Writing a literature essay

I advised you not to go through the text in order from beginning to end (of the whole or part) when you write your own essays on a literary work. I have done it myself on this website to provide clarity for the general reader and for those who may need a little extra help when studying a book for an examination. You will not achieve high marks if you follow this method (which can lead to repetitiousness.) Where I have, on occasions, explained parts of the plot where it seemed complex or difficult, you should not do this but should assume that the person marking your essay knows and understands the text and its background. Examiners are looking for your analysis and thoughts organized into paragraphs. The advice here concentrates on examination techniques but can be applied to coursework and other essays, though these may well be longer and have more paragraphs.

Remember: the examiner is your friend not your enemy. He or she would love to give you that starred A if only you will do the right thing and make your essay stand out from the rest. For this reason, if you have a choice of texts, it is a good idea to choose one that is less standard: Emma rather than Pride and Prejudice, for example. Your work is then more likely to be unusual. A small point but vital: learn how to spell the names of your authors and characters: the examiner may forgive other spelling errors but you are expected to spell correctly the name of a writer you have been studying for months and it is surprising how often candidates fail on this point. Also learn the spellings of technical terms such as simile. I give spelling hints and definitions of technical terms on my blog:
Top Marks: tips towards better English grammar, spelling, punctuation and vocabulary

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Before you sit an examination, do check the requirements of your examining board so that you know in advance what exactly is being tested and how to allocate your time appropriately. Also check on the approach needed and the assessment criteria. The following advice is general for a one hour examination essay in most situations.

When you read the question (assuming you have a hour to answer it) spend 5-10 minutes planning. This may seem too much but it will avoid wasting time on irrelevance. You will not get marks for anything that does not answer the question and it is easy to stray off the point. Avoid biography. Let us assume that the question asks: “Is Emma a comic novel?”

First: write in rough one sentence that answers the question. This might be: “Emma is a comic novel despite its serious elements because of the irony and wit, the social satire, the comic characters and the happy ending.” All these points you can glean from my Chapter-by-Chapter account. There you have the backbone of your essay. This key sentence, with a little tweaking and expansion could be your opening paragraph. It is acceptable to disagree with the question but you must answer it and so it is best to keep your criticism of the question to one paragraph, possibly the last. If you think Emma is not a comic novel, you should still analyse the comic elements.

Then map out the skeleton of the essay. It should have 3-4 paragraphs, each on one of these sub-topics, comic characters, for example. When you come to write it you might split one of these topics again and have one paragraph on irony and another on wit. Each paragraph should have a topic or key sentence saying what it is about, an expansion of that point and brief quotations or very close reference to back it up. Do not invent quotations: it is better to paraphrase closely than make one up or misremember. Your examiner does know the text. (It is a good plan when revising to note quotations that might serve several purposes: one might be an example of both Jane Austen’s wit and describe a comic character but do not repeat anything. You never get marks for saying the same thing twice. Write these quotations onto file cards with their relevance underneath and stick them somewhere that you look at frequently. This is valuable even if you are allowed to take the book into the examination room as you will save essential time by not having to look up quotations.

A sample plan in answer to this question might be:

Intro: Emma is a comic novel, despite the serious elements (the stress on moral values throughout and the possible tragic consequences of Emma’s meddling) because of the irony and wit, the social satire, the comic characters and the happy ending of marriage for all the main characters.
Para. 1) Irony as dominant mode: irony of situation, dramatic irony, verbal irony.
Para. 2) Wit in J.A’s authorial voice, often assoc. with verbal irony
Para. 3) Social satire: the ball, Box Hill, snobbery etc
Para. 4) Comic characters: Mrs Elton, Mr Woodhouse, Miss Bates (last two have serious side also; caricature?)
Conclusion: The difficulties are overcome, misunderstandings explained, E’s interference has not caused lasting harm, possible tragic consequences do not occur, potentially serious aspects (Mr M’s misery) are delegated to the background and incidents are frequently interrupted by humour. A darker element is often present in comedy but here it does not overshadow the lighter side, although it could be argued that the ending is somewhat hurried, forced and not wholly convincing.

Now write the essay. Do NOT draft the whole thing in rough but do refer to your plan every time to you start a paragraph and check that you are sticking to the point every few sentences. No marks are given for material that is off the point or repeated. You may not need to know what will be in your concluding paragraph at the time of starting to write as you will think of something as you go along. When you have finished the body of the essay you can always just sum up what you have said and, if necessary, pull back into line something that was not quite relevant – but you can also conclude by mentioning another possible viewpoint. You will get credit for showing that you are able to see two sides to the argument. The examiner is marking the play of your mind over the material as well as your knowledge of the text. You will achieve high marks only if you show awareness of the writer’s techniques in achieving the effects you are analysing.

As you will need to deal with the writer’s techniques, you should read my pieces noting where I mention “how” the author is writing rather than “what” is in the text, though you need the substance also. You might notice my words and phrases such as: use of dialogue and speech patterns; irony (verbal irony, dramatic irony and irony of situation); juxtaposition; use of point of view narration; use of a persona; sentence structures; imagery; pace; authorial intrusion; language generally – which covers many aspects. This is not a complete list but your essay should include, throughout, the word “by” or a similar expression as in “by using the imagery of … Only in doing this will you be awarded high marks. The lower but respectable grades are given for understanding the material of the text.
There are two methods of introducing quotations: if they are short you can run them into your sentence but put them into quotation marks and be sure they make sense within your sentence; if they are long they should start on an new line and be inset without quotation marks.

You will see how this is done in my essay on Othello.
Titles of whole texts are in italics in print and can be underlined in your handwriting but your teacher may advise using inverted commas. Titles of poems, chapters etc are in inverted commas.

There is no need to write “I am going to say in this essay” – just say it. You do not need to use “I” as the reader knows this is your opinion. Avoid using “one” as it is too formal in modern English but you can use “we” or “the reader”.

Be positive: even if you hate the book, other people have thought it valuable – and avoid the: “I could do better on the back of a postage stamp” tone. Do not be arrogant; just be brilliant!
Good luck.