Advanced Writing for the College-Bound

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2010-11: Thursday 9:00 AM to 10:30 AM Eastern Time

Unit 0:
A Preliminary Assessment

Unit 1:
The Right Question

Unit 2:
Purpose and Audience

Unit 3:
Getting Ideas

Unit 4:
Definition

Unit 5:
Explanation

Unit 6:
Persuasion

Unit 7:
Supporting Your Claim

Unit 8:
Bad Reasoning

Unit 9:
Forestalling Counter-Arguments

Unit 10:
Research and Documentation

Unit 11:
Organizing: Overview

Unit 12:
Generalizations

Unit 13:
Outlining

Unit 14:
Paragraphs

Unit 15:
Beginnings and Endings

Unit 16:
Editing

Unit 2: Purpose and Audience

If one has a house to build, the impetuous hand does not rush to the act; the innermost lines of the heart measures the work in advance, and the inner man prescribes a course according to an established plan; the hand of the mind fashions the whole before that of the body. When a plan has arranged the subject in the secret place of the mind, poetry will come to clothe the matter with words.

— Geoffrey of Vinsauf, Poetria Nova

What Effect Do You Want to Produce, and on Whom?

Good writing expresses the thoughts of the writer clearly and accurately. Effective writing does so in a way that will particularly reach the intended reader. Here we’ll talk about how to zero in on your audience. This is one of those many writing skills that stands at the crossroads between dialectic and rhetoric, for those who are keeping track.

main points for this unit

The Purpose of Your Essay

The primary reason you write an essay on an examination is to demonstrate to your teacher that you have mastered the material of the course. In this case, both the purpose and the audience—your teacher—are easily identifiable.

Other types of expository writing exist: you may want to explain something you’ve learned to a friend, write an account of your day’s activities in you diary, or defend the superiority of the Macintosh operating system over Windows/NT in a Conference Center forum. In most situations, you must be aware of both your purpose and your audience, and to some extent, the attitude of your audience.

Types of Essays

In a later unit, we will address the special considerations of writing on a controversial topic for a general audience. For now, we will consider with writing an academic essay in response to a specific assignment. Exam essays usually fall into three categories:

These types have subtypes, which can be recognized by keywords or phrases like analyze, define, compare and contrast, evaluate, or summarize. Each of these requires that you use a specific strategy or essay plan. If you don’t pick up on these clues and follow a different strategy instead, your essay may not meet the teacher’s expectations. In a wider sense, if you think about these classes clearly, you should be able to tailor your essays to their target audiences more completely, whether the occasion is the essay on an exam, or something else entirely.

Making these Distinctions in Actual Writing

In the assignment below, you will repeat some of the steps you used in the first assignment, and then specifically focus on the essay type and the strategy you need to use to write your answer. Study the following example carefully, and use the same format in answering the questions below.

David Bartholomew and Anthony Petrosky state that essays on examinations “requires students to consolidate much of what they have learned in the course and to use their knowledge efficiently.” Do you agree?

  1. Rephrase the question in your own terms. Do essay questions adequately test the student’s knowledge of a subject by requiring the student to pull together information from different parts of the course in a short period of time?
  2. Identify the type of essay and explain the strategy you will use to answer it. Although the keyword evaluate never appears in the question, this clearly is an evaluation type question nevertheless, since it asks you to determine the value of a particular opinion (that of Mssrs. Bortholomew and Petrosky) and a particular process (writing essay questions). To answer it, you will need to determine what you mean by “adequately testing a student’s knowledge” (or whatever other phrase you have used in the previous step), and then show whether essay tests can accomplish such adequate testing.
  3. Determine the direction your essay should take according to its audience. There is no easy general principle one can rely on to streamline this process. Mostly it involves imaginatively entering into the situation of person who will be reading the essay, and seeing from his or her perspective what kind of answer will satisfy. Some examples may help:
    • teacher who will review examination essay for an education course: you will need to use specific materials from course lectures and assignments. You might justify your position by citing studies comparing student comprehension using different types of tests (essay, multiple choice). If you’re talking to your teacher, you can probably assume understanding of the basic terms in the field, unless those terms are what you are being asked to define.
    • favorite aunt who isn’t sure that homeschooling is a good idea: you could use examples from personal experience, especially examples of how different types of tests show (or fail to show) real understanding in a subject your aunt already knows, perhaps quantum mechanics or real estate.
    • general public, for example, letter to the editor of the city newspaper: you should use examples from a subject most people will have taken by junior high school age, such as elementary science or American history. You should probably also explain the difference between essay-based and multiple-choice examinations. You may cite studies as in the first example, but will need to explain their implications carefully.
  4. Make any other notes that occur to you about the way you should set strategy for the essay. In all three cases, you need to address the questions of whether:
    • essay questions really require a synthetic response (i.e., that the student must put together material from different parts of the course)
    • what the advantages or deficiencies of such an examination format are compared with other forms such as multiple choice
    • what is meant by “using knowledge efficiently”
  5. Tailor your thesis statement for each audience. For example:
    • for the education teacher: Well-written examination essay questions are an important tool in evaluating a student’s understanding of complex course material because such questions require that the student be able to quickly and correctly pull together material from different parts of the course.
    • for the skeptical physicist aunt: An essay question is often a better test of what I know about a subject because it requires that I remember material and organize it myself, where a multiple choice test only requires that I recognize the right answer when I see it.
    • for the letter to the editor: Essay examinations are used to test a student’s recall of facts and comprehension of the relationship between one fact and another.


Assignment:

You still aren’t going to write an essay yet. For each of the following three essay questions or prompts:

  1. Rewrite the question.
  2. Identify the type of essay and explain the strategy you need to use to answer it.
  3. Make any other notes that occur to you about the way you should set strategy for the essay.
  4. For each topic, write a distinct thesis statement for each audience of the three mentioned above. (You should therefore wind up with nine thesis statements.)
  5. Do not write an essay.


  1. Most states require the addition of vitamin D to milk sold in their stores. Is this excessive government interference with private enterprise? Why or why not?
  2. Chose a profession that interests you and explain why you would like to pursue it.
  3. Compare and contrast two movies similar in genre (for example, “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan”, and “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back”).