How should you set about writing an essay exam? What constitutes a good essay? Many instructors these days seem to avoid essay exams, perhaps because they are harder to grade, and you may feel unprepared for this form of examination. But there's no need to be frightened by the apparent formlessness of the task. It is easier to write an excellent essay than you might think.

First of all, your essay should be focused on the question proposed. This means that you should read the question carefully a number of times, picking out key terms and considering various approaches. It may be tempting to try to redirect your essay to a subject that more fully exploits what you think you know best, but this will usually be perceived for the evasion that it is.

Second, your essay should be organized and coherent. Organization means that the parts of the essay are clearly demarcated and logically connected. Coherence is a question of transitions from one part to another and the compatibility of your different assertions. The only way to be sure of producing an organized, coherent essay is to plan it in advance. You should devote one- quarter to one-third of your time to jotting down notes toward the essay and organizing them in outline form. As you do so, consider whether the parts fit well together into a whole and also anticipate how you'll make transitions from one part to another. As you work on your plan, you may notice other students scribbling furiously and worry that you are getting behind. Don't: they are the ones who should be worrying.

Third, your essay should be both general and specific. Try to illustrate the general points you make with particular examples. When you spend some time describing specifics, try to follow up by extrapolating to a more general level of significance. "General" and "specific" are relative terms. If, for example, you are discussing a character in a novel, a reference to the novel as a whole will be "general"; if you are discussing realism, a mention of the same novel will be a "specific" example.

Fourth, your essay must demonstrate that you have mastered the material. An exam is a somewhat artificial exercise that seeks to evaluate what you know and your ability to articulate it. Its purpose is not to persuade the general public but to demonstrate to the teacher that you have mastered the material and can use it. It's easy to prepare to do this by developing in your mind a clear outline of the course while you study for the exam. Then use this outline as a check list to draw upon as you write. Take care to show that you have mastered both broad points (the theme of readings, for example) and details (names, titles, dates, terms).

Fifth, your essay should show some original thought. Originality is an elusive quality, but one way you can easily make your essay original is to allude to matters that are not obviously related to your subject.

Finally, a good essay must be well written. This means that you must choose your words carefully, paying attention to the grammar of your sentences and to your style. Allow yourself enough time to reread and revise your essay.