Geneseo seal

Good Writing

what is good writing?

audience and purpose


care and imagination

lucidity, simplicity, directness

myths about good writing

Writing and Convention

conventions of writing

formal and informal writing

research and writing

writing in a discipline

grammar and usage

common errors

The Process of Writing

outside the classroom

inside the classroom

Citation Styles

mla | apa | acs




world wide words

english grammar

language log

geoff nunberg

about the guide

Creative Commons License
The Guide by Paul Schacht and Celia Easton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

SUNY Geneseo's Writing Guide

Writing essay exams

He that runs against Time, has an antagonist not subject to casualties.
--Samuel Johnson

Much of the advice offered under Composing Outside the Classroom cannot apply to in-class composition; the clock will not permit you to discover your thesis by writing or to ponder the rhythms of your prose. You may or may not have time to proofread. (Never walk out of an essay exam early without first reviewing your answers for errors and omissions.)

It is not only the hurried pace, but also the special purpose of in-class writing that sets it apart from out-of-class writing. Indeed, if you keep this purpose before you as you write, the time constraints of the essay exam ought to bother you less.

Generally speaking, professors are looking for you to do two things in an in-class essay:

Many students fall afoul of one or the other of these objectives. One writer will open the floodgates of memory, letting everything he knows about the subject gush onto the page unchanneled by ideas about the problem. Another will tackle the problem head-on, neatly dividing her discussion into three main areas - to which she will devote three brief paragraphs unencumbered by detailed supporting evidence.

As a rule, professors don't expect in-class essays to be highly polished, and they tolerate a fair amount of structural looseness. (Most, for example, won't mind if you backtrack briefly in order to make a point you forgot to include earlier, as long as you make your intentions clear with an appropriate transition; e.g., " I should have mentioned earlier that . . . ").

Nevertheless, professors do expect in-class essays to show a reasonable regard, given the circumstances, for the general features of good writing mentioned at the head of this Guide. Even in a 15- or 20-minute essay, you can show you've thought about audience, purpose, and organization. Moreover, provided you've fulfilled the primary objectives above, the clearer, simpler, and more economical your prose, the better you'll do.

There is no single correct strategy for writing an in-class essay. Some students feel more comfortable drawing up a brief outline before starting to compose; others worry, understandably, that outlining eats up valuable time. You have to find the method that works best for you (and to obey any specific guidelines issued by your instructor), but the following general advice may prove helpful.