Work / writing

The Hell of Timed Essays

Note: I wrote this some time ago and had posted it elsewhere, but I will soon be in the midst of scoring practiced, timed essays in preparation for the one that counts for a hefty grade at the end of the term.  I found this more than a bit appropriate…


Dear Anti-Writer Who Created The Concept of Timed Writing,

My students loathe you to the core. The notion that anyone with any sort of writing background can possibly craft a GOOD essay in a very short amount of time – we’re talking no more than an hour or so – is ludicrous. My job is to teach students that writing is a goddamned PROCESS. Good writing is rewriting. It’s about honing voice, substance, style, tenor, detail, syntax, and structure. It requires much more than a piddly-assed bit of time. Don’t believe me? Try it out for yourself. I conducted a bit of self-research with a colleague, and we learned that a halfway decent essay takes a day to write, but a STRONG essay takes a week to write, edit, and revise.

I hope the level of hell in which you will, inevitably, reside consists of a classroom replete with flicker-popping fluorescent lighting; hard-edged desktops and restrictive, plastic seating. Your writing tools will be nothing more than one of those shitawful, flimsy blue composition books and a stubby number 2 pencil with the eraser whittled and flattened right down to its dented aluminum ferrule. The eraser detail is important because, in this level of hell, you are NOT permitted to erase the errors you will definitely make while writing this…this “essay.”

Speaking of “essay,” you have a choice of the following topics:

1. A famous person, alive or deceased, who has influenced American culture.
2. Your favorite color and why and/or how that color represents you.

In this hell, you will be allotted no more than 50 minutes to write an essay, a COLLEGE-level essay, on either of the topics. Your essay will be thought-provoking, engaging, creative, detailed, and well-developed, even if the topic you’ve chosen is shitty (and it certainly is). If you’ve difficulty with grammar, spelling, vocabulary, and punctuation, suck it the hell up and press on. Your assessors will take note of it all.

After you’ve finished, you will not be permitted to ask for a second opportunity, let alone any sort of rewrite. Remember, this is a timed essay, your creation. You will be doing this for all eternity, and while, ideally, you will be garnering plenty of timed essay practice, in the end, it doesn’t matter because you STILL won’t be able to revise your work.

You will never be able to revise your work At All.

Welcome to the hell you have created for both my students and me, douchecanoe.

14 thoughts on “The Hell of Timed Essays

  1. You poor guys! It takes me 50 minutes to just find something to write with (a comp, a tab, a cellphone, paper, a pen and its all usually buried under six tons of construction paper and crayons and bubblegum wrappers). It takes me 50 minutes to get a paragraph sometimes. I’ve never exactly figured out what a timed essay is supposed to evaluate – how much stream-of-consciousness crap you can come up with? As you stated writing is a process.I don’t think the people who come up with this stuff actually do any kind of research on its effectiveness at all. My kids frequently get stupid homework assignments like like that. “Monday: write research paper on some topic my oldest child could care less about and has probably never even heard of. It’s due Wens.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think Martha said it correctly — If approached as a comprehension and “thinking” exercise rather than a how-well-can-one-write model, timed writing wouldn’t be so bad. As for homework assignments like that research paper –UGH! Again, it’s all about quantity (and, probably, regurgitation of information) rather than quality. Total B.S.

      Liked by 2 people

    • I had a student who, in his senior (high school) English class was assigned a 10 page research paper. Frankly, he wasn’t that kind of guy. He was a build stuff kind of guy with a very good eye for BS. He wrote the first, second and final pages. The middle pages — 7 pages — just said “Blah blah blah” and he got an A. I thought he was lying when he told me, so he brought it to show me. A. “Good work!” We weren’t sure whether she read any of it or weighed it or what she did to come up with that grade. Perhaps she had a very heightened sense of irony way beyond our abilities to understand.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Every time I hear about high school students, never mind middle grade or ELEMENTARY students, writing these lengthy, informative research papers (glorified book reports, really), I wonder what the hell kind of research analysis skills are being taught to go along with their assignment, if they are at all.

        As for the 10 pager, perhaps a crazy teaching load (I’ve a few colleagues who have taken on more than they can possibly chew)? Barely time to read past page 2 or 3 pages? Or, as we’ve discussed here…”Quantity vs. quality”? Who can say for sure? K-12 teachers are, after all, ridiculously overworked.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I taught 7 college and university level writing classes and I read every paper — but it takes time and experience to develop tools to do that AND as one of my college profs said, “It’s harder to write a good 5 page paper than it is to write a good 10 page paper.” My students were the masters of BS from all the experience they’d had filling up space. In my basic writing class a research paper was required. I ended up devising research prompts so I didn’t have to read about abortion, the death penalty or legalization of marijuana. It was easier for the kids, too. Well, I guess you can see I miss teaching!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I think there is a use for timed writing. It was an essential part of the business communication classes I taught. The purpose was not the creation of a “college level essay” but the demonstration of the ability to read a problem (usually but not always a customer complaint), the facts related to that complaint and compose an appropriate response in a short period of time. It was a pretty good simulation of real life work writing which often is writing under pressure.

    Generally, I think the purpose of timed writing (which I believe in) is to de-mythologize the “writing process” (and yes, I agree it is a process). Many students learn from timed writing that it’s really not such a big deal and that success depends on reading and understanding a prompt as well as how they put down their words. I always saw it as a thinking project at least as much as a writing project. I graded them differently than I graded other work, too.

    And there is the fact that most students wait until the last minute, anyway. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • I get what you’re saying, especially regarding the concept of reader response and assessment of students’ comprehension. I’ve just never been an advocate of rapid-fire “structured” writing of any sort whether in the business world or for test-taking purposes simply because I am of the belief that writing…CONSCIENTIOUS writing…is a process that entails a display of strong communication skills, and one cannot effectively do that under extraordinarily narrowed time constraints (I’m not talking about writing deadlines that are the norm, either — a “by the end of the day” sort of thing). The current push for such sort of harried writing practices in school seems to fall in line with politically driven accountability measures created by politicos, school “reformers,” educational boards, and ed. publishing conglomerates that have completely monopolized the educational system. To me, timed writing assignments in school illustrate the very idea of “quantity over quality,” a concept valued more by the corporate model — corporations prep. their future workers to become merely efficient rather than proficient at what they do.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I disagree with some of what you say here, but not all of it. After teaching writing most of my life and watching one trend after another come and go, I now think any generalization about it is probably going to be off a little bit.

        In business people NEED to answer questions and respond to people quickly — that has always been the case. “Who is this person, what do they want, what do they need and what is your place in all that” is the nature of most business writing. In many scenarios “proficient” and “efficient” must reside together not because “time is money” but because (in our culture) it’s considerate to be able to help someone with his/her problem as quickly as possible. Business writing is writing for people, not for teachers, and ideally it is the fruit of all those years of writing classes. None of that has anything at all to do with public education (I frankly think it should). Of course it depends on whether a person is writing a proposal or a rejection letter but understanding that is also part of business writing. What I loved about it was that the audience took front and center, not me.

        I agree with you completely about “politically driven accountability measures” etc. and I agree that those models are not interested AT ALL in whether students are actually able to DO anything when they get out of school. I also think with timed writing a lot depends on how it’s approached and how heavily it is weighed. I did them weekly in my pre-college level developmental writing class, partly because I was required to (grrrrrr) and partly because my students were writing at such a low level that many of them took heart from being able to fill a whole page in 30 minutes (they didn’t think they could). After that, they usually exchanged papers and had to find something beautiful, good, or interesting in their classmate’s essay. Then they had the chance of taking that point and writing an essay at home on whatever had impressed their classmate. In short, as I said, I used them to take the bogey man OUT of writing.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Douchecanoe lol. But yeah, isn’t being able to think fast a good thing to train? It’s been on my mind lately funnily enough- how long it takes me to write posts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Think fast, sure, but you must admit, writing it conscientiously (my word of the day, perhaps) takes time. If I could grade the writing according to what sorts of skills are feasibly being displayed (for ex., as Martha mentioned, reading comprehension and reactionary) rather than primarily focusing on the quality of writing itself, I wouldn’t have as much of a problem, really. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      • I truly believe it’s a crime the way students are taught writing these days — in my last couple of years teaching, I had students who could not identify a FACT in a writing problem. I think my students felt that writing was like lacing a Marine boot inside a black bag in a dark room, as if writing were an unnatural act. 😦

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh yeah, writing as a subject should be assessed by coursework I would think. It’s a lot about ongoing general personal development really.

        Liked by 2 people

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