There comes a point in everyone’s life when you have to undergo the ritual that marks the first, fateful step on the road to becoming an adult. It’s called ‘writing an essay’ and involves long hours of hard work, boredom, and often embarrassment (when you find out your mark). Pretty soon, your first essay turns into a weekly essay, and the pattern is set for the rest of your educational life. Essays can be stressful, particularly when laziness, the opposite sex or a preference for extra-curricular activities leads to a caffeine-fuelled ‘all-nighter’, but here are a few tips for getting by in the exams…
Choose the right question
Sometimes, you won’t be able to choose the question, as your teacher will make one up for you and expect you to answer it whether you like it or not. In most exams, however, you’ll have a range of questions to choose from, and that’s when it’s important to go for a topic that you have studied and might – just possibly – enjoy writing about. When I was at Oxford, I only revised for the number of essays that I knew I would have to tackle. That caused a bit of a problem in the Examination Schools when I found out I couldn’t do the advertising language question because my tutor had got the sections mixed up (!), but it saves a lot of revision time.
I’ve written (and marked) Heaven knows how many essays, and the key to success is almost always the quality of the ideas – but how do you come up with good ideas in the first place? Studies have shown that the best way is to brainstorm. That means spending five minutes or more doing nothing but thinking up ideas. One idea often leads to another, so the point is to be creative and not worry about which ones are good enough to use. I’ve led brainstorming sessions for business people, and there are always one or two who spend their time shooting everybody else down in flames, but there is no such thing as a bad idea. The right time to think about which ideas to use is when the list is complete and you can begin to pick out the main themes.
To get the most out of your brainstorming, it’s a good idea to impose some structure, but what works best depends on the nature of the question. If it asks for pros and cons, then it might make sense to draw a line down the middle of a sheet of A4 and come up with separate lists of arguments for and against. Other questions lend themselves to mind-mapping, which involves writing down an idea, drawing a circle around it and linking it with other similar ideas by drawing lines between the bubbles. Whatever method you choose, it must give you a list of points to make and also the evidence to back them up. ‘Point, Evidence, Explanation’ (or PEE) is a useful tool for structuring your paragraphs in an essay, and your brainstorming needs to generate enough ‘points’ with supporting ‘evidence’ that you don’t run out of things to say half-way through. You normally won’t have a great deal of time for brainstorming, so you don’t have to write down everything in full sentences. You just need enough key words to remember what you meant. That means using abbreviations for characters’ names, leaving out ‘filler’ words like ‘the’ or ‘a’ and generally playing fast and loose with the normal rules of grammar. Your notes don’t have to be neat either – as long as you can read them yourself…!
Write a plan
Once you have enough ideas, it’s just a matter of putting them in the right order and grouping them together into sensible categories using a standard template. It shouldn’t take more than five minutes, and the right structure will help the reader navigate through the essay, setting up signposts to show what’s going to be discussed. “Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, tell ’em, then tell ’em what you told ’em!” That may sound a bit repetitive, but it’s a good way to make your essay clear, readable and well structured. Take a clean sheet of A4, draw lines a little way from the top and bottom and label the three sections ‘Introduction’ (or ‘Intro), ‘Main body’ (or ‘MB’) and ‘Conclusion’ (or ‘Conc’).
The introduction should sum up the answer to the essay question, list the topics to be covered and – if necessary – explain your approach. For example, if you’re asked whether Macbeth is Shakespeare’s ‘darkest’ play, you might make the following notes:
Literally or metaphorically ‘dark’?
Importance of night scenes
Many evil characters
Pessimistic view of human nature?”
The question is ambiguous. What does ‘darkest’ mean? There are plenty of important scenes set at night, including Macbeth’s encounters with the witches and his murder of Duncan, but the play is also about the evil of ambition and the lengths it drives us to – whether or not Shakespeare himself believed human nature was fundamentally sinful. Your introduction will make these points, set out your own interpretation and list the areas you’ve decided are within the scope of the question.
The main body should sketch out the meat of the essay, with a section for each topic and every point backed up by some sort of evidence, either a quotation, a statistic or an episode in the story. Your notes might include the following:
P: Night scenes are important – pathetic fallacy
E: Witches, murder of Duncan
P: There are many evil characters (witches, Lady M, M’s own ambition)
E: ‘oftentimes to win us to our harm/The instruments of darkness tell us truths’
E: ‘Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself’
P: S’s view of human nature is hard to find
E: Keats’s ‘negative capability’
Yes, the encounter with the witches takes place at night, but the ideas of literal and metaphorical darkness are deliberately mixed together. This is the pathetic fallacy at work, creating a mood of uncertainty, fear and foreboding through stage lighting and sound effects. The witches (and Lady Macbeth) do encourage Macbeth in murdering Duncan and doing whatever he has to do to wear and keep the crown, but Macbeth’s own ambition is the root cause. This is not a morality tale about human nature in general. In fact, as the poet John Keats pointed out, Shakespeare possesses a kind of ‘negative capability’ that makes it almost impossible to ‘hear’ his voice and opinions in those of his characters.
Finally, the conclusion should mirror the introduction by repeating the answer to the question and recapping the topics discussed or points made plus any more general comments you may want to make.
Write the essay
The most important point to make here is that you should stick to the plan. It’s very tempting to go off on a tangent when you have a good idea on the spur of the moment, but it can too often lead you off track. If the idea is good enough, by all means include it, but make sure it fits into your plan first and change the template accordingly.
You should also try to find an appropriate tone of voice. We all use different kinds of words when we’re talking (or writing) to different people, and the language we use for essays should be careful, mature and precise. Hamlet might be ‘gobsmacked’ when he accidentally stabs Polonius through the tapestry, but there’s probably a better word to use…!
In the PEE format, each paragraph should begin with a sentence containing the point you want to make (taken from your plan). After that, you should introduce the evidence to back it up (also from your plan), followed by a more detailed explanation.
Quotations should be short and sharp. I understand the temptation to write down a long quotation just to make it look like your essay is longer than it really is, but examiners are wise to that trick! Try to find instead the key word or phrase that best supports your argument and build it into one of your own sentences. If you want to miss out a few words, use the ellipsis (…). If you want to change the quotation to make it fit grammatically, put your changes in square brackets.
Try to avoid waffle. I know it’s sometimes difficult to think of enough to write, but expressions such as ‘it says in the text that…’ or ‘the author says that he thinks that…’ are just a waste of space. Quality is more important than quantity – at least, that’s what I told the tutor who interviewed me for Oxford when he complained I hadn’t written very much!
Say what you mean and mean what you say. It’s sometimes very tempting to write something because it sounds academic or impressive or professional even though you don’t really mean it. Try to avoid it if possible. The worst sin is to plagiarise a critic whose book you might have read. Copying someone else’s work is bad enough, but copying it when you don’t even agree with it is even worse!
Demonstrate your knowledge. Nobody likes a show-off, but the examiner has to judge you on the basis of your essay alone, so take every opportunity to drop handy pieces of literary trivia into your answer, particularly if they relate to the broader genre or literary period to which the text belongs. If you can show that you know about the historical or cultural context as well as the text itself, then you’ll stand out from the crowd.
One other small point is that essays are generally not written in the first person. It sounds a bit childish to write ‘I think…’ all the time, so you might want to find other ways of expressing an opinion, either by dropping the ‘I think’ altogether or stealing a trick from TS Eliot, whose answer was to (over)use the passive in phrases such as ‘It is thought that…’.
Check your work
The three main points of grammar to check are spelling, punctuation and capital letters, but you should also read your essay through to yourself to make sure it makes sense and says exactly what you want it to say. These are the most important five minutes of the exam, so don’t take the easy way out and claim you don’t have time. Make time!