1. Quality Not Quantity.
The question I get asked again and again with every new student, is ‘how much should I write?’. The only answer I can give is ‘however much it takes to give your answer’. No more, no less. Hopefully it’s obvious that one paragraph is never going to be enough, but apart from that, I can’t give you much guidance.
All I would say is this: examiners hate waffle and essays that go on and on. They are busy people and want you to give them the most information in the tidiest way possible. Do NOT be intidimated by the person you see at the next desk writing 6 sides when you’ve only written 3 – for all you know, most of what they’re writing is irrelevant. Which brings me on to…
2. Answer The Question That’s There – Not The One You Wish Was There
Look at that question. Brainstorm some thoughts. Look at it again. Make a spider diagram or flow chart of how you’re going to write. Look at the question again. Start writing. Pause, look at the question again. Are you with me? It’s far too easy to go off on a tangent when you’re in full flow, and examiners hate this.
It’s also very easy to start answering a question that you’ve practised or revised for, instead of the one that’s there. If the question asks you about the character of Alfieri, and you bang on about Eddie because you know Eddie better, you’ll lose major marks. Keep it to relevant info only.
3. Plan Your Answer
This is easier to do for a homework essay, harder in exams. But don’t be fooled, you can still do it in timed conditions. 45 minutes for an answer is a LONG time. You can afford to take 5-10 mins at the start to get your thoughts in order.
Even if it’s just a few scribbles, some quotes you’ve remembered, or a detailed spider chart, get something down. If you then start to lose your way whilst writing, you can look back at this. Just a little ‘prod’ to remind yourself ‘Oh yeah, I was going to comment on language next’ will keep you on track.
4. Never just re-tell the story.
You will get an F grade if you just re-tell the story. An E at most. Just don’t do it. Remember, the examiner/teacher has read the book or play – they know the story already! They want to see you pick out the relevant parts of the story to answer your question. You don’t even have to write in order of events.
5. Avoid Slang
No, you don’t have to speak like The Queen or a newsreader in your essay, but at the same time, don’t let yourself down with sloppy language. Also, don’t swear! An examiner will deem it ignorant and offensive and it may put them off reading the rest of your good work. If in doubt, ask yourself if you would say it to someone’s grandmother. That pretty much rules out ‘chav’, ‘bling’ ,’slag’, ‘git’ and anything ruder you care to come up with.
6. Use a Little Vocab
If you do know some smart-sounding words, chuck them in! If an examiner has read the words “Rodolpho is a show-off” 50 times already, they’ll be refreshed by the change of pace when you write “Rodolpho has an ostentatious streak to his character“. Keep a vocabulary notebook during your course. If you hear a word you’re unsure of, find out what it means, and write it down.
VARY the words you use. If you get tired of saying “this shows...” when you’re explaining a quote, ring the changes a little. Try “This demonstrates” or “this conveys” or “This gives the reader a sense of…“. Try the thesaurus for plenty of synonyms to often used words.
7. Support, Quote and Explain
So, you’re telling me that Curley’s wife in Of Mice and Men comes across as a lonely person. Great. Now tell me where on earth you’re getting this from.
Unless you support your statements, your answers aren’t going to get you more than an E grade – fact. You must must MUST refer to the text with appropriate quotes and examples that back up what you are saying.
8. Go Further
Marks are given for knowledge of the social, historical and cultural background to a novel or play. In short, what was going on at the time the piece was set. Knowing a bit about this will allow you to comment more on the characters and storylines.
For example – you have identified Curley’s wife is lonely, and explained and supported this with quotes. Now have a think. Why might Steinbeck have made her such an isolated character? What was life like for women like Curley’s wife in 1930s USA? Show the examiner you know the background, and that you’re able to apply it to the book.
9. Quote Elegantly
Here’s an example of how to include a quote, in a manner that would be acceptable to the examiner:
1) “Eddie is concerned about Catherine’s growing sexuality. This is shown by the quote “You’re walking wavy.”
Here’s an example of how to include a quote, in a much slicker and more impressive way.
2) “Eddie is concerned about Catherine’s growing sexuality, as we see from his complaint that she is “walking wavy”.
Example 1) works fine, but is awkward in the way that the writer stops to present the quote separately. Example 2) sounds much better as the quote is worked into the writer’s sentence. Where possible, try to work quotes into your writing like example 2).
10. Don’t Waste Words, and Don’t State The Obvious
It’s a good idea to have an introductory and concluding sentence or paragraph.In a homework/coursework essay, you can spend more time on these. However, in an exam they need to be brief. In both cases, avoid intros such as “Of Mice and Men is a book by John Steinbeck“. The examiner knows this already, and will already be starting to think “timewaster/waffler” as they mark the rest of your work.
Go straight into answering the question. If the question is about the importance of Alfieri in A View From The Bridge, your first sentence could be “Alfieri is important in AVFTB in many different ways, due to his constantly changing role and significant relationships with the other characters. In this essay I will examine how he…etc“. A sentence like this takes the reader straight in to what you’re going to talk about, and gets them interested.
Ditto the conclusion – keep it short and sweet. A sentence that speaks generally about what you have just said will do fine – “In conclusion, Alfieri’s importance cannot be understated, as a key confidante for all the characters, as a narrator and as the man who has the true ‘View From The Bridge’.”
11. SPAG, or QWC as they call it these days.
There are marks for Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar, or Quality of Written Communication as it’s now known. They’re not the most significant marks, but that’s no reason to throw them away. If you know you have trouble with certain words, practise. I’ve seen 18 year olds writing JELOUS and SERTAIN and it’s pretty depressing to mark such work. Remember your basics. Capital letters, full stops, quote marks, commas, apostrophes. They all matter.
12. The Internet Is Your Friend
I don’t mean in terms of finding other people’s essays and ripping them off, or cutting and pasting chunks from Wikipedia into your essay – trust me, teachers and examiners got wise to this kind of thing a long time ago! But there are resources out there – a quick google will bring up plenty of pages with tips like the one you’re reading now, and it’s always worth visiting the excellent BBC Bitesize.
Amazon is a good place to find revision guides, as they will be rated by past users so you’ll know if one is worth shelling out on. You can find any GCSE/A Level book cheaply on Amazon’s marketplace as ex-students sell their old ones, or you could try Freecycle to see if anyone’s got books cluttering up their cupboards – it’s amazing how many people never through their old York’s Notes away! See also; car boot sales and charity shops.
Exam boards have become a lot nicer in recent years about putting past papers online for all to see – try AQA and OCR to give yourself some practice questions and an idea of how examiners mark your work.
Ultimately, there’s no substitute when preparing for an essay or exam than making sure you know the text, and I’m afraid that does involve a) reading, b) listening in class, c) making some notes. I don’t think that’s too much to ask personally, but there’s always some wiseacre who thinks they’ll get an A* by sitting in class with their headphones in for two years. I’m sure you’re all smarter than that though.