One of the most common types of timed writing you will encounter is writing a well-structured argument. This type of timed essay is used for standardized tests like the TOEFL or GRE because it requires critical thinking of complex issues and advanced language use. Many university courses will also use this task to push you to explain your thought process and comprehension of a topic. In this section, you will learn strategies for quickly and effectively choosing a position.
The first thing to remember when you are asked to explain your opinion on a topic in a limited amount of time in an academic setting is that there is no "wrong" opinion. Your reader is not grading your response based on if you choose the correct position. Think about this on the most basic level. There is no actual correct answer if someone asks you what your favorite color is. Likewise, you should not waste time in your brainstorming on these essays on choosing the position that is "best."
One strategy for choosing your position is to go with your gut instinct. This means your immediate thought on the issue when you read the question. Often, it will be easiest for you to explain your ideas when you go with that first reaction. It is likely that you have already gathered information over time to support that position, which is why it is so quick to think of.
Another strategy is to go with the position that is easiest to support, even if it doesn't actually match your opinion. This does not mean to be dishonest. It simply means that if you do not have a strong personal belief, the best thing to do is to explain the perspective that you understand or recall most clearly. For example, maybe you personally do not have strong feelings about economic issues, so you just choose to explain why one system is better because it was the one you spent the most time studying in preparation for the exam.
Rather than stressing and losing time thinking about which option to choose or which position to take, decide quickly and focus your time and energy on supporting.
Examples of Choosing a Position
Prompt 1: Describe an important person in your life. Why has that person had a significant impact on you?
- My immediate thought is to write about my grandmother. There are many other people I could write about, but I am going to start brainstorming and organizing my ideas instead of worrying about offending someone or realizing after the test that I should have written about someone else.
Prompt 2: Write about a time when you were able to do something that seemed very difficult. What strategies did you use to acccomplish your goal?
- This topic makes me feel a little uncomfortable. I don't want to share with a stranger about the experience I thought about first because it is too personal. Instead, it would be easiest for me to write about a less emotional story like the time I was playing in a soccer tournament.
Can I use "I" in my response?
This depends on the task for a class. Your teacher/professor might have clear expectations for this, or you may need to ask before writing your first paper for that instructor. You may also need to look at the prompt or examples of writing for that area of study. For example, a biology lab write up would probably be an inappropriate place to use first person pronouns. However, a reflection for a marketing class might allow for that informality.
In the TOEFL, the answer is yes. The TOEFL rubric does not penalize you for using personal pronouns. While you are not graded on your formality, you are graded on your accuracy, and if it is easier to be accurate with your grammar using personal pronouns and examples, do it! For academic college writing, many professors will ask you to avoid personal pronouns, so you may need to clarify with your instructor what you should use in your essays for class.
A timed writing response is limited. This means you will not be able to include as many supporting details, examples, and explanations as in a drafted essay. It also means you have less time to refine your writing to make sure it is very clear.
Therefore, when you choose your suppporting ideas, make sure that they are the strongest points. You do not have the time or space to include anything unnecessary like a story or explain a complicated process. Be simple, but be intentional so that your points have an impact on the reader.
Finally, make sure you read the complete prompt and consider the expectations. Do you need to talk about short-term and long-term impacts of your choice? Do you need to acknowledge the opposite point of view? Are there multiple questions in the prompt? As you write, be sure to double-check the prompt to make sure your supporting ideas have addressed everything the reader expects you to explain.
Exercise 1: Timed Writing Discussion
Discuss the prompt below with a partner. What position would you choose? What strategy did you use to quickly make that decision? Make a list of 2 topic sentences that could support each of your positions.
Prompt: Would you rather be described as smart or hard-working? Explain why.
Exercise 2: Timed Writing Practice
You have 20 minutes to respond to this prompt. Your answer should be around 200 words long. Make a quick decision and focus your time on supporting your ideas.
Prompt: What characteristic do you think is most important for a leader to have? How does that characteristic impact other people? Why is this characteristic more significant than other traits a leader might show?