© 2021 Steve Campsall
How to write an effective essay
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What is a 'reasonable
interpretation' (and how can you know)?
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'.
To understand how writers can make meaning that exists 'between the lines', an understanding of how literature works will help.
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.
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.
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'.
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.
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.
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
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
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
"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
SJC: 3rd January 2021