can also keep you from panicking about how much time you have to write.

For example, if you're constructing an argument that drugs should not be legalized in the U.S., you might decide to structure your paper around three major points. Let's say that you focus on these three main ideas:

  1. Legalization would lead to increased drug use.
  2. Legalization would lead to more young people becoming addicted early in life.
  3. Legalization would lead to more crime due to an increase in the number of addicted drug users.

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