Writing a commentary or essay on a text you’ve never read before in exam conditions can be daunting, but with the proper approach to it, you can ace your way through it with little to no stress!
Before the exam
- Familiarise yourself with how we read and find meaning in any text.
- What are the effects of different types of structure, narration, rhythm, action, diction, sound, setting, characterisation, figurative language, tone, atmosphere, imagery, subject, themes, ideas, etc.
- Knowing the common devices authors use to create meaning allows you to identify them more easily in any given text.
- Practice, practice, practice!
- Find any past exam papers available, even if they are for a different type of certificate, and practice them under exam conditions.
- Take excerpts out of a random book and practice, whether it be from a library, or your own personal collection.
- The more you practice critically analysing a text, the easier it will become. If you don’t have the time to sit down and write out a complete essay, even planning how you would structure your essay and the ideas you would discuss is beneficial. This really cannot be over stressed, the more you write on unseen texts, the more comfortable you will be tackling another in a serious exam situation.
- If the essay must be handwritten, this will also give you an opportunity to ensure your handwriting is legible and you are used to writing for prolonged periods of time.
- Compare ideas in a group.
- I always find working in groups for English to be highly effective. By discussing a text with a group of friends, someone will probably express an idea you had not considered before and you’ll be more open for alternate interpretations and more likely to recognise them in your own time
- Critique your past essays.
- Whether they were prepared or unprepared essays, identify areas where you need to work on to improve your essay writing.
- Recognise your strengths as well and make an effort to try and include them in all your future essays!
During the exam
- Read the text several times.
- Before reading it, look for anything that immediately sticks out. For poetry, is there a distinctive shape? For prose, how is the text separated - one block of text, or several paragraphs?
- Your first read should simply be for initial impressions. Is there anything that strikes you as important? What is the main idea of the text after only reading it once? What is its tone?
- The second reading should be for content. What ideas are at the forefront? What is the author trying to communicate? Underline and note aspects in the text about this. Colour-coding your annotations can be helpful here!
- In your third reading, you should start noting the style. What stylistic features are prominent? There will likely be a lot on imagery, syntax, diction, structure, etc. Focus on the most important ones and their impact. Is there more to it than meets the eye?
- Deconstruct the question if you are given one so you fully understand what it is asking you to do.
- Probably stating the obvious, but it is so important to understand what the question is asking you to write about. Understanding the question can mean the difference between a standard essay and an amazing one.
- Don’t just identify a familiar word in the question and use it to write about whatever you want. Make sure what you’re going to write about addresses all parts to the question. If you’re asked to write about how and to what effect something has had an impact on the reader, don’t just write about how; you must write about to what effect as well! I usually underline the most important parts of the question so I don’t forget to write about them.
- Define relevant key terms that are important to the question. How is a character made interesting? What is meant by unreliable? Try to subtly integrate these into your introduction.
- Plan your essay.
- An examiner will usually be able to tell the difference between a planned and unplanned essay. Planning gives your essay structure, coherence, and makes it easy to follow.
- You can take a linear structure, addressing aspects of the text line by line. Alternatively, you can take a conceptual approach - discussing narration in one paragraph, imagery in another, etc. In my experience, the conceptual approach usually scores higher, however it is really up to the text you are analysing and what you are comfortable writing with!
- If you aren’t given any prompts or a guiding question, make sure your argument is really clearly outlined in your introduction, or else you’ll leave the examiner guessing as to what you’re writing about.
- Make sure to include important quotes and examples in your plan so you don’t leave them out when you write it.
- If you are stuck as to what your line of argument should be, I usually like to address how various techniques are used effectively to communicate the theme. It’s a general and open ended question that will fit any kind of text, so long as you identify the techniques and devices!
- Essay must-haves:
- Include a macro sentence as the first sentence of your introduction. Draw the reader in with a statement that broadly covers the ideas you are going to cover.
- Every paragraph must start with a topic sentence and end with a concluding sentence that links it back to the aim of your essay. This also ensures that you actually address what you set out to talk about.
- Integrate quotes and examples smoothly into your arguments. Small phrases and individual words especially give your arguments concrete evidence, and allow you to work the detail of the text.
- Proof-read your completed essay.
- There is nothing worse than to come across a simple grammatical mistake that was overlooked in a really well organised and argued essay. Try to read your essay through twice before handing it up to try and identify these stupid mistakes we all make under pressure.
Sorry for such a long post! This turned out a lot longer and more in-depth than I thought it would be, but hopefully it will be helpful to those of you who have any unprepared texts to tackle. Let me know if anything is unclear or if you have any questions here :) xx