Prewriting and Planning - Develop Strategies for Success - 5 Steps To A 5: Writing the AP English Essay 2017 (2016)

5 Steps To A 5: Writing the AP English Essay 2017 (2016)


Develop Strategies for Success


Prewriting and Planning


Summary: Practice with the preliminary steps in the development of your AP English essay


Key Ideas

image Generate the raw material of your essay

image Notate related texts

image Deconstruct accompanying texts on which the AP English Language and Literature prompts are based


“A good essay is like a sharpened pencil. It has a point.”


You can sharpen that pencil using a mechanical or electric sharpener or just a plain, old penknife. (By the way, the word penknife got its name from the small knife that was used to sharpen the ends of quills that would be used as pens.)

Just as a sharpened point of a pencil will produce a fine, clear line, your sharpened writing skills will allow you to present your ideas in a clear and compelling AP English essay. This chapter will provide you with information and practice exercises that will both develop and strengthen your prewriting and planning skills. As your writing trainers, we lead you through the actual process of reading, notating, and organizing your thoughts and materials for an AP English essay.



Prewriting is the process that generates the raw material on which you will base your essay. It can be a messy piece of business, but this messiness can lead to a well-developed and appealingly designed presentation. From your many years of experience as an English student, you are probably familiar with the prewriting process. This includes:

General Annotating: (See sample prompts and texts)

• Highlighting

• Underlining

• Bracketing

Within the prompt: (See sample prompts)

• Determining the subject

• Deciding on a strategy

Within the text and outside of text: (See sample texts)


Notating the Text


After deconstructing the prompt, the next step is to notate the text, using any of the above techniques that are appropriate and comfortable for you. The notating process demands your active involvement with the text. You need to:

1. Quickly read to get the gist of the text.

Completing items 2 through 5 should not take any longer than 2–3 minutes.

2. Take a moment to clarify your take on the text (your response to subject, tone, style, etc.).

3. Check the title, etc., for any useable peripheral information.

4. Jot down any general thoughts and observations in the top margin area.

5. Go back to the prompt and choose those elements with which you are comfortable and that seem appropriate for the required task.

6. Then, go back to the text for a truly close second reading.

Carefully completing item 7 will point you in the direction of the development of your essay.

7. Notate those elements, details, examples, etc., that illustrate the devices, techniques, and ideas on which you’ve chosen to focus.

With the notated text in front of you, planning the organization of your essay will prove to be a quick and easy task as you complete items 8 through 10.

8. Categorize your notes. This simply means deciding which information you will link to each of the major elements that you’re developing.

9. Develop the sequence in which you will present each element or major point.

10. Decide on which examples, details, etc., you will use to develop each element or major idea and in what order you will place specifics.

11. Last, decide on which rhetorical strategy will be your controlling organizational pattern.

After all of these preliminary steps have been completed, the writer should find it fairly easy to construct a clear and workable thesis statement.

With the prewriting and basic planning completed, you’ve

• decided what you are going to write about;

• thought about the elements of the prompt you will deal with;

• thought about the purpose of the essay;

• made a decision about the tone you will take.


You’re now in a position to construct a thesis statement that makes the reader aware of the writer’s assertion and purpose. In other words, the thesis statement will clearly indicate the subject and controlling idea of the essay. It should also give the reader some idea as to the pattern of development (rhetorical strategy) and the direction the essay will take in relation to the subject and controlling idea. Here are a few examples of good thesis statements created by AP English students:

• Goodwin and Dickens create two images of the famous London fog [subject] that are at radically opposite ends of the “fog spectrum.” [controlling idea]

• In Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple, the heroine, Celie, [subject] grows and develops tremendously as an individual as she undergoes major spiritual and psychological transformations. [controlling idea]

• Attempting to convince the white man to deal fairly with native Americans, [subject] Chief Seattle appeals to the pride and reason of Governor Isaac I. Stevens in a speech that reminds the Governor that, though weak, native Americans are not powerless. [controlling idea]

Workout: Self-Control Exercise for Your Own Thesis Statement

1. Locate at least three of your own AP English essays and write down the thesis statement for each.


A. image



B. image



C. image



2. Underline the subject of each thesis statement.

3. Bracket the controlling idea of each thesis statement.

4. Is the subject clear in each statement? _____yes _____no

5. Is the controlling idea clear in each statement? _____yes _____no

6. If you answered “no” to either number 4 or 5, or both, you need to revise. Don’t neglect this or pooh-pooh it. Revision practice can only help your thesis writing skills improve.

Two Sample Texts

Read and think with us as we work our way through this sample text. Pay attention to the notes in the margins and the words, phrases, and sentences in the text that are bracketed. After notating the text, we manipulate these notes into statements about the text, and based on these notes and statements, we write the thesis statement.

AP English Language Sample

A Presidential Candidate

by Mark Twain

as it appeared in The New York Evening Post (June 9, 1879)

I have pretty much made up my mind to run for President. What the country wants is a candidate who cannot be injured by investigation of his past history, so that the enemies of the party will be unable to rake up anything against him that nobody ever heard of before. If you know the worst about a candidate, to begin with, every attempt to spring things on him will be checkmated. Now I am going to enter the field with an open record. I am going to own up in advance to all the wickedness I have done, and if any Congressional committee is disposed to prowl around my biography in the hope of discovering any dark and deadly deed that I have secreted, why—let it prowl.

In the first place, I admit that I treed a rheumatic grandfather of mine in the winter of 1850. He was old and inexpert in climbing trees, but with the heartless brutality that is characteristic of me I ran him out of the front door in his nightshirt at the point of a shotgun, and caused him to bowl up a maple tree, where he remained all night, while I emptied shot into his legs. I did this because he snored. I will do it again if I ever have another grandfather. I am as inhuman now as I was in 1850. I candidly acknowledge that I ran away at the battle of Gettysburg. My friends have tried to smooth over this fact by asserting that I did so for the purpose of imitating Washington, who went into the woods at Valley Forge for the purpose of saying his prayers. It was a miserable subterfuge. I struck out in a straight line for the Tropic of Cancer because I was scared. I wanted my country saved, but I preferred to have somebody else save it. I entertain that preference yet. If the bubble reputation can be obtained only at the cannon’s mouth, I am willing to go there for it, provided the cannon is empty. If it is loaded my immortal and inflexible purpose is to get over the fence and go home. My invariable practice in war has been to bring out of every fight two-thirds more men than when I went in. This seems to me to be Napoleonic in its grandeur.

My financial views are of the most decided character, but they are not likely, perhaps, to increase my popularity with the advocates of inflation. I do not insist upon the special supremacy of rag money or hard money. The great fundamental principle of my life is to take any kind I can get.

The rumor that I buried a dead aunt under my grapevine was correct. The vine needed fertilizing, my aunt had to be buried, and I dedicated her to this high purpose. Does that unfit me for the Presidency? The Constitution of our country does not say so. No other citizen was ever considered unworthy of this office because he enriched his grapevines with his dead relatives. Why should I be selected as the first victim of an absurd prejudice?

I admit also that I am not a friend of the poor man. I regard the poor man, in his present condition, as so much wasted raw material. Cut up and properly canned, he might be made useful to fatten the natives of the cannibal islands and to improve our export trade with that region. I shall recommend legislation upon the subject in my first message. My campaign cry will be: “Desiccate the poor workingman; stuff him into sausages.”

These are about the worst parts of my record. On them I come before the country. If my country don’t want me, I will go back again. But I recommend myself as a safe man—a man who starts from the basis of total depravity and proposes to be fiendish to the last.

A Deconstruction of the AP English Language Sample

A Presidential Candidate

by Mark Twain

as it appeared in The New York Evening Post (June 9, 1879)





Using the notes, the writer can easily complete each of the following planning points.

1. The purpose of “A Presidential Candidate” is to parody campaign speeches.

2. The tone/attitude of the selection is sarcastic, ironic, humorous.

3. The rhetorical devices used to develop the purpose and attitude include:


3. “A Presidential Candidate” resembles a typical speech made by a political candidate today in several ways: (1) references to personal and moral standing, (2) family background, (3) position on the economy, (4) position on the common man, and (5) war experiences and patriotism.

4. “A Presidential Candidate” does NOT resemble a typical speech made by a political candidate today in several ways. First, rather than emphasizing the “good,” he’s done, Twain focuses on the “wrongs” he’s committed. Second, he takes the absurdly opposite positions on the usual political issues. Third, rather than lofty language, his diction is informal and folksy.

Using the above information, the writer is in a position to write a clear thesis statement.

In “A Presidential Candidate,” Mark Twain makes his own “modest proposal” [subject] with a parody of the typical political campaign speech. [controlling idea]

AP English Literature Sample

As we did with the previous sample, read and think with us as we work our way through this sample poem. Pay attention to the notes in the margins and the words, phrases and lines that are bracketed. After notating the text, we manipulate these notes into statements about the poem, and based on these notes and statements, we write the thesis statement.

Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold (1867)




A Deconstruction of the AP English Literature Sample

Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold (1867)




Using the notes written in the margins of the poem, the writer easily constructs the following mapping/chart.




Caesura—lines 9–12—all of stanzas 1 and 4

Begin/cease/begin (contrast)

go/stop/go = the waves

Enjambment—lines 15–20—longer cadence = thoughts

Metaphor—lines 20–27—Sea of Faith = disillusionment

Simile—lines 29–36—like a land of dreams + as on a darkling plain (contrast)




Moves from positive to negative

Moves from specific to universal to specific

Moves from light to dark

Moves from look to listen

ebb & flow of sea = ebb/flow of their love

climax = lines 27–28: his appeal that love is the only contrast to misery and pain.

love and loving are the only certainties in life.

Using the above information, the writer is in a position to write a clear thesis statement.

Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach” is a study in contrasts [subject] developed to convince his beloved of the value of love and loyalty. [controlling idea]

A Note About Note-Taking Styles


You have no doubt noticed that the notation, prewriting, and planning styles of the two samples above are quite different. (At least, we hope you’ve noticed.) This was done purposely to illustrate the very important point that there is no single, correct way to read, notate, prewrite, and plan any essay. The important factor here is that you do the close reading, etc., and that you do it using strategies and techniques that are comfortable for you. As the old Nike ad said, “Just do it!”

With the prewriting and planning completed, you’re ready to write your essay.