How to write exam essay
How to write exam essay
HOW TO WRITE
1. What is an essay?
- An organized collection
- of YOUR IDEAS
- about literary texts
- nicely written
- and professionally presented .
In other words, the essay must be well structured (i.e. organized) and
presented in a way that the reader finds easy to follow and clear: it must look
tidy and not present any obstacles to the reader. It must have a clear readable
interesting style. But, above all, it must consist of your ideas about literary
texts. This is the centre of it: this, and this only, gets the marks. Not
quotes from critics, not generalisations at second hand about literary history,
not filling and padding; your thoughts, that you have had while in the act of
reading specific bits of literary texts, which can be adduced in the form of
quotations to back up your arguments.
2. Why write in this way?
2.1 Learning how to write
In the English
Department you learn how to respond to literary texts. This is an interesting
and worthwhile thing to do, but unless you become a teacher of English
remarkably few people in later life will be interested in your thoughts about
Jane Austen. What they will be interested in (I'm talking about potential
employers now, but not only them) is your ability to talk, to think, and to
write. This part of the course is where you learn to write: professionally. The
guidelines that follow tell you how to do it, or rather how to learn to do it.
They set a higher standard than is usually asked of a first year
undergraduate essay in this Department. This is for the following reasons. (1)
I think it's my job to offer you the best advice I can, not to tell you how to
get by. (2) If you learn what these guidelines teach, you will get better marks
in all the essays you do from now on until finals. You will surprise the
markers with the quality of your presentations, by producing a better quality
than they expect. (3) You will learn a skill, a not-very-hard-to-learn skill,
that will last you for the rest of your life.
3. Collecting the material
The first task is
to get the material together. The material comes in two kinds: primary and
secondary sources. Primary sources in this case are literary texts: the actual
material that you work on. Secondary sources are works of criticism. Here is
your Second Important Message:
(ii) It is
always better to read an original text and refer to it than to read and refer
to a critic.
The more literary
texts you read and can refer to the better. You can't possibly read too many.
Remember, the key to your essay is the number and quality of your ideas about
literary texts. If you casually refer, from at least an apparent position of
familiarity, to some obscure literary text, you will win the admiration of your
marker. If you refer to a critic, particularly an obscure one, the chances are
his or her eye will glaze over. There are exceptions to this rule, which I will
mention later, but the basic principle is extremely important: original texts
are better than critics, and you can't know too many. Whereas it is possible to
get a first class degree and never to have read any critics at all.
3.1 What are critics for?
The short answer:
to be disagreed with. A longer answer: reading critics can give you an idea of
what the state of critical opinion is about a literary text, to save you
re-inventing the wheel and coming up with some brilliant original perception
that William Empson thought of sixty years ago. Reading critics means that you
can start at the coal face rather than have to dig your own mine. Secondly,
they can stimulate your ideas. But the thing to remember is: only your ideas
obtain merit. Therefore, never, ever, quote a critic just to agree with him or
her. Always, under all circumstances, quote a critic in the following form:
Leavis says x, but I disagree as follows. Or: Leavis says x, and this is very
true, but I would develop his thought as follows. Never, NEVER: as Leavis says,
followed by a quote, followed by nothing. This is very common in undergraduate
essays, and it is simply a waste of space.
3.2 Books and articles
A secondary point about
critics. They publish in two forms, books and articles. You should be familiar
with the library electronic catalogue and the ways of searching it, in order to
find books: it's not difficult, and if you don't know how to do it by now go
immediately and find out. If you have a problem, ask a librarian, they'd be
happy to help. Just spend half an hour simply playing with the library
computer, finding out what it can do. But: books are not usually much use.
They're usually out, as you will surely have discovered by now. And you gain no
special merit points for having read them, because so has everyone else.
Articles are a different matter. Articles in academic journals are (a) not
normally read by undergraduates, and therefore (b) normally on the shelves.
They are more work to track down, but success will be rewarded by the
admiration of your examiner, because undergraduates aren't expected to know
about such things. And they are full of interesting, original, and up-to-date
ideas about literary texts, that, maybe, your examiner won't even have heard of
(but don't count on this: stealing ideas is heavily penalized). Also of dross
and garbage, of course. But this is good too, because you'll have plenty to
The way to get hold of articles is to go to the library and play with the
CD ROM workstation. There's one on every main floor. I can't tell you here how
to work it: find out, it's not difficult, and, as before, a librarian will be
glad to help you; also there are copious instructions. Spend some time playing
with it: the database you want is called the MLA Index. You will come up with a
lot of titles that aren't in the library, which is very frustrating, but from
every search you will find at least a few relevant articles, and some of these
will be valuable. This is almost guaranteed.
Note: this information is now
out of date. There is a wonderful database called BIDS that lists articles published since 1981. It's on the
Web; it's easy to search, very user-friendly, and it emails you the list of
articles you are interested in. Remarkable. You need to go to the equally
friendly Information Desk in the Main Library to get a login and password first.
3.3 Using the World Wide
The Web is rapidly
becoming a fantastic resource: easily available, full of material, and with an
an answer to every question. However, there are problems, and you should use
the Web carefully.
4. Reading, making notes, having ideas
When you have
found the books and articles you are going to read, you will need to read them.
Here are the golden rules:
(iii) Always carry a notebook
Always read interactively
File and rewrite the notes so you can find them again
Make a bibliography
I will explain. The key is: you are in the business of making a collection
of your ideas (do I have to say it again?) about literary texts. These can come
to you at any time. If you don't write them down, you will probably forget them.
If you do write them down, you will probably think of some more ideas while you
are writing. Write them down too. It doesn't matter if they don't seem very
good: just write them down. Carry one of those spiral-bound shorthand notebooks
at all times, and, if an idea comes to you, however intimate or urgent the
accompanying moment, write it down. No-one need ever see this notebook, so you
need feel no self-consciousness about what you write in it. This is perhaps the
most useful attribute of the shorthand notebook: it beats the censor. The
censor is the cause of writer's block: the small voice inside your head that
tells you that what you're writing is rubbish. In your notebook you can ignore
that voice, and as a result you will accumulate ideas. Some will be good, some
bad; when you re-read the notes you can sort out one from the other more
rationally than while under the stress of creative writing. Thus the censor has
4.1 Making notes
The best time to have
ideas is when you are reading, either a literary text or a work of criticism.
This is where note-taking comes in. Don't make notes in the form of summaries,
unless you need it to help you remember a plot (lecture notes are an exception
to this): it's normally best to read the thing again (and get more ideas the
second time round). But always, always, read with a pen and notebook to hand:
read interactively. Think about what you're reading and write down your
thoughts. Always. When a thought occurs under these circumstances it will be in
reaction to a piece of the text at hand: a quotation. Copy out the quote, and a
page reference so you can find it again to check it if necessary, and then put
your idea underneath it. If you tie the idea in with the quote in this way,
then your ideas will always be text-based and close to the concrete life of the
text, as Leavis might possibly have said.
Always write one idea and one idea only per page of the shorthand notebook.
Why? So that you can file them. Once a week go through all of the notes that
you've accumulated during the week. Take them out of the shorthand notebook:
tear them out, or remove the spiral. You put headings on each note, throwing
away the dross (the obvious dross, that is: dross can turn to gold if left to
itself for a bit). Rewrite if necessary; make more notes if more ideas occur.
Then file them in a way that you can find them again. Make sure you know where
all the quotes came from: editions, page numbers, and so on.
For this you need a booklist, either computer-based, or in the
form of a card index. A bibliography, some call it. Every book you read should
have its details listed in your master book-list, your card index or computer
file. Author/s, title, date, publisher, shelf mark, place of publication. I
repeat: every single book and article you read should be in this list. In
(only) two and a bit years' time when you are desperately trying to find
something original to say about The Book of the Duchess for an exam
that is going to happen in a few weeks' or days' time, you will need this
booklist and these carefully filed notes, containing your ideas about literary
texts. Believe me.
gathered the material, read it, made notes, had ideas, written them down on separate
slips, headed and filed them. How do you write the essay?
Like this. You gather together all of the slips you have on the topic of
the essay. You read through, writing new ones and rewriting old ones if more or
different ideas come to you, and making sure each of them is headed. You put
the headings together in a logical order (headings, sub-headings,
sub-sub-headings) on a sheet of paper in the form of an outline of the essay.
You arrange the slips in order of the outline. You assemble the pile of slips,
the outline, and blank paper (or a blank word-processor screen) in front of
you. You write the essay, going from heading to heading and slip to slip. The
essay writes itself, painlessly, because you've done most of the thinking
already. On the way, you observe the following rules and wise bits of advice.
5.1 The outline
The plan you
construct should be in the form of an indented outline. This is a series of
headings and subheadings, indented, like this:
on subheading 1
on subheading 2
and so on...
Behind every essay
there must be a plan of that sort. This essay on essays is built from such a
plan, as you can see. If you remember any lectures that use outlines, you will
(I hope) remember how useful it was to have that written out in front of you so
that you knew where you were in it. Now think of an examiner, having to read up
to a hundred student essays. A decent level of concentration is hard to
maintain. They get lost, and lose the thread, just as you do in lectures. It is
essential therefore that an outline like that must be obvious to him or her,
clearly perceptible in the way the essay is written. In order to achieve this
effect the easiest way is to have one, written out for your own benefit
5.2 The paragraph
The second thing,
in order to maintain and make obvious a clear structure, is to be aware of the
nature of the paragraph as the basic structuring unit in the essay. Basically,
every paragraph should represent and flesh out a heading or sub-heading in the
outline. The paragraph is the building block of the essay. Therefore:
- It should be at least a third to half a page in
length, but not too long or the reader will get lost. No one-sentence
paragraphs! They give the impression that you read the Sun a
lot. It's not good to give that impression.
- It should have what's known as a topic sentence,
near the beginning, that announces the theme of the paragraph. The
paragraph should not deviate from this theme or introduce any new themes.
- The first sentence should somehow be linked to,
or contrast with, the last sentence of the previous paragraph.
- The first paragraph should announce clearly the
theme of the essay. I prefer first paragraphs that quite baldly say
"I am going to do this and that in this essay". (Some don't,
however). In the first paragraph also you should define your version of
the title and make it clear. If the marker knows from the beginning what
you are going to do, s/he can bear it in mind and be aware that you are
sticking to the point and developing it, because s/he will know what the
- The last paragraph is not so important. You can
proudly announce that you have fulfilled the aims of the first paragraph,
if you like, or you can just end: it's up to you.
But the main thing
is to make each paragraph a solid unit that develops a clearly announced
sub-theme of the essay. This way the indented outline that's behind it will be
obvious (not too obvious: don't write subheadings before every paragraph) and
the marker will not have that terrible lost feeling that immediately precedes
giving the essay a low mark in disgust.
I've said so far there are two themes. One, just to repeat it yet one more
time, in case you might have formed the idea that I don't think it's important,
is: your ideas about literary texts are what matters. The other is this:
(iv) Always put the reader first.
Up to now, most of the writing you've done has been for people who are paid
to read what you've written. They have no choice: they have to do it. After you
leave here, most of the writing you will do (in the course of your working
lives) will be writing you are paid to do for other people. They won't, on the
whole, have to read it: if they don't follow it or feel offended by its scruffy
presentation or even are having an off-day and are not instantly seduced by its
beauty and clarity, they will just throw it away and do something else instead.
University teachers are somewhat in between these two classes. On the one
hand, they are in fact paid to read your essays. On the other, if you can
imagine the sheer labor of having to read a large number of long assessed
essays on the same topic, you can imagine that no-one really likes doing it.
It's extremely hard work, and they would normally rather be doing something
else. Therefore, if they're not immediately seduced by the clarity and beauty
of the thing they're reading, they may get irritated. If this happens they
won't be able to throw it away and do something else, so they will get even
more irritated. The end product of this will be: a lousy mark. Or at least, a
worse mark than you would otherwise get, even if the ideas are good. This is a
good thing, in fact, because you can use it to train you to
ALWAYS PUT THE READER FIRST.
Therefore, make your essay as beautiful, compelling, and as professionally
presented as possible, is my advice. Here are some guidelines.
6.1. The list of works
without exception should end with a list of books and articles used. Often a
marker will look at this first, to see what kind of work you've done: where, as
it were, you're coming from. On the whole and within reason, the longer this
is, the better. As long, that is, as you can reasonably show that you have
indeed used the works on the list.
6.2. Styling references
This list should
be set out in a particular and consistent way. The way I use is like this:
Horace Hart, Hart's
Rules for Compositors and Readers at the University Press, Oxford , (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1983) Main Library General Reference 1 Z 253
A.S. Maney and R.L. Smallwood, MHRA Style Book, Notes for Authors, Editors
and Writers of Dissertations , (London: Modern Humanities Research Association,
1981) Main Library General Reference 1 Z 253 Main Library Lang. & Lit. Ref.
1 Z 253
MLA Handbook for writers of research papers, theses, and dissertations , (New
York: MLA, 1977) Gen. Ref. Z 253 and,
appropriately enough, these are the books that tell you how to do it properly.
various ways of styling (as printers call it) references (ie book and article
titles) and it doesn't matter which you adopt, but you should learn one and
adopt it. Hart's Rules is a beautiful little book, the printer's bible
and ultimate authority, and it's very nice to own a copy; the MLA \f16 Handbook
is more use for students (it has a chapter on how to do indented outlines, for
instance--see section 8 for more on this.) I have both, right by my desk, all
the time. These books will tell you how to style your references and how also
to lay out quotations in an essay, how to refer to a book or an article in the
body of an essay, how to punctuate, and so on. I would buy one of them, if I
were you, and use it. I very rarely look at mine now: I more or less know what
they say. So should you: it's the essence of professionalism in writing.
Note (1997). The
English Department has now published its own ideas about how to do
styling. There are here. My advice is, start using this document NOW!
Check also the method for
arranging references in the text. They should be indented on each side and
separated from the rest of the text with a white line above and below, if they
are longer than a line or so. And they should have a reference: author, title,
and page number.
6.3. Type it if at all
No, you don't have
to type it. But if you do then it will be far easier for the reader. And rule
(iv) is? Right: put the reader first. In any case, studies have shown that
particular kinds of handwriting influence (without their knowing it) readers of
literary essays such that they get lower marks. I would guess that typed essays
tend to get higher marks, but this is just a guess. But it is my honest and
truthful opinion that if you hand in an assessed essay (that is, an essay
written for marks that will count towards your final degree) and it's not
typed, you would be making a foolish mistake.
If you are using a
word processor, take some time to get the layout right. Double space, with an
extra space between paragraphs. The first line of a paragraph should be
indented. Number the pages, and put in a header with the short title of the
essay and your name in it. A4 paper. If you want to beautify it with
illustrations, drop capitals, a beautiful title page, hand illuminated or gold
leaf embellishments, that's fine, though it's not expected. (I should perhaps
stress that the gold leaf is a joke.) And: make sure you use the
spelling checker, before you print it.
A note on safe
computing. While you are actually working on a document, it is held in RAM. All
that you need to know about this is that RAM is volatile. This means that if a
passing friend trips over the power cable, pulling it out of the wall, the
computer will go down, and everything in RAM will vanish utterly for ever. What
you will lose is everything you created since you last saved to disk. Moral:
save to disk frequently. At least every ten minutes. Secondly, you should
develop the feeling that whenever you switch the computer off, you are doing a
dangerous thing. Dangerous to your data, that is. When you switch it on again,
there is no guarantee whatsoever that it will come up and present you with your
work. It might crash. It probably won't, it's quite unlikely that anything bad
will happen, but nonetheless this is the time of maximum danger for your essay.
I have been working with computers equipped with hard disks since 1987, and in
that time so far I have had three hard disk crashes. Wipeout. Obliteration.
Everything gone for ever. I have also had computers stolen twice, from
burglary: end result: once more, all the data on the hard disk gone for ever.
As a result, I
never switch off the computer without making sure that all the data on it that
I don't mind losing is backed up. Never. Ever. This means that whatever I've
worked on since the last time I switched the machine off gets copied on to
floppy disks or zip disks. If it's creative writing, like your essay, I usually
make two or even three copies. If I feel really nervous about losing it, I
print the file out on to paper, as a final security. I really advise you to do
One final point:
the last time I had a computer burgled, I was immaculately backed up, and I
still lost some data. Why? I left one of the backup disks inside the machine...
6.4. One side of the paper
When I tell
students to write on one side of the paper only, they give me the same look
that I frequently get from my cat: "Is this man totally out of his
mind?" it says. Look: it makes it easier for the reader. A lot easier.
Rule (iv) is? If that doesn't convince you, try sending any piece of writing
whatsoever to any form of publication whatsoever, written on both sides of the
paper, and see how long it takes for them to send it back. Unread. (They'll
also send it back unread if you don't type it, incidentally.)
6.5. Spelling and
There is a simple
but unpleasant rule about this.
(v) If you
produce work that is mis-spelt and/or badly punctuated and/or ungrammatical,
however good the ideas are, people will tend to think that you are stupid.
They will be wrong; it
will just mean that you can't spell, or can't punctuate, or don't know some of
the grammar rules. Nonetheless, that's what they will think. Since it will
almost always be in your best interests to show that you are intelligent,
rather than stupid, if you have a problem in any of these areas you should do
something about it. If you have a word processor, get a spelling checker.
Persuade someone you know who can spell, punctuate, etc. to read over your work
first and check it: learn the sort of mistakes you make, and don't make them
There are very good
suggestions on how to manage punctuation in the Oxford Guide to
Writing. If you have a problem
with punctuation, I strongly suggest you get hold of this book.
Another much cheaper and also
excellent book is Plain English, by Diané Collinson et al. (book details and
current price) (Library reference).
There is one
particular error that is very common, students quite often are in the habit of
running two or more sentences together and joining them with commas, it is
really a very bad idea to do this, a marker when he or she sees it will become
very irritated, I hope you are by now with the strange breathless quality of
this sentence. Don't do it. A sentence is a sentence. It should end in a full
stop. Putting two sentences together with commas between them is becoming
acceptable in creative writing, but it's still a bad idea to do it in an essay.
Handing it in.
Controversy rages over the best way to bind the thing. My own
view is this. It should be simple, cheap, and easy for the examiner. The pages
should not be stapled, clipped, or in any way fastened together. They should
not be bound! Some people like to bind them in a presentation folder, often
designed by the same person who invented the rat trap, featuring spiked and
sharpened strips of brass. Sometimes the essays come back with the examiner's
blood on them. This doesn't necessarily guarantee a lower mark, but there's
always that possibility. I accept that the motivation behind this kind of
presentation is good, and appreciate it as such, but it's really not a good
idea. Go for loose sheets, each page numbered, your name at the top of each
page, of course written on one side only, and held together in a simple plastic
sleeve: the kind with punched holes down one side and an opening in the top only.
This keeps the essay clean and coherent, is unlikely to lacerate the examiner,
and takes up no extra room, so the essays can be stacked without them falling
all over the place.
7. How to write
Style is not
something I can prescribe in a set of notes like this. Write well: if you have
any problems in this direction, it is for your tutor to tell you about them.
But here are a few random points instead.
This is what linguists call a style
appropriate to the occasion. Be aware: a certain scholarly gravity is called
for. Not too heavy so that it's uninteresting. But avoid colloquial
abbreviations: should not, not shouldn't. Jokes are hazardous: if they don't
[do not follow my practice as regards don't] work, they can cost you a lot.
Avoid them, on the whole: or at least don't be jokey. Don't for goodness sake
imitate the way I'm writing here, either the rather flippant colloquial style
or the somewhat overbearing tone, or the numbered subheadings. This is an essay
on how to write a literary essay, not a literary essay.
Firstly, quote sufficiently but not too
copiously. Not more than a third of a (handwritten) page at the very outside,
and usually just a few lines at a time. It's your thought, not the quotation,
that is the point. On the other hand, never forget that your ideas should be
tied firmly into the text, and that you should demonstrate this by quotation.
Secondly, always give page numbers for your quotations: you will need to know
where to find them again.
No short paragraphs.
A non-assessed essay should be about six
sides of handwritten or four sides of typed A4 at least.
Always make a photocopy of any essay you do
before you hand it in. Academics are very unreliable, and not uncommonly lose essays.
8. Getting it
Here is a summary of things to keep in your mind about
writing an essay. When I mark an essay, they are the things that I particularly
look out for:
- Use of critics (ie don't
slavishly agree with them)
- Range of reference to literary
texts, including obscure ones
- Clear and perceptible
- Interesting ideas tied in
- The paragraph:
2. Topic sentence
3. First sentence, last sentence
4. First paragraph (sets out themes)
- List of works consulted
- Quotations properly laid
out, and references styled properly
- One side of the paper only
- Spelling and
9. Two how-to-do-it
MLA Handbook for writers of research papers,
theses, and dissertations , (New
York: MLA, 1977) Gen. Ref. Z 253.
This is the most useful
text to buy. It has notes on everything you need, including how to do indented
outlines. It's not as full or as easy to understand as the next title below,
but it's all there.
Update (27/3/99): you don't have to buy it any more. It's here, in
a really helpful frame format. This is wonderful. All students should use this
site all the time.
Kane, Thomas S, The Oxford Guide to Writing , (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983).
This book has it all: how
to make an indented outline, how to spell, how to punctuate, how to write a
paragraph, how to take notes, how to sharpen your pencil--everything. The bad
news is that (a) it's rather American, and (b) it's out of print. Go and look
at the short loan copy and photocopy anything you find useful. It's of
particular use if you have any punctuation problems.
10. Read a different
poem every day.
Finally. One of the key
attributes of success in an English course is knowledge of a wide variety of
styles, periods, and topics in English Literature. Here is a painless way of learning this. Subscribe to this
site and they will email you a different poem every day. Take time every day to
read the poem, think about it, and post a short comment on their bulletin
board. The site is frustrating and often bizarre, but the exercise is the most
useful single thing I can think of at the moment for an English student to do.