Exam Essay Writing – Step by Step Guide



In the English Literature exam you will have to write three essays in 2 hours and 15 minutes i.e. 45 minutes per essay. You will have to write one answer about a prose text, one about a drama text and one about poetry. The paper is split up into Prose, Drama and Poetry sections and you must flick through each section until you come to the questions that are relevant to the texts that you have studied. You will have a choice of two questions for each text. 45 minutes is not long, so you must make sure that you use your time well, Here is what you should do:


Planning: 5 mins

1.       Calm down and read both questions a couple of times so that you come to a sensible and clear decision about which question to answer without jumping the gun.


2.       Decide on a question – but don’t just go with your first response. Think carefully about whether or not you can really write a good, detailed, interesting and original essay about that question. If the other question seems harder does that actually mean that it will give you a good opportunity to show off? Be careful though, don’t take too many risks!


3.       Plan your answer. This is crucial but you must do it quickly. One good way to plan is to jot down the POINTS that you will make in response to the question. For example, if you are writing about how a sense of ‘childhood trauma’ is created in The Barn by Heaney you might make a number of different POINTS about how this feeling is created, e.g.:

·  the child is made to seem small and insignificant

·  the world / objects in it are made to seem threatening and unusual

·  there is a sense of nightmare, suffocation and ‘no escape’ created


4.       A good essay is going to have 5-6 main POINTS that are explored in detail. These POINTS then become a map of the paragraphs your essay will contain. The first paragraph after the introduction will be about the child seeming small and insignificant, the second about the world, etc … This will help you to give a nice clear structure to your essay. Make sure that you put your most interesting points at the beginning and end of your essay so you start and end strongly.


5.       With a bit of alteration the POINTS can also be used as a TOPIC SENTENCE for each paragraph. A TOPIC SENTENCE is the first sentence of a paragraph. Its job is to make it clear what that paragraph is about and how it relates back to the question. So, for example, paragraph one might start: ‘Heaney creates a sense of childhood trauma in The Barn by making the child persona in the poem seem small and insignificant.’ This is a great first sentence because it makes it clear what I will be writing about in this paragraph and how what I am going to say helps answer the question.


6.       You should also briefly jot down some ideas for evidence that you might use to support each point, e.g.:

·  the child is made to seem small and insignificant (objectified as ‘chaff’, insect like verb ‘scuttled’, etc …)


7.       Before you move on to writing you should look back over your points and make one last check that they ANSWER THE QUESTION. There is no point you including the best point in the world supported by the most beautiful evidence if it is irrelevant to what the question is asking you about. By the time you get to the exams you will know an awful lot about your exam texts and unfortunately a lot of what you do know won’t be relevant to the questions that you are asked. So make sure that you’ve filtered out all the irrelevant bits before you start writing so that the only things that end up in your essay are POINTS clearly related to the question.


Writing: 35 mins

1.       The Introduction SHOULD NOT talk about what you are going to do in the essay. You don’t have much time to impress the examiner and so instead of wasting time talking about what you are going to do you need to start doing what you are going to do straight away. Generally speaking essays that start with ‘In this essay I will …’ or ‘This essay will consider …’ are already off to a bad start. See the page on ‘Introductions’ for more information about this.


2.       The Main Body of your essay should contain a series of 5 or 6 paragraphs each of which explores one of the POINTS identified in your plan. There should only be one point per paragraph and paragraphs should follow the PEE structure. Multiple pieces of evidence should be used to support each point and the evidence used should cover a range of different literary features, such as: the connotations of words, sound effects, rhyme, rhythm, images, symbols, etc … See the ‘Features to Consider’ page for more ideas


3.       The biggest part of a Main Body paragraph however, should be the Explanation section. Here you need to spend time really exploring in detail what the connotations of words suggest, how the sounds and repetitions reinforce these ideas, what the structure of the text contributes to this feeling and so on. All of these points need to clearly relate back to question and one way to ensure that you are doing this is to keep referring to key words from the question, in this case ‘childhood trauma’, in your paragraph. However, you have to avoid repeating the same phrase again and again because this will make your essay sound boring, As such you will have to find alternative phrases which mean the same thing or ways of implying an obvious link to ‘childhood trauma’ without actually saying the words, e.g. ‘The child is threatened by nightmarish creatures such as rats and bats, which would clearly be disturbing.’ The ‘which would be disturbing’ bit is a good example of how you might refer to the idea of trauma without actually saying the word.


4.       The Conclusion is also important. Remember you want to impress the examiner and leave him thinking ‘Wow!’ Many people are tempted to conclude by summing up the points they have made in their essay and, while this may seem logical, it’s not exactly the most interesting way to end. There are a number of ways of trying to increase the impact of your conclusion, for example: you might end with a quotation that sums up the feel or flavour of your answer; a bold statement of your point of view; a question left unanswered or an insight into how this question might relate to another relevant issue. See the page on ‘Conclusions’ for more information about this.


Checking: 5 mins

5.       You will want to keep writing for as long as possible in order to get down everything that you want to say but it is really worth spending time at the end of each essay reading back over what you have written and correcting a few quick and obvious mistakes. Very few people get it perfect first time.