Back to School: How to Get an A*/8 or 9 in an English Lit Essay!
Happy September, everyone!
As we all get our gears in motion to start a new year, I thought I would share my top tips for scoring the highest marks in English Literature essays.
(P.S. Lots of these tips are applicable to other subjects too)
1. Don’t write about the character as if they are real
Unfortunately, this is a common error in English Lit essays. It is absolutely imperative to remember that a character is not a person, but is a construct of the writer in order to present an idea or theme. No matter the question, you should be linking your answer back to the writer’s ideas and theme of the text, even if it doesn’t seem obvious what the theme is on the first inspection of the question. Using the author’s name frequently in your essay will demonstrate that you recognise the character is not a real person - ‘Shakespeare portrays Macbeth as a tragic hero, as defined by Aristotle as…’
2. Don’t analyse the plot
Avoid analysing the plot or when things happen in the text. Don’t write ‘When X happens it makes us think Y’. Instead:
- Analyse the writer’s use of language, structure and form to create meaning
- Do a close language analysis of specific words/phrases, including a sound analysis (plosives, assonance, etc.)
- Do a structural analysis of what happens when and why that’s important (Freytag’s pyramid)
- Do an analysis of form (stage directions, dramatic monologue, etc.)
3. Keep your answer relevant throughout
You need to be explicitly answering the question - not going off on a tangent nor trying to change the question to suit an answer that you want to write. One way of avoiding this is by starting each paragraph with a topic sentence, summarising what that paragraph is going to be about and how it answers the question. Another method is simply by rewording the question into your answer at the start and end of every paragraph. At least. For greater impact, include synonyms of the word, which can also help with the readability of your answer.
4. Avoid PEE/PEEL/etc. where you can
Thousands of students are taught the same, basic Point-Evidence-Explain (or variant) analytical paragraph structure. If you want to stand out, show academic strength, and achieve the highest marks then you must break free from the chains of PEE! (This also applies for your introduction format. ‘In this essay, I will argue…’ gets pretty dull after reading it 100 times)
For my students, I will be teaching them to write What-How-Why paragraphs:
WHAT has the writer done?
HOW have they done it?
WHY have they done it/is it effective?
This way, your focus is always on why the writer has chosen to use that specific language/structure/form, but it allows you to be creative in crafting your response. Being able to discuss the ‘why’ of literature is the key to unlocking the highest grades. Reading through examiners’ reports this summer has made one thing clear - it is not enough to merely spot linguistic devices or structural features. You must explain why the writer has chosen them and why that is an effective choice (or not).
5. Avoid sweeping statements about context
The main advice here is to only include comments about the context of the text if it adds to the analytical point that you are making. They should not be a bolt-on sentence, but they should enhance your answer.
Further, sweeping claims like ‘All Jacobean women were oppressed by society’ is far too vague. On the other hand, a comment like ‘Lady Macbeth is a disturbing example of womanhood because she denies her gender at a time where the role of a woman was clear-cut, even patriarchal, in Jacobean society’ suggests that you have a greater understanding of how context can influence the writer’s choices.
6. A plan is your best friend
Always, always make time to plan your answer. A method I recommend is, first, circling the key words in the question (character/theme, what you are asked to do, where in the text you are asked to look, etc.). Secondly, write all of your ideas down onto the page, highlighting parts from the extract if you have that in front of you. Finally, select a judicious number of points that you are going to talk about (quality not quantity here) and number the order in which you are going to make them.
If you are writing a comparative essay, each paragraph must start and end with a comparative point about whatever it is you are comparing (characters/themes/etc.) I suggest the following format:
‘X is presented in both text A and text B. However, in A the author uses device 1 and 2 to demonstrate X. On the other hand, in B, the author demonstrates X via use of device 2 and 3.’ Then write one paragraph for each text. Repeat this again for another similarity. And again for a third - if you think that is appropriate.
Photo credit @eintsein 🌻