Kristi Siegel, Ph.D.
English Department
Tips for Writing Impromptu
With some planning and care, writing an impromptu does not have to be a dire event.
General Comments Regarding Impromptu

n the comments below, the question posed in the impromptu essay assignment was, "Do you believe colleges should use the traditional grading system (e.g., A,B,C,D,F) or adopt an alternative grading system such as pass/fail or credit/no credit?"

Before attending to the more detailed suggestions below, remember the basic rules for creating an impromptu:

1. Re-state the question in thesis form.  Be specific and, if you're asked to take a position, make sure you state that position in your thesis.
2. Plan your answer.  Brainstorm, pre-write, cluster.  Do not start writing until you've jotted down some ideas and examples.  In most impromptu essays situations, you won't have enough time to write the impromptu twice.
3. Make sure to use specific examples, anecdotes, and data to back up your assertions.
4. Proofread your impromptu.  Try reading it very slowly to catch awkward sentence structures, missing words or transitions, and grammatical errors. 
5. Write a clear (and preferably interesting!) conclusion. 

More specific considerations:

1. In a good persuasive argument, you need to anticipate objections.  Think back to the kinds of arguments you used to persuade your parents to let you use the car or buy some clothes.  Besides giving them all the compelling reasons why you should be able to use the car or buy the hot new outfit, you also anticipated their objections and tried to offer solutions ("If you let me use the car, you know I'll be driving rather than my friend Suzy who drives a hundred miles per hour" or "If I get this outfit--that's on sale!--I won't need another thing until summer.  Besides, I'll pay you back out of my next paycheck.") This same type of thinking needs to take place in this essay.  If you argue for a pass/fail system you will need to demonstrate how employers, scholarship committees, graduate schools, and so forth wll be able to assess which students were more qualified and why students would continue to do their "best" work if everything from good to great earned a "Pass."  If you argue for the traditional grading system you will need to address issues such as stress and whether grades are an accurate reflection of knowledge and intelligence.

2. When you make broad statements you need to find facts, details, and other concrete examples to clarify your ideas and to make them more interesting.  If you keep writing in generalities you wind up repeating yourself (since having made a general statement, you've
made it); saying it a different way doesn't make it any clearer or more interesting.

3. Try to avoid using words that make a paper more confusing and vague.  Words such as
this, that, there, them, that, things, those, it, etc., are non-specific and often lack a clear reference.  A reader is often left asking, "Just whom does she mean by they, anyhow?" and "What do all these its refer to?"  Use a specific word rather than a vague one.

4. Make your argument logical.  If you base your entire argument on an idea that is half-baked or just plain false, the whole argument falls apart.   Most arguments are based on a syllogism, for example:

   If a plant is never watered,
  Then the plant will die.
  Therefore watering plants is necessary to keep plants alive.

Accordingly, the syllogisms you construct for your arguments for or against traditional grading also need to be logical. 
These are two examples of arguments (that appeared in paper after paper) that are not sound syllogisms:

   If a student gets an A or B
   Then the student has merely memorized and not learned the facts
   Therefore high grades=poor learning

In the example above, the writer assumes that high grades are based on the ability to memorize facts and that memorization equals poor learning.  Both points are assumptions that would be difficult to back up even with supporting data.]

    If a students gets an A or B
   Then  the student has learned the material and is demonstrating his/her intelligence.
   Therefore high grades=intelligence and superior learning

In the argument above, the writer assumes that high grades indicate that the student comprehends the materials (this does not always follow) and that high grades therefore equal intelligence. Again, this arugment is based on assumptions rather than logic.]

5. You also lose credibility if you overstate your argument.  While you might believe a change to a pass/fail grading system will relieve all pressure, immediately elevate everyone's self-esteem, increase learning, and change the world as we now know it, you'd be better off by not exaggerating.  Rather than sounding powerful, an overstated argument makes your reader lose faith in your opinions.

6. Make sure you've explained your examples clearly.  A reference or story that might be very clear to you could confuse your reader if you don't provide enough information. Also, if you fail to make the connection between your examples and your larger points, a reader will be unable to follow your ideas.  Writing is a little like providing a map; if you don't give clear enough directions (your thesis statement and major ideas) or signa by using transitions when you're going to turn or make a lane change, your reader is going to get lost.

7. Most papers are written either in past or present tense.  Your job is simple: pick one!  You should only switch between verb tenses in an essay if there is a logical reason for doing so.  Otherwise, going back and forth between present and past tense will only confuse your reader.

8. Proofread.  If you have trouble spelling, look up the words.  Don't guess.  After finishing your impromptu read each sentence aloud (quietly) to check for awkward sentence structures or missing words.
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