Skip Navigation

Crafting the Essay - Peer Review (NCAA Approved)

Open to: Grades 7 - 12
Eligibility: CTY-level or Advanced CTY-level verbal score required
Challenge Level: College freshman
Formats: Session Based. See calendar for session dates and application deadlines
Recommended School Credit: One-half academic year
Course Length: 20 weeks (Early Fall, Late Fall, Winter, Spring); 6 weeks (Late Summer)
Course Code: PWR3

Course Description

This popular writing course uses the personal essay to explore narration, description, and reflection. Students learn to use vivid descriptions, specific details, figurative language, and variety in sentence structure. Students experiment with techniques for organizing paragraphs, transitioning between ideas, and composing effective beginnings and endings. Voice (consistent diction and psychology) and its interaction with audience and purpose are also examined.

In response to student essays, instructors comment on form, style, and content. Critiques explain successes and delineate problems needing further work. Sentence-level issues of grammar are not the main focus of instruction. Rather, instructors help students understand that the conventions of Standard Written English are part of what, for many audiences, marks a careful, learned writer, but that writing is always much more than that. Instructors introduce methods of revision, and several assignments are expected to be intensive revisions of essays previously critiqued.

This course does not have any synchronous class meetings, but students may schedule one-on-one virtual meetings directly with the instructor.

Students may be invited to interact in CTY community spaces that include students and instructors and potentially specially invited guests that are not enrolled in their course. Student contributions (e.g., projects, forum posts, etc.) may remain in the course after the student completes the course. These artifacts may be preserved to showcase student work or to continue important conversations.

Note: Crafting the Essay challenges all CTY students in grades 7 thru 12, including those who already receive high marks in English literature or Language Arts classes.

Grammar Note

Skilled, careful writers follow the conventions of Standard Written English, but writing is much more than mere adherence to convention. Instructors discuss grammar only when it affects meaning. Writing courses are not remedial. Students must already be proficient in Standard Written English.

Detailed Course Information

Course Details

Note: This describes Crafting the Essay – Peer Review. Students interested in working one-on-one with an instructor should view Crafting the Essay - Independent. Students interested in flexible pacing should review the individually paced course description. Formats cover the same concepts, but differ in approach.

This format provides a process-oriented approach. Students work through lessons and receive instructor feedback on prewriting exercises during the process of writing the essay as well as a detailed critique of the final writing assignment. In addition, students participate in a mandatory online peer review workshop in which they critique each other's writing. In the web-based format, although interaction is frequent, it is not real time. Interaction is conducted asynchronously, not via chat, I.M, or whiteboard. Students can work morning, noon, or night, so long as they meet the deadlines. Students deliver work by uploading it to a private space. They download instructor responses from the same place. Virtual classrooms are provided by a course management system.

This format is best for students who enjoy computer-mediated interaction, relish sharing their writing with an audience, and can commit adequate time to the work (see time commitment, below).

Integral to all formats is a substantial metacognitive dialogue with the instructor about writing.

Ten lessons are available. Each lesson culminates in one of three types of final writing assignments:

  • 4 short pieces (approximately 250 words) – Lessons 1, 2, 4, and 6 
  • 5 essay drafts (500-750 words) – Lessons 2, 3, 8, 9, and 10 
  • 2 revisions (750 words) – Lessons 5 and 7 

Short Pieces (about 250 words) 

Lesson 1: Freeing the Writer  

Exercises in "thinking outside of the box" help students discover that there are other aspects of language besides the literal meaning of words.  

  • Final Writing Assignment: Experiment with anthropomorphism.  

Lesson 2: The Power of Detail in Drafting a Descriptive Essay Part 1     

Exercises demonstrating the importance of evocative sensory detail in description, especially details evoking the lesser used senses of smell, taste, and touch.  

  • Important Writing Assignment: Poem focusing on sensory description of a place.  

Lesson 4: Elegant Sentences  

Exercises demonstrate organic form (the interaction of content and form), the use of descriptive and metaphoric imagery, and appropriate use of diction and syntax.  

  • Final Writing Assignment: Revise 6 sentences to make them elegant, and write a paragraph for each revision explaining the revision choices.  

Lesson 6: Creating a Persona  

Exercises demonstrate how to recognize a persona's convincing voice and consistent psychology, as well as a method for developing a persona.  

  • Final Writing Assignment: Describe an event in the voice of a persona.

 Essay Drafts (500-750 words) 

Lesson 2: The Power of Detail in Drafting a Descriptive Essay Part 2  

Exercises demonstrate freewriting, expanding prewriting through free association, and culling prewriting for significant themes. Develops the poem from Lesson 2 into an essay.  

  • Final Writing Assignment: Write an essay that describes a significant place.  

Lesson 3: The Craft of Composing

Exercises demonstrate a composing process, a method for choosing significant actions to include in a narrative, and tricks for avoiding narrative gumption traps (editing traps, nothing to say traps, too much to say traps).  

  • Final Writing Assignment: Narrate in chronological order how you got into the Writing Series.  

Lesson 8: Reflecting on Research  

Exercises demonstrate how to research the meaning of the student's name, how the student's name was chosen, and how others feel about the student's name, as well as how to identify significant aspects of research.  

  • Final Writing Assignment: Combine fact and feeling in a research essay about your name.  

Lesson 9: Analyzing Events  

Exercises demonstrate the use of cause-and-effect to analyze events, how to avoid the post hoc, ergo propter hoc logical fallacy, and the difference between cause-and-effect and process analysis.  

  • Final Writing Assignment: Write an essay about a major turning point in your life.  

Lesson 10: Writing an Evaluation  

Exercises demonstrate how to find and make explicit evaluation standards, how to choose an audience and a persona appropriate for that audience, and how to match evaluation standards of the audience and persona.  

  • Final Writing Assignment: Write an evaluation of this course.  

 Revisions (750 words) 

 Lesson 5: Revising for Unity  

Exercises demonstrate the use of outlines after the first draft, how to choose a narrative's best starting point, and how to create a catchy title.  

  • Final Writing Assignment: Revise your draft narrative from Lesson 3 beginning either in the middle (in media res) or at the end (framed narrative). Also, comment on the instructor's comments about the outline made after the first draft.  

Lesson 7: Polishing Your Prose  

Exercises demonstrate the use of figurative language in sentence-level revision, the use of alliteration and consonance in paragraph-level revision, and the use of thematic images to restructure the essay.  

  • Final Writing Assignment: Revise the descriptive essay from Lesson 5.

Read a sample essay and instructor critique
Read an award-winning essay composed for Crafting the Essay

Time Required

  • 2 hours weekly for 20-week sessions (Early Fall, Late Fall, Winter, and Spring)
  • 2 hours daily Monday - Friday for the 6-week intensive session (Late Summer)

Sample First Assignment



Congratulations on joining Crafting the Essay. This course is for students who are at least in 7th grade and meet CTY’s eligibility requirements. This course develops clear communication through the familiar, or personal, essay. You explore strategies of narration and description, and you learn the revision process.

Write an essay describing your most comfortable place. Since your readers do not know you and cannot see the place, you must emphasize the details that make it the most comfortable place for you.

There is no maximum length required. Write as much as you want, but instructors usually expect essays to have a minimum length of about 500 words, or about 2 printed, double-spaced pages.

When to submit your first assignment:

Your assignment must be submitted by the due date specified in the introductory email.

What is an Essay?

Arnold Lazarus and H. Wendell Smith, writing in A Glossary of Literature and Composition (1983, Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English), define an essay as follows:

From the French essai, literally "attempt." Brief non-fiction reflections in prose. . . . As distinguished from the article or feature story, both of which, however informal, are devoted mostly to informing, the essay (also known as familiar essay and personal essay) is devoted to entertaining, or reflecting, or inspiring. It tends to be relaxed and philosophic, or witty, or poetic, or all of these at once. . . . The style of an essay is both informal and urbane--the voice of a civilized speaker in conversation with a civilized audience. . . .

In writing an essay, no matter how commonplace the topic, the writer strives for unusual treatment. An anecdote or a personal experience ("narrative hook") or an appropriate quotation may introduce feelings and opinions that are further illuminated and supported with appropriate examples. Above all, the reader is led to discover the main drift, attitude, theme. To qualify as an essay, in fact, the piece of writing must make a point expressly or by implication (109).

The English word assay also comes from the French essai. To assay is to "try" or to "weigh," as in assaying the contents of ore for gold. We might say that, in an essay, you are trying out ideas, weighing thoughts, with the intention of discovering which are most valuable, or useful, or important.

You present these thoughts in a familiar tone. There is no need to write "one" in place of "I." Writing is a bit like speaking to yourself, and you aren't likely to say to yourself, "One likes to write." However, essays are usually written for an audience larger than yourself. Since you do not know your instructor, you must assume your instructor fits Lazarus and Smith's description: "civilized." Civilized does not mean prissy, snobbish or unctuously suave. Civilized means someone who is well-read, urbane, knowledgeable about many subjects, and interested in what you have to say.

Civilized as instructors may be, they are not perfect people. Your instructor is likely to have fallen out of a tree (at least once) and burned the popcorn (several times). Because your instructor was once a beginning writer, you can be sure that your instructor has written imperfect prose (many times). When we attempt something, we do not always succeed, especially on the first few tries. Your instructor will be sympathetic to your efforts. Your instructor will comment on successes and suggest how to improve other areas.

You may be wondering what your instructor wants in the way of description. Most of the advice that follows was composed by writing instructor Greg Seagle under a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

How Do I Use Description?

The first rule in using effective descriptive detail is that there are no rules. If you can do something that's never been done before, and it works, the literary world will be your oyster (if not now, then maybe one or two hundred years after your death). There are, however, some favorably tested formulae for effective prose description.

  1. Don't merely tell us something, show us. "It was a hot day" may occasionally move us as terrific understatement or be useful in varying sentence length, but it's narration, not description. If you show us sweat, cracking sidewalks, that sort of thing, we'll see what you mean. Show, don't tell.
  2. Use specific, concrete images. "a snub-nosed motorboat" describes more precisely than "a little boat."
  3. Use the best nouns and verbs you can get your hands on. By best we mean not biggest, but most accurate. Precise nouns and verbs help you avoid stacks of adjectives and adverbs that weigh prose down. F. Scott Fitzgerald has his "snub-nosed motor-boat that bumped the tide offshore." "Bumped" is wonderfully concise; you could probably describe that action in twenty or thirty words, but Fitzgerald's seven words use the force of economy to create a concrete image.
  4. Select the few best details to describe what you want to describe. Art is not exhaustive -- Picasso drew a better boy in seven lines, perhaps, than he could have in thirty. The properly placed spider web may give us a better feel for a room than a minute description of floor and ceiling tiles. Imply a scene for your reader; don't map it inch-by-inch.
  5. Appeal to more than one sense. Usually, we give ample visual details of a scene or setting; sometimes we ignore aural, tactile, and other sensory details. For example, we can all see a "sky blue carpet," but look what happens when you add "that itches when I stretch out on it." Artistic selection is still called for: don't feel compelled to include at least one detail for each sense. For instance, you may want to emphasize one or another sense, or to avoid one strictly. Still, in general, appeal to more than one sense -- your descriptive picture will take on greater verisimilitude.
  6. Use sharp metaphors and similes, and use them judiciously. Fitzgerald describes curtains in a room blown "in at one end and out the other like pale flags," and he has them twist up "toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling." With some wonderful images -- precise and sharp -- he helps us visualize the scene vividly. That "frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling" is the properly placed spider web that keeps us from counting convolutions in the cornice-work. Still, don't get carried away in your metaphor-making. Metaphors ask your readers to compare one thing with another -- this is pleasing, to a point. Metaphors stacked on metaphors make readers work too hard; they might get lost, might lose the thread of your narrative.
  7. Don't wander off into descriptive limbo. If you're telling a story, readers don't want to lose sight of the story line. Keep your descriptions relevant to all your other literary purposes in a particular essay or story (theme and character development, for instance).

What Does Comfortable Mean?

Comfort to one person is agony to another. Hemingway wrote standing up, with his typewriter atop a bookcase. Proust wrote in bed. Some people get backaches from a too soft mattress, others from a too firm mattress. Some city dwellers need sirens and car engines to go to sleep. Some people can only sleep with the light on. Some people are allergic to wool; other people are allergic to man-made fibers. Obviously, your essay needs to show what "comfortable" means to you.

And physical comfort isn't the only kind. We speak of people who are comfortable with calculus, comfortable amid chaos, comfortable with themselves, and comfortable with their earnings. Your essay may want to discuss non-physical forms of comfort.

Thus, your essay is an attempt both to discover what comfort means for you and to communicate your discovery to the reader. This dual purpose might suggest that you write more than one draft of the essay.

What is Revision?

In general, instructors expect you to write at least one draft and make significant changes to it before submitting the essay. Some instructors ask to see your earlier drafts, and others do not.

When writing a first draft, don't worry much about such niceties as spelling, punctuation, and subject-verb agreement. You'll clean those up later. The first draft is for discovering what you have to say: it doesn't matter how you say it, whether you say it perfectly, or if you say too much. The idea is to get lots of thoughts on paper. Author Annie Dillard claims, "It doesn't hurt much to babble in a first draft, so long as you have the sense to cut out irrelevancies later."

Revision happens after the first draft. Revision is the act of re-seeing, of perfecting your language and ideas. Painters will go through a series of sketches to get to the final vision they want on the canvas. The same is true for writers. With each draft or revision, the writing moves closer to a final vision. Many writers save grammatical and spelling corrections for the last draft.

In College Writing: A Personal Approach to Academic Writing (1991, Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook), Toby Fulwiler provides two easily applied revision techniques.

  1. I read aloud to myself and listen for the places where the language sounds thick. (In the previous sentence, the first version read like this: "I read out loud to myself and am able to hear when a sentence is not economical." I didn't like the rhythm or precision and so recast it.) (127)
  2. In the following case, too many prepositional phrases slow down the reader:

The success of a company can be attributed to the market analysis of the executives of the company.

To rewrite this sentence I would go after the three "of" constructions . . .

The company's success can be attributed to its executives' market analysis (128).

How much revision is "reasonable"? Those who seldom revise should do one more than they want to. Those who always revise may do one less. You know which you are.

In a perfect world, we would revise until the essay was perfect. Walt Whitman revised his book of poems, Leaves of Grass, ten times. But in the real world, we must stop revising when the assignment is due. To do well then, you should start writing when you get the assignment, not the night before it is due. (Instructors usually recognize rush jobs, though they don't always say so.)

Submit to your instructor according to schedule:

  1. Your comfortable space essay.
  2. An explanation of why you chose to write this essay.

Do your best and enjoy this challenge. Your instructor is looking forward to the results.

Technical Requirements

This course requires a properly maintained computer with high-speed internet access and an up-to-date web browser (such as Chrome or Firefox). The student must be able to communicate with the instructor via email. Visit the Technical Requirements and Support page for more details.



  • "I have never been very confident about my writing and it always seemed like a very big burden to me. After going through this course though, I learned to enjoy the writing process, and I am much more confident about showing others my narratives. My teacher was amazing; she gave me tips and feedback that I would never have gotten in a school setting. Every assignment was original, with a unique prompt that made the writing even more enjoyable. I admit that I was slightly upset as I submitted my last assignment; I had been exposed to such fantastic techniques throughout my journey, and now that I had reached the final destination, I wish the journey were longer. . . ."
  • "I took the course by email, and it was fine because I did that for Writing Series Level 1 and 2. Ms. W was an awesome instructor and I really appreciate how she explained to me bit by bit how to become a better writer.

    "First of all, the class assignments really allowed me to become 'functionally unfixed.' Unlike most other coursework, these assignments weren't restricted by regulations. Instead, they triggered a creativity flow in my mind that empowered me to enhance my writing skills.

    "However, the assignments would have been pointless had it not been for the constructive teacher/peer feedback. I definitely appreciated the detailed and extensive teacher feedback, especially since the teacher was an experienced individual. On the other hand, the peer feedback remained relaxed and slightly constrained, an appropriate approach to commenting on fellow classmates' work. In the end, both styles allowed me to view my essays from totally different perspectives.

    "Hence, every hour I dedicated to writing and comprehending the basics of 'crafting the essay' was time well spent. By establishing goals, completing assignments, and posting/receiving feedback, I was enabled to adopt a higher writing standard."
  • "This was my second Writing course from CTY, and I couldn't have asked for a better instructor. Mr. M gave incredibly detailed feedback on each essay, and provided support throughout the course. His comments were very constructive, and he always began and ended his feedback with positive comments. This aspect of his response allowed me to feel confident and prepared to tackle the next paper, and his criticisms helped me improve my writing greatly. The class discussions were very informative, regardless of whether or not my essay was chosen, because reading the writing of others always helped me improve my own. His structure provided us with the ability to build upon what we had previously learned, but the variety of topics and styles permitted us to explore and enjoy the process of Crafting an Essay."
  • "My instructor gave me very useful feedback. I will use her feedback for writing in the future. The subjects given were a good variety and opened my mind to different situations. Overall, this course improved my writing tremendously."
  • "My instructor was amazing! She was acted like the real live person that she was, she was really sweet and she cared. I really liked having her. <3 <3 <3 "
  • "Not much tech-savvy needed."
  • "This course was very helpful to my education. I enjoyed the class most of the time--the only exceptions I remember as being up late at night working on my assignment, but that doesn't describe the class. What does describe the class is wonderful, interesting, and enjoyable. I liked looking at and commenting on the work of my peers."
  • "Teacher was very quick and engaging. Took time to look at my child's writing."
  • "Ms. W was a fabulous instructor. I have nominated her as an outstanding teacher."
  • "[Instructor's name] inspired our son to write better and gave him the confidence and tools to tackle new writing assignments for this new school year. M's 9th grade English teacher from high school last year made M believe that he couldn't write well, and as a result he dreaded all writing assignments. He now approaches writing assignments with confidence and was wondering whether Ms. D will be teaching any classes next summer. High praise indeed from a student who was dreading taking a writing course over the summer!"
  • "The instructor was very helpful. Re-writing some assignments is a great way for my son to learn how to become a better writer. I will definitely consider the next writing course for him."
  • "I am pleased with both the content and developmental aspects of the course for my son. He was not only challenged by the material and the instructor, but also with time management."
  • "Ms. W was excellent for my son. She gave some very good criticism in a positive way that made it easy for my son to accept and later utilize. Thank you!"
  • "A's teacher is very encouraging, my daughter has enjoyed the course very much, and we have noticed her progress in writing."
  • "Mr. L provided very thoughtful, comprehensive guidance and feedback to M which enabled her to pursue the course with enthusiasm."
  • "We were pleasantly surprised at how well the web-based environment worked. Also very happy with how the teacher address students as prospective writers and in a positive spirit always challenged them/opened unseen doors for improvement."