There are three key things that you need to bear in mind when using quotations in your essays:
Keep it short:
Examiners want to see that you can pick out with precision the techniques that a writer has used to create an effect on the audience. If you have really long quotations then this suggests to the examiner that you know that something in amongst all those words is having an effect but you can’t quite work out exactly what it is: keeping your quotations down to 2 or 3 highly relevant words shows that you are really sensitive to the effects of individual literary features. If you do need to using a longer quotation then be careful to pick out the key words in your analysis. Having said that there are times when you need to refer to whole chunks of text as evidence. In this case you tend not to actually need quotations because you are not referring to the effects of individual words but instead of something much bigger, e.g. a point about the structure of a text, or about one character continually interrupting another in a speech. So this rule can be broken, sometimes but be careful when you do!
Range of features:
While the most obvious thing to comment on when analysing a quotation are the connotations of the words used you should try to consider as wide a variety of literary features as possible. Remember, exams are all about showing off and everyone can comment on connotations, so what is going to make you different? You might talk about sounds, the rhythm, enjambment, the structure of a piece, what’s foregrounded, what’s not, what’s missing, etc … The best candidates will show how many different features, such as the connotations, the sound and the length of a word work together to contribute to the effect it has on the reader.
Don’t tell the story:
Your quotations should not just repeat what you have already said or be used to ‘prove’ facts about the story. I don’t really care about the facts of the story. I am more interested in the feelings, moods and ideas created. So, for example, a sentence like this is not going to impress me much:
‘Dickens says Coketown is a town full of factories and their chimneys: ‘It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys.’
Well, and so what? You need to be talking about why Dickens said that about Coketown, what impression was he trying to create. A better example of analysis would be the following:
‘Dickens creates a picture of the horrific conditions endured by most during the industrial revolution when he describes Coketown as a grim, dirty and depressing place: ‘a town of machinery and tall chimneys’.
Smoothly embed quotations:
The best way to use quotations, however, is to smoothly include them in your sentence so they sound almost like your own words, rather than words than quotations at all. For example:
‘Dickens creates a picture of Coketown as a grim, dirty and depressing place full of ‘machinery and tall chimneys’.
Notice how the quotation flows smoothly into the sentence with no break at all. This is much more elegant than the big break that comes after phrases like ‘when he says …’. Sometimes you can use [square brackets] to alter the quotation a little bit so it fits smoothly in your sentence butt he best candidates will be able to work quotations into their sentences without much alteration.