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May 27, 2021
Does your child start to panic when they get an essay assignment?
As coaches, we see this frequently. Writing can be hard for students, especially when they have challenges in Executive Function areas like organization, planning, and task initiation. Here's a useful guide to help your student overcome that hesitation and write a paper they (and their teachers) can feel proud of. Let's dive right in.
Creating a ritual around the writing process is a good place to start. A bit like how Pavlov conditioned dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell in anticipation of food, creating conditions that will relax your student in preparation for writing will help them get started faster and avoid falling into the trap of writing perfectionism. A ritual might include creating a specially dedicated study space with an ergonomic chair, playing soft instrumental music, or brewing water for a cup of tea or hot cocoa. This preparation for writing may be best described to your student as “getting in the zone.”
Once your student is situated, it may be useful for them to know that writing, like math, has strategies for completion. Unlike math, writing doesn’t have right answers - it does have best practices, however. These may differ slightly based on the type of writing your student is doing. Today, I’ll provide some best practices for tackling the five (or more)-paragraph essay. Treat these instructions like a roadmap, as opposed to a destination. They’re meant to guide your student through the writing process, but just as there are multiple ways to reach a destination, writing can be approached in a variety of ways.
Begin with the thesis statement. The prompt provided for the essay usually includes the topic/question your student needs to address in their essay. Good thesis statements answer the question provided in the prompt. If no question is given (e.g., Write a paper about the lasting effects of World War II on American society), it can easily be reformulated as a question (e.g., What were the lasting effects of World War II on American society?). The answer to the question posed by the prompt is your thesis statement. According to Inventing Arguments by John Mauk and John Metz, thesis statements (also called claims) should have these three qualities:
Focused. A good thesis statement has narrowed its focus enough for the length of the paper. (“World War II changed the lives of women and children forever” is not focused because both topics offer a broad range of possible points of focus.)
Arguable. A good thesis statement should not state obvious facts, or be formulated as the author’s own opinion. It should be a point that could be argued by another reader. (“World War II brought many women into the workforce,” though true, is not arguable, as it is a statement of fact. “I like that World War II brought women into the workforce” is similarly not arguable because it’s difficult to argue a personal opinion.)
Revelatory. A good thesis statement should reveal an interesting or unconsidered facet of the topic. (“World War II changed the American relationship to work,” though a good start, has not yet revealed to us something we didn’t previously know or consider.)
It's worth noting that sometimes students can really get stuck here. If that's happening, encourage your student to come up with a "fuzzy" thesis - one that is imperfect but forms a launching pad for the next step. This fuzzy thesis can be tightened up and refined and the body paragraphs take shape.
Remember the acronym FAR when writing thesis statements. You may also encourage your student to write/type the thesis statement at the top of their page so that they can refer to it while composing the body paragraphs, which leads me to our next step...
Instead of crafting the intro after they’ve figured out their thesis, consider encouraging your student to shape the body paragraphs next. These will be the main points that support your thesis. A graphic organizer (see examples here, here, and here) might be a great way to visually “see” each of these arguments. For a five-paragraph essay, you’ll likely have three points you’re arguing. Each of these points will stem from and support your thesis statement.
Let’s say your student’s thesis statement ended up being: “By bringing women into the workforce, World War II began to locate motherhood not only in the home but in the wider community.” This thesis statement is focused on a particular change enacted in American society by World War II; it’s also both arguable and revelatory because someone could disagree with it, and its focus on motherhood presents a different lens for viewing how this war affected women.
Based on this thesis, the first body paragraph may describe motherhood’s rootedness in home life before World War II. The second body paragraph may focus on how conceptions of motherhood changed during World War II in response to the war effort and economic need, and the third body paragraph may focus on how the post-World War II world dealt with the tension of trying to relocate women’s sphere of influence back in the home, as well as the creative ways women endeavored to be mothers outside the home.
Each of these topics will need evidence for support. Encouraging your student to track quotes from sources they’re exploring is a great way to help them remember where they found quotes and why these quotes support their main points. Simply open up a Word or Google document, write out the source’s title or URL (if an Internet source), and note useful quotes.
After finishing the body paragraphs, it’s a good idea for your student to go back and reexamine the thesis statement. Does the evidence provided in the body paragraphs still support the thesis statement or does the thesis statement need to be revised? After your student is satisfied with the thesis statement and body paragraphs, they can begin writing the introduction and conclusion of the paper.
Introductions will include: a hook, background information, and the thesis statement. The hook should be something that gets the reader interested in the topic (like a story, statistic, question, or interesting fact), but be careful not to make that first sentence sound overly emotional or clickbaity (e.g., “At the start of World War II, most U.S. women lived lives that were one step away from imprisonment.”) The hook should also not be a dictionary definition. After hooking the reader into your topic, give a bit of general background about your topic and finish the paragraph with the thesis statement.
Conclusions will include: restating the thesis statement and main points, as well as the importance of the argument. Your student will want to think about why readers should care about the information they shared. When thinking about how to answer that “so what” question, making the information relevant is key. Why, for example, does the changing conception of motherhood enacted by World War II matter today?
It’s possible that even with a roadmap, the writing process may feel overwhelming to your student. If this is the case, remind your student that their writing is a work in progress, and can be revisited and revised when they allow enough time for the process. Planning to complete the paper over a series of days is a great way to ease potential stress and make writing feel like a more achievable task.
Writing is just one of many school-related tasks that require students to use their Executive Function skills. Join our free on-demand info session to learn how coaching can help your student become more effective and confident in school and beyond.
Lindsey Weishar is a freelance editor and writer, as well as an executive function coach for Beyond BookSmart. She possesses an MFA in Creative Writing and Media Arts from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and has seven years of teaching experience in the following settings: high school special education classes (as a paraprofessional), college-level writing classes, and adult-level literacy and English language classes. Her mission is to help individuals more greatly delight in reading and writing.