A friend of mine at Eton College kindly passed on this beautiful advice as used by the English Department there. Want to find out how to write an essay in exam conditions? Look no further.
The first paragraph…
• Open your essay by stating your understanding of the question. English essay questions often allow the writer some leeway – so now’s the time to state how you interpret the question (unless it is blatantly obvious).
In some English essays, there is a need to show that your understanding is one among other possible interpretations. If this is the case, in your introduction you should offer other ways of interpreting the question or the text: “Although I can understand others might consider… ”
In some essays you will need to show awareness of context. Take care – this is not a history essay, so your aim should always be to discuss context by deriving it from the text itself (ask your teacher if you don’t know how to do this). This means leaving any significant comments on context until the body of the essay. Many students fall into the trap of giving a lengthy commentary on the author’s context in the introduction but this gains no marks and could be wasting valuable time.
• Some essay questions are based on a statement made by a literary critic, for example. If this is the case, do not feel that you must agree with it – as above, there is rarely only a single interpretation of an author’s work.
• In all cases, it’s important to give a clear indication of your overall view of the essay question. This suggests the direction of your essay and, more importantly, sets you off on a well signposted track.
Try to express your overall answer or feeling concerning the essay question in a single sentence. This is technically called your “thesis statement”. This “statement” sets out your position and your essay then becomes no more than your attempt to support why you think this way. Here is an example, “Many commentators seem to suggest that Philip Larkin is an unredeemable pessimist, but I feel that there is much evidence that he is, in fact a clear-sighted realist. Through an analysis of “High Windows” and “The Explosion” I hope to show that this is so.”
• For exam writing, it’s important to remember that you only have this one chance to make a favourable first impression so your aim must be to impress the examiner with a show of clarity, confidence and precision. One especially effective way to do this is to use an “embedded quotation” in your introduction – a phrase from the text that fits directly into your own sentence: this suggests knowledge of the text and a confident approach.
• In an exam, you might only have forty minutes to write the main body of your essay so put fear where it belongs – outside the exam room, by realising that you can never cover everything and that you are as well prepared as you can be! Make sure that what you do say is clear and concise – no waffle!
How Many Points to Make
Have you wondered how many points to make? Well… if you explore each point thoroughly through a “Point → Quotation → Comment” strategy, you will probably only be able to make a maximum of five or six points. Given the time pressure in an exam, make every word count. But remember the GOLDEN RULE: depth scores many marks; surface scores few! Be sure you explore each point you make fully, making sure it helps answer the question and explores the layers and shades of meaning – the subtleties – of the text. Be sure also to comment on the writer’s uses of language, of style (narrative, dramatic or poetic, for example) and, of course, structure. The SILVER RULE: never write anything unless it helps answer the question.
• Plan your answer – a rough sketch of the main points you intend to make. This will help you to make your points flow logically from one to the next (use “discourse markers” to help: consequently…, therefore…, as a result…, it follows from this that…, and so on). The development of your argument – supporting your thesis statement - should be clear and understandable at all times. This is a real mark winner.
Evidence and Interpretation
• Always support each point of your argument with examples – usually a brief quotation – from your text(s). If you have the text in the exam this is easier; if you don’t you should be prepared with a small bank of learned quotations (just lines or phrases rather than whole chunks are what is needed).
• Avoid “retelling the story”, i.e. giving lengthy descriptions from your text of what the author is “saying”; instead – stick to your interpretation of the text that help answer the essay question. The examiner knows the poem, the play or the story – so avoid retelling it! Time wasted – marks wasted!
• If the question is one where you need to show that you have developed your own interpretation from an understanding of other interpretations, show this as you write. There is no need to labour this, however – just show your awareness.
• Avoid using excessive numbers of quotations. Use substantial quotations only to support points (but remember that you can use “embedded quotations” more widely).
• NEVER open a paragraph with a quotation. ALWAYS open each paragraph after the introduction with a point that helps answer your essay question – a point based on your interpretation of the text. Be sure the point furthers your overall argument in answer to the essay question.
• ALWAYS use the quotation also to provide an opportunity to discuss how the writer has used language, style or structure effectively their effect and purpose. NEVER miss this opportunity to score points!
How to Write a Conclusion
• Sadly, many students misuse this important part of their essay. This is the last thing your examiner reads, and will be hovering in his or her mind as your mark is being decided.
• Use your conclusion as a summing up in which you pull together the main points you have made in support of your argument – but avoid a long repetition of what you have already said. This requires skill, for sure. Just work hard to add a final touch of clarity to why what you have written is an effective way of answering the essay’s question.
• You could also use this opportunity to show how the issues raised by your essay apply in life more generally – most texts have widely applying themes and now is the chance to show how this is the case.
• Make your final sentence interesting and memorable!
This was written by Steve Campsall and published in Englishbiz 2006 (Rev. 21/06/2006) – Exam Essay Skills. It is published on this non-profit blog for educational purposes.