Southwest Tennessee Community College      Composition Lessons & Resources        John Friedlander


Introduction             Question             Notes/Outline             Answer

     What follows is a an example of an answer to a typical essay question—the sort of question you would expect on a composition midterm, but also much like essay questions in any discipline. The question and answer address E. B. White's essay, "Once More to the Lake," an essay commonly included in composition anthologies.  I wrote this answer under typical test conditions: I gave myself a 40-minute time limit (assuming that this would be one of three questions on a test scheduled for two hours), and began with the sort of informal prewriting/outline that improves control and completeness. I did the whole thing on the computer, and you will see the notes and essay exactly as I wrote them (though the comments on the side were added later for your use). The computer allowed me to move things around onscreen, but I used the same method I use on paper—setting up general categories with spaces between them, then filling in.
     This was designed as an open-book question, so I had E. B. White's essay in front of me as I worked, but of course I had already studied the essay and had firm opinions. Good technique really helps you to write effective essay answers, but you also need to have studied, to have made yourself familiar with the content on which you will be tested.


E. B. White's essay, "Once More to the Lake," ends with his feeling "the chill of death." Explain what that phrase means* for the essay, and how the essay leads toward that conclusion.**

*the first key requirement of the question

**the second key requirement (note that both requirements are set as headings in the Notes. Use the question to help find and build your answer)


These informal notes provide a scratch outline for the essay answer; they are prepared rapidly. In the notes, I can explore the question and answer without worry about "proper" writing. Once the notes are done (in just a few moments), I can see that I have both the structure and the evidence for a decent answer to the question.

What phrase means: literal—feels chill, identification with son
                               figurative—feels sensation of death's approach

How the essay leads there:

        Despite calm, same, enchantment of lake

   Various unsettling changes
                  changeability & chill of sea
                  no more father rolling in canoe
                  no more wonderful fuss about the trunks, and father's authority
                  lost alternative of third track
                  nervous whining of outboards

   Creepy sensation of transposition
                 repeating father's words, gestures
                 son repeats his acts
                 what rod at the end of
                 one beside me, one in my pants
                   *(am I still myself, still the boy I was? Am I become my father?
                     Is my son displacing me? Am I displacing my father, taking
                     over his role?)

Where does this lead? Last word: chill of death; and no need to go
     further . . .

The notes begin with the two broad requirements from the question: "What phrase means," and "How the essay leads there."

see how I start recording possible evidence, using just quick references

you might note here that the order of examples follows the order of the essay—I’m just running my eyes across the essay, looking for evidence, and writing items down as I see them. I am not working purely from memory.

*In this section, you might see that I’m beginning to practice or rehearse some actual writing that might occur in the answer itself; it’s a safe way to "warm up."



Let me stress that this is the answer exactly as it was written within the testing period. There is no other draft; there has been no additional editing. When you write under time pressure, you don't have time for rough drafts or significant revisions. You let your rough outline function as your draft, then write your answer neatly and legibly, and let it stand. (Naturally, you use remaining time for any needed proofreading, making minor corrections, as needed.)

     E.B. White’s essay, "Once More to the Lake," ends with his feeling "the chill of death." This phrase is a haunting and initially abrupt end for the essay, especially since on first reading the essay seems to be merely a pleasant description of a lakeside vacation. With a little attention, though, it’s easy to see how the essay leads naturally to a sense of death’s approach or inevitability.

     On the literal level, White feels an actual chill. As he watches his young son pull on a pair of wet swimming trunks after a storm, he recalls the sensation of doing the same thing, and his body copies the uncomfortable shudder his son is experiencing. But on the figurative level, that physical shudder becomes a more spiritual one, and the chill of wet trunks becomes the chill of the grave.

     Despite plenty of pleasant descriptions—White’s father comically rolling over in a canoe, the reverence for the silent lake in the early morning, the young waitresses, the walk to the farmhouse for dinner, the pleasures of boating and fishing, the taste of soda, the laughter of other campers clowning around in the rain—little hints of melancholy and uncertainty emerge as the essay develops, and lead toward the chill of death at the end.

     White seeks the calm of the lake because " . . . there are days when the restlessness of the tides and the fearful cold of the sea water and the incessant wind that blows across the afternoon and into the evening make me wish for the placidity of a lake in the woods." He embarks on the trip in part "to revisit old haunts." On the journey, White wonders "how time would have marred this unique, this holy spot . . ." and "in what other ways it would be desolated."

     Once at the lake, White "began to sustain the illusion that he was I, and therefore, by simple transposition, that I was my father. This sensation persisted, kept cropping up all the time.". . . It gave me a creepy sensation." Watching a dragonfly buzzing at the tips of their rods as they fish, White feels the sensation vividly. "I felt dizzy and didn’t know which rod I was at the end of."

     White finds some comfort in the sameness and predictability of the lake—in pointed contrast to the cold changeability of the sea. "This seemed an utterly enchanted sea, this lake you could leave to its own devices for a few hours and come back to, and find that it had not stirred, this constant and trustworthy body of water."

     But for all that is the same and constant, there are still unsettling differences—the horses’ track in the path to the farmhouse is gone ("I missed terribly the middle alternative.") Arriving was less exciting—no loud wonderful fuss about " . . . the importance of the trunks and your father’s enormous authority in such matters . . ." Wrong, too was "the sound of the place, an unfamiliar nervous sound of the outboard motors . . . that jarred . . . and set the years moving." And there remains, too, that unsettling sensation of transposition. "everywhere we went I had trouble making our which was I, the one walking at my side, the one walking in my pants.

     The final event of the essay pulls together both the sameness of the experience and the foreboding. In the development and aftermath of a thunderstorm at the lake, there are the same sounds and patterns, the same reactions. But it was also like "the revival of an old melodrama," with its "premonitory rumble," then "crackling light against the dark, and the gods grinning and licking their chops in the hills." As the storm ends, the campers run out "in joy and relief" to swim in the rain, "perpetuating the deathless joke" about getting drenched as they swim, "linking the generations in a strong indestructible chain."

     As White watches his son take over the role of the child, pulling on the wet bathing suit, White pulls on the role of the generation before, his father’s role, the role that leads to death, and he feels its chill.

After reading this introduction, go back and read the question again. You’ll see that I’ve just reworded the question. This approach provides two benefits: it provides a quick way to begin, and it pushes both me and the reader toward what the question actually asks for. [It’s helpful to reassure your grader in this way that you are answering the question directly.]

After you read paragraphs 2 and 3, go back and look at the notes—you should see that the notes gave me the information I need, and all I have to do here is turn it into reasonably smooth sentences. This is a good example of how the writing process works: I can gather ideas and evidence first, without worrying about sentences; then I can build decent sentences without worrying about the ideas or evidence.

Notice that this fourth paragraph starts using direct quotations, while the preceding paragraphs used summary or paraphrase—that provides both some variety and some efficiency. Also note that I’m just running my eyes through White’s essay as I go, not only picking up evidence, but also letting him do some of my writing.








You might notice in this paragraph how I blend quotations into my own sentences both for efficiency and for a smoother flow. This may also create the desirable illusion that White and I are writing together, so my reader will have more confidence in my conclusions about White’s essay.


This sentence talks about how White pulls together his essay at the end, but the sentence also pulls my answer together. See how it picks up on the key items of the original question.



You might notice that I copy White again here, ending my answer just as he ends his essay, hanging there with the chill of death.

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