Timed Essay Writing and the Value of Checklists

What I love about writing is that you usually have the chance to form and tweak ideas through multiple revisions. Unlike real-time conversations, you can carefully choose your words and delete mistakes. You can also reorder ideas into a more logical sequence.

Some of these opportunities for improvement are taken away from us when we’re asked to write within a time limit. A strategy must be formed and adhered to in order to produce quality writing. It’s like giving a sculptor a time limit to produce something that represents their talent and creativity. The result isn’t likely going to be the masterpiece that defines their career, but it should still be something that reflects their skill and style.

I’m currently helping a student prepare for a written exam, and part of the challenge is teaching strategies in addition to writing skills. We agreed on a time frame for each task: within the allotted time there must be 5-7 minutes for brainstorming and creating an outline, 25-30 minutes for writing, and about 10 minutes for proofreading. The writing time breaks down further into time for the introduction, body, and conclusion. As a writer, I cringe at the idea of regimenting the writing process in such a way, forcing art to be produced at exact intervals. But timed tests are a part of the academic world, so we must be ready to march to the beat that our chosen institutions have set.

From week to week, my student and I have tweaked a checklist that she can use for proofreading. The checklist progresses from formatting to the word level. Whether a student is writing an email or an essay, I focus on the visual impression first:
1. Are there clear paragraph divisions?
2. Is there standard use of space between lines, words, and punctuation marks?
3. If it’s an essay, are the body paragraphs balanced?

Moving to the paragraph level of an essay, I think it’s important to be able to scan the text and identify the skeletal structure. Can the reader easily see how the outline was fleshed out?
1. Is there a clear thesis statement in the introduction?
2. Does each body paragraph make a clear point in the topic sentence?
3. Is there enough support, and are those points presented with sequence markers or transition words?
4. Is there a transition to the concluding remarks, and does the conclusion go beyond merely summarizing or restating the thesis?

At the sentence level, ELLs find greater challenges. Before you get to the sentence level, there are only two things to focus on: organization and formatting. It’s not terribly hard to learn organizational strategies, such as listing points from most important to least important. By the way, I still find the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) to be highly useful after all these years. I’ve also recommended the Guide to Grammar and Writing for students who are looking for tips, models, and exercises.

Because there can potentially be a number of different vocabulary and grammar issues, the final checklist has to be tailored for the student. There are common mistakes among ELLs, yes, but I’ve found each student often has a set particular weaknesses. One student might be inclined to write too many long sentences. Another may forget to check for parallel structure. The value of a tailored checklist is that the student can become aware of their common mistakes and be on the lookout for those. When there’s little time for proofreading, it helps to know what you’re looking for. This week, for example, my student’s tailored checklist is as follows:
1. Did you indent the first line of each new paragraph?
2. Does every sentence end with a period?
3. Does every question end with a question mark?
4. Are introductory phrases followed by commas?
5. Check subject-verb agreement.
6. Look for sentences and paragraphs with too much repetition. Find alternative words.
7. Make sure you have articles before singular countable nouns (a teacher, the student).
8. Make sure you have parallel structure in lists of 2 or more things.

Test takers can’t bring a checklist to the exam, but with regular practice, a checklist can be committed to memory. Knowing what to check and how to correct mistakes can become habitual. Proofreading is essential, and we need to teach students to be methodical about it, especially under the pressure of a time limit. After all, isn’t that how we teachers handle large amounts of homework corrections? The proof is in the pudding — and thankfully we’ve learned how to whip up some good pudding under time constraints!

Related post:
5 Ways to Make Feedback on Writing a Positive Experience

Featured photo retrieved from https://pixabay.com/photos/correcting-proof-paper-correction-1870721/.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Waqar Ahmed says:

    Awesome.. Thanks for sharing your tips. You know what, in South Asia, English essay writing is the toughest exams and majority of students aren’t able to pass it.
    I think, the way you want them to tackle is really going to work and help!

    1. Having enough time to prepare is key. If a student already has a good handle on grammar and vocabulary, then it’s only a matter of teaching essay structure, organizational patterns, and time management. Thank you for considering my ideas.

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