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How to write an effective essay


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WRITING AN EFFECTIVE ESSAY


It's said that English is different from other subjects because there's never a single right answer to any essay question. However, while this is true, there are still many wrong answers. What makes a right answer? It's one that you can convincingly show has been based on a reasonable interpretation of the text you have studied. And, no surprise, a wrong answer is one based on an unreasonable interpretation that is, on a misreading of it.

What is a 'reasonable interpretation' (and how can you know)?
An interpretation is an idea you come to about what a writer 'really' meant to convey through their text, i.e. an understanding of the 'deeper' meaning or 'message'. It's because the 'surface story' of a text is one thing, and which is much easier to grasp, and the 'deeper meaning' is another, which is much harder to grasp, that an 'interpretation' is needed. Even though your teacher will often help you to understand the deeper meaning, it still comes down to your own 'take' on the text, i.e. on your personal interpretation and understanding.

So, a reasonable interpretation, is a viewpoint you've arrived at following a close study of a text and which - importantly - you can support with evidence that you have taken from the text, usually in the form of brief quotations. But that isn't all - well, not quite. You also need to explain, because this is the study of English, what the effects of the language in the quotations is, showing how it helped the writer to convey their 'deeper meaning'. 

The difficulty is to be able to work out just what it is that the writer wanted to convey. We can't ask the writer, so, because the meaning lies 'between the lines', it needs to be worked out through interpretation. It becomes a viewpoint that you arrive at after reading and thinking about the text, one that shows you've come top a reasonable view of what the writer's purpose was, or at least, was likely to have been (i.e. since we cannot know for sure).

To understand how writers can make meaning that exists 'between the lines', an understanding of how literature works will help.


STUDYING LITERATURE

A literary text, i.e. a poem, play, short story or novel, is an imaginative and creative work that, even if it is made to seem entirely honest, authentic and realistic, is, in fact, fiction at least in the important sense that the facts in it are not really related to the facts of reality. It just seems that way. So, even if a story is set in 'London' and there is a queen called Elizabeth II, these facts of the real world are being used by the writer differently, for his or her own artistic purpose, and not just because they are there.

It is the existence of the 'between the line' meanings that make understanding literature more difficult since the 'layers' of meaning each need to be understood, piece by piece, as the story or text unfolds, with each being pieced together, a little like a jigsaw puzzle, to create an overall sense of what the writer is trying to convey - that is, their idea or 'message'. A writer's message is often a deep, sometimes even a profound, comment about society and life. Writers are often people who are critical of some aspects of their societies and who use their literature as a means not only to entertain their reader, but also to convey, convincingly, their social, moral or political viewpoint. Literature, and art in general, because of its engaging and emotional qualities, uniquely combines enjoyment with persuasion.

BETWEEN THE LINES

The language of literature creates its layers of meaning because it uses language differently from the way it is used everyday. If you read a Wikipedia page or a science text-book, for example, you won't find any language that is 'literary' (except for when the writer quotes from a literary work). The meaning of the language in a text book or encyclopaedia is made by a process called denotation and such meanings can be found in any dictionary.

Literature isn't like that. It is not driven by any desire to speak plainly, such as the writer of a textbook would use. Far from it. The language of literature creates its meaning by a process called connotation.

For our mind to be able to understand (or, rather, interpret) this different kind of meaning, we need to be very proficient users of the language and used to the ways that authors use language. This is because  connotation is far more subtle, with its meaning sometimes seemingly hidden 'between the lines'.

The problem is that if you don’t or can’t sense the connotations of literary language, then you will only perceive the denotations, and will fail to grasp what the writer is trying to say. Of course, you will usually still be able to follow the surface story being told, but you will fail to sense the deeper meanings. This is why literature can never be 'skim read' but requires what is called 'close reading'.

When you write your essay, therefore, it needs to be formed from your own interpretation of the writer's intended meanings. Your teacher's help is often invaluable here but, in the end, your essay will need to be personal to you since it is, in effect, an 'argument' for your own viewpoint, i.e. your interpretation of the what the author intended.

AUTHORIAL PURPOSE

It should by now be clear that to write a successful essay, you need first to have gained a solid sense of what ‘deeper’ meaning the writer was trying to convey, and this is, in GCSE texts, mostly a social or political purpose or comment. It will be some kind of critique of the writer’s society, and one that, because literature must entertain rather than instruct, cannot easily be conveyed directly or 'on the surface'.

Why do author’s choose literature to convey their views when it would surely be so much easier to plainly state them? Partly it's because they can do it - writing a story is a very complex and difficult thing to do and to write one that succeeds is yet more difficult. There is art involved, too, and writers rightfully consider themselves artists with words. Also, literature is such a convincing medium of communication, one that can attract a mass audience. Many millions of people have seen or read Charles Dickens’s novella ‘A Christmas Carol’, but how many have read Dickens’s many non-fiction works? Dickens' social messages about the appalling way, as he saw it, that the Victorian wealthy treated their poor have been conveyed far more forcefully and widely because of the literary form he chose to use.


COHERENCE AND UNITY

These are two terms that are useful and helpful in understanding what a reasonable interpretation of a text can be and how to create one that will lead to a successful essay.

Keep in mind that whenever anyone uses language, it is to bring someone else to want to hear what we have to say. To do this, it needs to be made interesting; and it is surely much easier to make an interesting story than it is to make an interesting political comment.

 As well as using language to interest a listener, it can help to understand how our mind works when it chooses to use language to convey our feelings and ideas. To use language, the mind needs a kind of 'anchor' from which language can be generated. This 'anchor' takes the form of a single dominant idea or view from which language can be generated. No matter how many ideas are conveyed, all of them will be linked to the 'anchor' which can be called a dominant or controlling idea. To convey our feelings, it can take a lot of language, and to do it in the form of a story takes lots more language, hundreds of pages of it at times. The dominant feeling or idea, however, that lies 'behind' the language, doesn’t change – it must stay in the writer's mind throughout helping the writer to create the language that then becomes a text that we hope will explain our view convincingly. This need for a controlling or dominant idea is what makes a text coherent and unified. ‘Coherent’ means that all arts of the text follow on from what went before logically; ‘unified’ means that there is just one dominant idea or topic lying 'behind' the text. That’s how the mind works and it's how texts work, yours, mine, this web page's or even William Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' (all four hours of it).

MORE POCKET MONEY PLEASE!

It might be easier to explain this by referring to an everyday text.

Imagine you are feeling downbeat because your friends outshine you in the pocket money stakes. You want more pocket money; and yet you sense that you daren’t ask outright or you would be refused. What would you do? You would create a text – quite a long one, most likely; and you would use it as an attempt to convince your parent so that your desires to be wealthier are fulfilled. Your text would likely be quite story-like, i.e. engaging and emotional, having you as its protagonist and, as its antagonist, the creator of some kind of conflict you are facing and which having more money would overcome.

If you transcribed and analysed such a text, you would surely be able to work out what its speaker’s overall purpose was, despite the twists and turns the text might take, and despite much of its intended meaning existing below its surface. An important realisation is that such a text would be unified and coherent: it will have a single aim, i.e. it will be ‘unified’; and each part of it will be leading onto the next part, i.e. it will be coherent.

This gives you the clue as to what would make a reasonable interpretation of a text, one that could go on to form a top grade essay. The texts you study for your GCSE will all be unified and coherent. It's true that their writers don't want more pocket money, but certainly they need you to enjoy reading their texts and for the text to bring you to agree with their views on some or other issue. Their text will be a 'manipulative' use of language chosen to engage you emotionally in its story whilst also bringing you to believe that the world would be a better pace if some aspect of it were changed. Many writers want a better world, and think they know how to fix it.

The coherent and unified nature of literary texts means that a single dominant, 'controlling' idea must lie 'behind' them, i.e. that all parts of the text can be shown to be moving the reader towards an understand of the writer's central idea. For you to arrive at a reasonable interpretation of any text, one that can form the basis of a winning essay, therefore, you must be able to show that your interpretation can be supported throughout the text.

AUTHORIAL PURPOSE

To write a successful essay, therefore, the only way is to have first worked out just what you feel the writer was ‘using’ their story for, i.e. the authorial purpose. Only when you have worked this out will you be in a position to explain the writer's methods (which is what most exam questions ask you to do).

A story might be about Scrooge, Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim, all characters devised to entertain and move the reader, but Dickens’ real aim was to convey, persuasively, his anger at (as he perceived it) the greedy and grasping Victorian middle and upper classes. How could he wag his finger, effectively at his own readers, to get them to change their selfish ways? But he found a way: to tell an immersive and moving stories: lots of them (he was a prolific writer). And not only did the society of the Victorian period change dramatically to treat its poor better, but Mr Dickens also made his personal fortune, too (i.e. he got his extra pocket money!).

ESSAYS ARE ARGUMENTS

It is because of the need to offer an interpretation that your essay is, essentially, an argument for your viewpoint. There isn't a single right answer because that 'right' answer lies in your mind as a viewpoint or idea. So, it needs to be argued for to convince your teacher or examiner that what you say is based on a reasonable interpretation of the text.

Like any argument, you need to present it clearly and methodically and to support your points effectively, using the source text. It might have taken Charles Dickens many hundreds of pages to present his social and moral views disguised as an entertaining story, but his idea can be summarised and stated in a single sentence. And ay part of his story can then be used to show how it worked to help him convey this idea. The trick is to choose the parts you feel are the most effective and to use these to build a series of points around to create your essay.


CREATING YOUR ESSAY

PLANNING
Planning time must be spent examining or considering the text or extract in the light of the essay or exam question. This means not starting writing your response too soon and ignoring what others in the exam room are doing. You cannot spend forever, of course, since the clock is always ticking, but you likely should spend rather longer than you think to carry out a 'close' enough reading of your text. Only this will allow you to gain an overall sense of what the writer is trying to achieve with their text, and thus allow you to create a list of the most important and often subtle methods they have chosen to succeed in their purpose - all focused on the specific requirements of the question, of course.

CREATING THE FIRST PARAGRAPH
This is always similar, whatever the essay. You need an opening statement that sets out the view you will be arguing for in the body of your essay. This must be short and clear: a succinct summary of what you think the writer was hoping to achieve focused on whatever the essay question asks of you (some authorial method such as the use of characters, setting, mood, or the creation of tension, etc.). This needs to be filled out a little with sufficient detail from the story and the writer’s background to make sense.

Doing this creates an opening that acts as an overview, summing up all that is to come. It must contain no analysis, for that is to come in the body of the essay. The opening overview should stick to being a statement that touches upon only key points such as the writer's name, the title and date of the work, the writer's purpose and possible background context that might have brought to the mind-set you’ve come to believe they show they have in their text. Added to this will need to be a few very brief details of the main characters, setting and plot, sufficient to clarify or give a context for what view you’ve stated. Remember, though: no analysis. The analysis is to be given in the remaining paragraphs as part of an argument intended to show how the view you’ve stated is a reasonable interpretation to have come to. This is where the time-honoured style call ‘PEE’ comes in to be so useful for the body paragraphs between the essay opening and its conclusion.

FOCUS ON PURPOSE NOT METHOD
Notice that this technique requires you to focus your thinking initially not on what the question likely asks, which is generally on the writer’s techniques or methods, e.g. 'How did the writer do X...'. Your focus is, instead, on the writer’s desires or purposes for the reader or audience, making the question something along the lines of, 'Why did the writer write this and why in the ways he or she did...'?

This doesn't mean that you won't be answering the exam question, far from it, but it will bring you to focus on the one aspect that will reveal the most detailed and subtle explanations for the writer chose the language that they did, i.e. as a means to an end: to manipulate the reader to feel enjoyment but also persuasion.

As an example, if you were answering a question on J.B. Priestley's 1945 play, 'An Inspector Calls', you might write:

"In 'An Inspector Calls', I would like to argue that Priestley needed to create a great deal of tension during the Inspector's second interview with members of the Birling family as a way to bring the audience to share the horror that Sheila Birling felt at her apparent part in Eva Smith's suicide. The various dramatic and linguistic techniques Priestley used to achieve this tension would then help him to develop sympathy for Sheila which would have the effect of helping him convey his socialist political message that, even by 1945 after a victorious World War, despite there being three decades between the setting of the play, Britain was still a deeply divided and patriarchal society, one that most of all disadvantaged the working classes.'"

Notice that such an introduction gives an 'answer' as a part of a briefly stated overview of the play. Doing this lays the groundwork for a successful essay to follow because it starts off a kind of 'argument', one that will take another five or six paragraphs to support effectively.

Such a start to an essay needs to contain no more than a bare overview, with no quotations or analysis. You should then base the remaining 'body' paragraphs upon separate key points each of which support your first-stated view to create an argument that supports it by showing what brought you to feel this way. This explanation needs to be clear and methodical and this is best achieved by working logically through the text chronologically, as it unfolds from its beginning > 'middle' > end, accounting for the effects it creates, the methods used to create them, and the likely purpose for which they were chosen.

And that, in a nutshell, is how to write a successful essay.

 


A USEFUL TIP TO IMPRESS THE EXAMINER

It is a useful technique to 'integrate' words or phrases from the text you are studying directly into your own sentences (still using quotation marks, of course). Don't overdo this technique, but used sparingly, using 'embedded' quotations can help create a very impressive style, one that suggests you have a good grasp of the text and the essay question.

Here are some examples of where embedded quotations have been integrated into the student's explanation. The first is from the opening of John Steinbeck's novel, 'Of Mice and Men':

"'Small and quick' George is presented by Steinbeck as a character in complete contrast to his friend, the lumbering and 'shapeless' Lennie....".

Here is an embedded quotation from J B Priestley's 'An Inspector Calls':
"As the Inspector says, 'We don't live alone' and this is an important message Priestley gives his audience...".

And using John Agard's poem, 'Half-Caste':
"Perhaps Agard also wants his reader to 'come back tomorrow' with a different attitude towards those they might feel are in any way different from themselves....".


ANOTHER TIP – AVOID THE PITFALL OF RE-TELLING THE STORY

Here’s an example using William Shakespeare's play, 'Romeo and Juliet'. Here are the first two lines of the 'Prologue' as spoken by 'The Chorus':

'Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene...'

What follows is a re-telling of the story that avoids analysis of the method the writer used (= low marks):

'Here, Shakespeare is saying that the play is set in Verona where there are two dignified families.'

Compare this with an analytical comment (= high marks):

'I would like to argue that the opening lines of the Prologue can be considered important because they paint a picture for the audience of what could and should be - fairness and dignity. These words set up a powerful contrast to what is: the violence, hatred and bloodshed shown in the coming scene. It will be against this violent backdrop that the pure love of Romeo and Juliet will have to struggle.'

 

 

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SJC: 3rd January 2021