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Crafting the Essay

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Open to: Grades 7 - 12
Eligibility: CTY-level or Advanced CTY-level verbal score required
Challenge Level: College freshman
Formats: Individually Paced
Recommended School Credit: One-half academic year
Course Length: Typically 6 months
Course Code: EM3

Course Description

This most 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.

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. 

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.

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.

Materials Needed

Students are not required to purchase any additional materials or texts for this course.

Course Details

Note: This describes the individually paced version of Crafting the Essay. For the session-based course descriptions, visit Crafting the Essay – Independent (NCAA Approved) and Crafting the Essay – Peer Review (NCAA Approved).

You set the schedule!

The individually paced format uses a web-based course management system that delivers assignments, receives finished essays, and returns instructor critiques. Students and instructors use the course management system's messaging module and email to communicate.  The individually paced format does not include peer review workshops. As with the web-based format, it is not necessary for students and instructors to be online at the same time.

Students may enroll at any time during the year and progress at their own pace within their enrollment period, guided by instructors who strive to meet individual needs. Assignments may not be submitted closer than seven days apart. Enrollment and tuition are time-based, and students may enroll in a course for three, six, or nine months.

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

Detailed Course Information - Email format



Description OR Anthropomorphic Essay

Finding a voice. Basic sentence and paragraphing skills. Essay structure. Concrete detail.

Work in Audience and Purpose

Selecting details and presentation for a reader and purpose. Playing with point of view.


Selection and compression to make point. Characterization through story. Fun with perspective.

Work in Example and Illustration

Replacing general words and phrases with concrete counterparts. Selecting brief and extended examples for a point. Playing with verbs.

Revision of Narrative

Working toward conciseness. Learning self-critique, how to write about writing. Innovative introductions and conclusions. Fun with clichés.

Figurative Language

Taking risks in prose and an attempt at a poem. Fun with synesthesia.


Audience and purpose reprised. Getting something done with writing. Playing with style: Invitation to a dreadful event.


Applying standards of excellence. Review and revision over previous papers. Lexomythology.

Essay Exams

General how-to rules. Practicum in taking essay tests.

Final Revision

Combining skills. Graceful use of figures. Refining self-critique.


Sample First Assignment



Congratulations on joining Crafting the Essay. This third level is for students who are at least in 7th grade and have a qualifying SAT/ACT/SCAT Critical Reading/Reading/Verbal score. This course develops clear communication through the familiar, or personal, essay. You explore strategies of narration and description, and you learn the revision process.

When to send your first assignment:

Your assignment must be emailed by midnight of the due date on the schedule your instructor sent in the introductory message.

Choose an Essay

You may write one of two essays for your first assignment. Instructions for writing the essays are below. Please read both sets of instructions carefully. Along with your essay, you are required to send an explanation for your choice. This explanation can be as long as you wish, but no shorter than 100 words. Acceptable explanations can range from why one essay seemed easier than the other to why one essay seemed more interesting to write than the other. We encourage strong opinions tactfully expressed.

Essay Choice One

Becoming Functionally Unfixed

You're probably asking yourself--what does this heading mean? What is functional fixedness?

Borrowed from psychology, functional fixedness is a term that describes our patterns of perception. These patterns are functional because they help us perform life's simple jobs. Because these patterns help us function smoothly, we use them repeatedly until they become a habit that is fixed.

Here is an example: You probably have a morning routine. You wake up, go to the bathroom, brush your teeth, wash your face, put on your robe, and go to the kitchen to eat breakfast. Whatever your routine is, you more than likely perform the same simple tasks in the same sequence every morning. You're functionally fixed in a pattern that helps you get through the morning without too much thought. After all, you're still a little sleepy--you don't want to have to think about what you're doing every morning.

But, sometimes that morning routine changes. When you go on vacation or if you go away to camp, you might discover that it takes a couple of days to adapt to the new way of getting up. You're functionally fixed! You need to get unfixed.

We are also functionally fixed about the way we use language. For example, when you see


you probably think of the furry, four-footed mammals kept as pets (Felis domesticus). That is because, in your daily life, most people who see CAT usually think "pet cat." But, in other peoples' daily lives, CAT might not mean that.

  • Circus folks and zookeepers probably think of lions, tigers, and leopards.
  • Sailors might think of a catamaran sailboat
  • Road builders might think of a Caterpillar tractor
  • Medical people might think of Computerized Axial Tomography (a CAT scan).

For each of these groups, CAT has become a different functionally fixed perception.

Depending on our perspectives and backgrounds, we can become functionally fixed in differing ways. Functional fixedness can become a habit or rut. Habits can be helpful, but they can also prevent us from seeing other possibilities.

Writers need to see beyond the familiar meanings of words, to think about language in new ways. When we are functionally fixed, we use language as if it only has meaning. But meaning is just the component we use most often. Becoming functionally unfixed about language is the first step in learning to write well.

Now, be functionally unfixed by taking this short quiz. Pick the ONE correct answer. Do not choose the ONE correct answer until you have seen all the choices.

CAT is:

  1. A word in the English language
  2. A word denoting the furry, four-footed mammals kept as pets (Felis domesticus) and its larger relatives
  3. A word denoting the abbreviation for catamaran sailboat
  4. A word denoting the name for Caterpillar® tractor
  5. Three letters of the alphabet
  6. A word representing a series of phonemes (sounds that are the smallest unit of speech)
  7. A word representing a series of phonemes used to denote the furry, four footed mammals kept as pets (Felis domesticus) and its larger relatives; and the abbreviation for catamaran sailboat; and a brand name of tractor; and -- you get the idea
  8. A set of curves and lines
  9. Pixels on a monitor screen
  10. All of the above and more

Hold this page up to a mirror to read the one, correct answer.


If you chose 10, you chose the one, correct answer, which is that there isn't one, correct answer.

Meaning and Form

Meaning, also called content, is only one component of language. The other component is form. What is form? Simply put, form is every aspect of language except meaning. Let me show you the difference between form and meaning.

Here are two passages with the same meaning.

Ecclesiastes 9:11 (King James Version of the Bible):

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

George Orwell's parody:

Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

What is different between the Ecclesiastes and Orwell passages? Which do you prefer? Most people will choose Ecclesiastes. They find it more pleasing because of its form. Everything from diction to syntax to figurative language distinguishes the fine prose of Ecclesiastes from Orwell's parody. (By the way, if you don't recognize words such as "diction" and "syntax," think of this as an opportunity to look them up in your dictionary.)

To get the one, correct answer to the CAT quiz, you have to be functionally unfixed enough to recognize that language is more than meaning. You have to recognize form, even if you don't know its name.

Your Assignment: Playing with Language/Committing an Act of Anthropomorphism

Becoming functionally unfixed about language is the first step in learning to write well. When you are functionally unfixed, you are able to play with words and structure, to experiment with voice and style, to surprise yourself and your reader. Now let's see if you are able to free yourself from conventional notions about ways to use language.

Children are frequently very good at thinking in unconventional ways. You may remember assigning human characteristics to non-human objects when you were younger. For example, your stuffed animals may have had human emotions. And Jonny 2 x 4's best friend on the cartoon show Ed Edd N Eddy, is a board named Plank, with whom Jonny has frequent conversations. When we do this in writing it is called anthropomorphism.

  • For your first writing assignment, experiment with anthropomorphism. Choose an inanimate object in your room or house. Pretend you are this object and write from that object's [first person] point of view.
  • 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. Have fun with language.

Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Choose an object you are familiar with--your favorite chair, an earring, the mouse to your computer, a book on your nightstand.
  • Think about the object's function. Is it decorative? Practical? Entertaining? Necessary?
  • Decide on your object's personality traits. For example, does your mouse like being pawed by you all the time?
  • When writing in the first person, you're expected to use first-person pronouns (I, me, mine, and so forth).
  • You may wish to assign a gender to your object (but that's not required). In fact there are few requirements for this assignment -- and you've now read all of them.

Send or post to your instructor as one file, according to schedule:

  1. Your anthropomorphism 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.

Essay Choice Two


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 send your first assignment:

Your assignment must be sent/posted 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 mailing 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.)

Send 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.