2017 Steve Campsall


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essay writing skills

When you start an essay, it is a good idea to begin with an
overview of your text as a means of showing you have grasped its big picture. However tempting it is to flatter the skills of the author or whatever else you feel like adding into your introduction, avoid such waffle. Empty words that do not directly engage with the text and help answer the question lose marks.

You can show you intend answering the essay question directly and immediately by using one of its key words in your first sentence or by using a suitable very brief quotation from the text, again integrated within your own sentence. This gives an impression of confidence with the text and the question.


In your overview tell briefly your chosen text is about both in general terms (e.g. 'war...') and more specifically (e.g. 'how soldiers suffered in the trench warfare of 1916').

Now tell what you feel the author wanted to achieve by writing the text and what motivated him or her to write it (e.g. 'Owen wanted to highlight the horrors of a war that seemed to be going nowhere except to cause more and more suffering and the pitiful degradation of soldiers'). To do this well, try to 'become' the author, and try to absorb the context that surrounded you (the effect of the place and situation in which 'you' lived. What you to write? What did you want to achieve)?

Getting this 'what happens' out of the way in the first paragraph in the form of an overview suggests to your teacher or examiner that you have absorbed and understood the text; it also suggests confidence and, most importantly, allows you to move on from telling 'what' to what gains the marks - your interpretation and commentary of...

At all costs avoid 'retelling' or 'translating' the text's surface story: this wastes time and space and gains no marks. Only interpretation gains marks.

Next move on to what are called the 'body paragraphs' of your essay.

As you start each paragraph of your essay, ask yourself:

Is this relevant and helping to answer the essay question in a clear way?

Also make quite certain that each paragraph does no more than support and upon single main point. This point should be, in part, an answer to the essay question and seek to show the author's choices (i.e. methods, language use, structure, style, etc.) produce an effect and why this was done - usually to set a scene, create mood or tension, create a character or develop a theme. And always support your points with a well chosen, suitable and brief quotation or description of the action in a play.

Follow this by a commentary in which you discuss some relevant aspect of the qualities of style and language used in the quotation. For example, did the writer use language or structure to attract the reader's attention, to engage the reader, to help the reader look at life differently, and so on?

Aim to build up your body paragraphs so they develop into a structure that answers the essay question effectively and progressively.

When planning your writing, aim to break down the text(s) into its to find its most parts - ones that will allow you to make a suitable point or statement and ones directly related to the question. Make sure to avoid overly obvious or simplistic points and remember that it is easier and more logical to begin at the beginning and work through the text to its end.

Make sure that the quotations you choose to support your points are significant enough in their effect to allow you to discuss their style and language meaningfully.




This important technique is an ideal way of ensuring that you support and comment each of the points you make to support your overall conclusion about the text and question. It encourages you to remember to develop your own insights into the author's likely motivations and reasons.

Here is an example of this method of analysis in action, based on the poem 'Stealing' by Carol Ann Duffy. The same general process can be applied to any other kind of text - fiction or non-fiction. Used consistently and well, this method will gain you the highest grades available:

1. First make a relevant statement or point about the text that helps directly answer the essay question...

What fascinates me about many of Duffy's poems is the unusual style she uses. It is so different from many other poems I have read on my GCSE course. An example of this is in her poem, 'Stealing'. Right from the start of the poem she begins in a very 'unpoetic' conversational tone:

Be sure that the point made helps to answer the question. Always introduce or explain the point if necessary.

2. Next provide a solid as evidence from the text itself to support your point (keep quotations short and put them inside quotation marks - use a new line / paragraph if the quotation must be longer than a few words...

'The most unusual thing I ever stole? A snowman.'

Notice that this quotation provides good evidence to support the point made it also has a particular style and use of language worthy of commentary.

3. Finally, what your evidence shows. For example, how it affects the reader, why the author might have chosen to use it at this point in this particular text and how it contributes to the whole text. This part of your analysis gains most marks as it allows you to look as deeply into the author's methods and intentions as your knowledge, powers of insight and time will allow.

This style of writing catches the reader's attention easily and quickly because it stands out as different. The reader just want to read on - after all, who would steal a snowman? Duffy writes in a style that almost allows the reader to 'hear' the young person's voice. The words Duffy chooses language and the way she structures these two sentences with the second a short 'minor' sentence makes the poem look and sound unusual. In class, we heard Duffy say in a video that she likes her poems read aloud, as 'performance poetry'. This poem is no exception.

It is the clarity and depth of your commentary about the writer's effective choices of style, structure and language that gains most marks in your exam or essay (and in a play, you must also comment on the writer's use of dramatic techniques and stage action by describing the scene on the stage). It is also important to develop insights into the writer's motivation, reasons and methods.