Page 1 write a better essay What can you do to gain a higher grade from your essays? Plenty! And englishbiz is about to show you how. Essay writing can seem a daunting task even to the best writers - yet it can be made a whole lot easier if you write your essays in the form of a written argument. Read on to find out how...

You might not realise it, but your essays are already very likely in the form of an argument - this is the very nature of essays; but their arguments will likely be vague and wandering. •

What's needed is to create an argument for each essay that is focused, clear and well supported. The way to achieve this? Base each essay on a single main thesis.

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Don't be put off by the word 'thesis' - it's merely the technical name for your overall point of view (i.e. 'how you feel...') concerning the essay title or question.

Until you are a more experienced essay writer, developing a point of view is easiest if your essay title is given in the form of a question.

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If it isn't, your teacher will surely be willing to alter it into one if you ask. An example: if you were given the essay title, 'Discuss Shakespeare's presentation of ambition in Macbeth', your teacher could change this to, 'How does Shakespeare present the theme of ambition in Macbeth?'. This kind of essay question will allow you more easily to develop a point of view about the question on which you will now base your whole essay. You must state, in the first paragraph of the essay, what your point of view is (this is technically called your thesis statement). ƒ Importantly, this point of view must be based upon your interpretation of whatever aspect of the text is asked in the essay question. Here is one possible thesis statement that could be used to create an essay from the above question:

'I believe that Shakespeare presents the theme of ambition in Macbeth through two of the play's major characters, Lord and Lady Macbeth...'.


The remainder of the essay will then be no more than your argument to support this overall point of view (i.e. 'thesis'). This is developed by writing a series of body paragraphs each of which builds up your argument - i.e. your explanation - of why you think this.

With an essay based upon a question like this, it is much easier to develop a solid point of view - one that you can argue for and support in the remainder of the essay.

Having a single overall aim or thesis for the essay means you can easily make sure that each and every body paragraph has a single purpose: to develop your argument one stage further.

Written like this, your essay could be viewed as a means of you writing to your teacher or examiner about why you think the way you do - and showing that it's a sound way to think.

This technique will keep your essay clear and focused - which is a major feature of the highest grade essays.

Sounds easy enough. There must be a catch! Maybe… It can be difficult to see the wood for the trees. Texts - on which essays are based - are often complex; they act at both an intellectual and an emotional level; their language is often subtle, sophisticated and even obscure; their meaning can be unclear, uncertain and open to more than one interpretation; and to gain a high grade, you need to show how the author has made effective choices of language, style and structure to create and shape both meaning and feeling; also, you might need to take account of the author's context. Whew!

Yet, an essay is still just an argument - or it should be!

This is an important realisation for you to get hold of and hang on to. It offers you a structured and clear way of approaching and writing your essay.

It will also make the process of planning and writing your essay easier the more you take its message to heart.

Your thesis - point of view - needs to be developed after a close consideration of the essay question in the light of a sound knowledge of the text concerned. o Sadly, many students have all kinds of other ideas about what should and should not be included in their essays - and it is this that often leads to lost marks. o Equally - and quite amazingly - many students try to write their essays without sufficiently knowing their texts. This is the road to failure - and what a waste of time and effort to try to write about something you hardly know. So... know your text well; and if you need help with a specific text you'll find help here.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of writing an essay is the need to develop a point of view of sufficient depth and complexity to require three or so sides of writing to explain and support it!

But remember that the most successful essays are rarely the longest: quality not quantity is always what wins marks in English essays.

The most effective essay writers always stick closely to supporting their overall viewpoint or thesis (which itself, if you recall, is an answer to the essay question).

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Many writers drift from this focus and lose marks as a result: waffle, vagueness and generalisations are the ways most marks are lost. Writing at length about the surface features of a text rather than focusing on an interpretation of its layers of meaning is another common error that leads to lost marks and a lower grade. Yet more marks are lost because essay writers forget the importance and need to use quotations to add support for their argument's individual points.

Remember, too, that your course is the study of how the English language can be used effectively. What this means is that many marks are given when you explain how the language of each quotation you use helped you to arrive at your viewpoint; you will also gain marks for explaining how it 'worked' within the text as a whole - as a contribution to the writer's purpose. o This means you need to discuss the effectiveness and purpose of the author's choices of language, structure and style.

In a nutshell:

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Never forget that an essay is, by its very nature, an argument - one in which you argue for your point of view concerning the essay question or title. Always work out a sufficiently solid point of view that you can explain, argue for and support at length in a substantial essay. o You will, of course, need to know your text very well indeed. ƒ If you don't you're in a losing battle. You'll struggle to create a strong point of view and so be unable to write an effective essay. ƒ Take time to understand your text. Many students - most especially in exams - rush into their essays and lose marks.


Read and re-read the text until you feel you have understood it as well as you can; for coursework, always ask your teacher for help and... read a good study guide to see what other's think.

Englishbiz - Steve Campsall 2006

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STEP-BY-STEP... 1. Work out a point of view that is your 'answer' to - what you feel or believe about - the essay question.

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This must be based on your interpretation of whatever aspect of the text the essay question asks. Interpreting the text - which means considering its different levels of meaning - is at the heart of your argument and form the main substance of your essay's argument.

2. Use your introductory paragraph to state your point of view.

The opening lines of your essay are where you explain, succinctly, what your response to the essay question or title is. o Your view should be developed from a reflective, thoughtful and insightful interpretation of whatever aspect of the text is asked in the essay question or title.

The purpose of your opening paragraph is to make clear your response to the essay question - that is, to explain the focus of your argument: your point of view. o Stated clearly at the opening to your essay this is very helpful because it shows how you intend to answer the essay question and what general direction your essay will take.

Importantly, in the opening paragraph of your essay you will also need to write an overview of the text, one that gives its 'big picture'; importantly, too, this must be focused on the essay question. o This will show that you have engaged with and digested the detail of three key aspects of the essay: the essay question, the text and its author. o Giving an overview suggests a confident approach and is a hallmark of the best essays. o TIP: It is always impressive to incorporate into your own sentences, using quotation marks of course, a short suitable quotation taken from the text. Some teachers call this using embedded quotations. This suggests confidence and engagement with the text and essay question.

Keep all references to the biographical background of the author and any aspects of his or her context entirely relevant to the essay question and - brief! o Few marks are awarded for this kind information (although that does not mean it might not be useful). The majority of marks in an essay are awarded for the quality of analysis and interpretation. o If your essay actually concerns aspects of context try hard to derive your comments about the context from your quotations; in other words allow the text to introduce the context, otherwise you risk writing a history essay not a literary essay. o TIP: avoid making simplistic and irrelevant value judgments of the text or its author. Saying that Shakespeare is 'a wonderful author' or that you think 'Of Mice and Men' is 'really good' will gain no marks whatever. It's waffle that fills space with empty words that have no useful meaning to your essay.

3. Follow the opening paragraph with a series of paragraphs that form the body of the essay and which provides support for your stated viewpoint.

Having stated your viewpoint in the essay's opening paragraph, now you need to provide support for this. The word 'essay' means an attempt - it is your attempt to argue for your point of view about the question and the text. In the essay's body paragraphs your aim is to: o work through the text's structure logically and, highlighting via the use of quotations, explain how these led you to develop your point of view; o you need to comment on how the language of each of these parts led you to form your interpretation: why did the author choose this particular type of language to make this point in this way? How does it help a) the audience and b) the writer's purpose or theme? o discuss how this individual part of the text forms a useful structural part of the text by leading the reader towards an overall understanding of the themes, messages or purposes of the text.

CRUCIALLY... each paragraph needs to develop a separate and individual point - one that will help to show how different parts and aspects of the text helped you develop your interpretation and viewpoint.

A useful tip is to open each paragraph with a topic sentence - this should clearly make a point that is answering the essay question and, because it is, therefore, clearly focused on the essay question, it will keep your writing on track.

Always aim to provide support for each of the points you make by referring directly to the text.

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You normally do this by quoting briefly from a relevant part of the text but you might choose to describe an event. • It's very important NOT to write a long description of WHAT happens. This is merely retelling the story and loses marks. • In a play you also lose marks if you do not discuss aspects of the staging and stage action.


You will need to follow each quotation with an explanation of and a discussion on aspects of the language the author used in the quotation; this means discussing, for example, how aspects of the quotations literary, poetic or dramatic language works, including mentioning the method the writer used, the effect the language creates and the reasons this might have been done.


You should also aim to show how the quotation helped you develop your overall interpretation of the text.

4. Always to work logically through the text, from beginning to end.

Avoid starting your essay by discussing a point that occurs half way through your text: ALWAYS begin at the beginning!


Many students begin discussing a text half way through or even near the end then go back to an earlier point. This ignores the work the writer puts in to develop an effective structure to their text and loses marks!

IN MORE DETAIL You will have seen from the above that your viewpoint needs to be developed from an interpretation of the aspect of the text asked in the essay title or exam question. This interpretation will, most often, need to take account of the writer and the writer's context.

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You must avoid giving a simple description of what happens in the text (i.e. retelling its story). Instead, focus on working out and discussing the messages 'behind' the text and aim to show how these messages are created, developed and revealed through, for example, aspects of the writer's uses of form, structure and style.

You will also need to show that your interpretation is sound. To do this, you should aim to...

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refer to the parts of the text that support your view and from which your view developed; o this means using brief quotations that will help to show how and why you developed your interpretation; explain how these quotations helped you develop your overall point of view. o this means showing how the text - its language, structure and style - led you to your interpretation of it. This means discussing the writer's methods, effects and purposes.

Many students fail to do this because they...

tell what the writer 'says' by giving a description or a kind of 'translation' of the writer's words into their own version ('rewriting' rather than interpreting the text).

Here is an example of how many students go wrong; don't worry, you won't - but this is a very common mistake: In William Shakespeare's play, 'Romeo and Juliet', these 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 typical 'retelling': an 'overview' or 'translation' that gains no marks:

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

Compare the above 'description' with this analytical and insightful interpretation: 'The opening lines of the Prologue are 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.'

You can, of course, tell the difference between the two. And how many marks would you award to each?

These are the typical kinds of questions you will be asked in your essay:

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in a work of fiction such as a story, the essay question usually asks for your view on a character or theme; in a play, you will also be asked to consider the use of dramatic performance and dramatic devices; in a poem, the way ideas and attitudes have been expressed through the 'compressed' use of poetic language and poetic devices will be important; in a non-fiction or media text, you will probably be asked to discuss aspects of style, audience and purpose; ...and always, the structure of a text - the way the writer develops meaning through the gradual unfolding of ideas and events - will be important to discuss.

Of course, the key to success is to KNOW YOUR TEXT WELL. If you don't, then... read it again! But, this time read it alongside a study guide (which you can download for free from one of the links above).

WANT TO KNOW MORE? READ ON... THE EXAM OR ESSAY QUESTION All essays require similar skills. These are the skills of interpretation and analysis along with an understanding of how language can be made to 'work' to create particular effects in order to achieve certain purposes.

Analysis involves the deconstruction, or breaking down, of a text to reveal:

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its individually effective parts how these parts work and how they contribute to the whole its writer's methods used to create particular effects the reasons why the writer wanted to create these effects.

The marks you receive will depend upon how well you cover three main areas:




What meanings and messages are inferred in the text?

What methods help shape your interpretation and develop levels of meaning?

How is meaning developed across the text?

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WHAT DO SUCCESSFUL STUDENTS DO? 1. They draw meaningful conclusions about a text by considering several aspects of it:

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they consider how the text's genre conventions might help shape its meanings and interpretations the reflect on the circumstances in which the text arose ƒ its author's context ƒ the dominant ideologies that moulded its author's ways of seeing the world ƒ the author's motivation - perhaps related again to the context they work out how the author creates a style that suits the intended audience they think about the writer's intentions or purpose. they consider the varying circumstances or contexts of different audiences at different times and places and how this might alter the way the text is received or interpreted.

2. They open their essay in an individual and interesting way:

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Rather than: (Y-a-w-n): 'In my English essay, I am going to write about X, Y and Z...', (y-a-w-n again!) . What about: 'I have found that I am able to share many of the feelings that X [the writer's name] explores in his short story ' Y' [the text's title] I have been easily able to engage and empathise with the conflicts the protagonist, ' A' [his or her name] is given to face').

3. They begin with a succinct paragraph that gives a clear overview of the text's big picture focused through the essay question or title.

The overview is important; it suggests confidence in the text and the question. In it you explain: o your point of view (i.e. your feeling or conclusion) about the question as it relates to the text o unless it is obvious, the texts you will use to support your view (e.g. author, dates, etc.) o briefly how and why these texts will help you support your point of view. o relevant details of the text's subject matter and content (e.g. its bare storyline, circumstance, main characters, setting, etc.), but only those that are truly relevant to the question o brief details of the writer's motivation such as the circumstances that led to the text being written o what the author wanted to achieve by writing the text: its overall purpose (i.e. its theme or main idea).

4. They make sure each body paragraph opens in a way that is clearly answering the essay question:

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the first sentence of each paragraph expresses a clear point that supports your interpretation as made clear in the essay's opening paragraph. this point is supported by a direct reference to the text in the form of a description or - most usually - a brief quotation. the quotation is followed by a full and careful discussion of: o the method it uses o the effects it creates, if not made clear earlier o the reason or purpose this was done, if not already made clear.

TRY THIS... Switch roles! 'Become' the writer of your text. Put yourself into this writer's shoes - live in their time, be affected by their society - its beliefs and ways, think the way the writer thought, see life through their eyes. Not easy? Okay but not beyond you! Give it a go. Now ask your imaginary 'new self' these key questions: 1. WHAT have I written about - my subject matter? 2. WHO have I written for - my audience? 3. WHY did I write about it - my reason, intention or purpose? Of course, you chose to write for a reason - to get rich and famous, perhaps? Well, okay… and also to entertain your readers? Yes, but probably something more... You live at a particular time, in a certain place and situation (this is called your context) your view of what your society is like affects you because you are sensitive to the human condition - the ups and downs or 'vicissitudes' of life.

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Now ask yourself a fourth question: 4. WHY did I really want to write about this thing - my motivation? And to make your message clear, engaging and interesting, you had to choose words in particular ways. But you were limited by what words could be made to do. For example, you needed to find ways to use words that would engage the attention of your readers, hold onto their attention, involve them in your ideas, and move them emotionally or intellectually towards your way of thinking. You chose language that you thought might achieve these things? So the final question to ask is... 5. HOW have I made my writing effective - my methods? And why did I choose such methods? 6. You could also try this: become an original reader of the text (or member of the audience). How has the text affected you? Why? 7. Finally, revert back to being yourself - the modern reader or member of the audience. Now compare and contrast your interpretations with those of the original reader or audience.

How much relevance does the text still hold for a modern reader?

A discussion of the effects, methods, motivation and purpose should be in all essays

COMPARING TEXTS If you are writing about more than one text, the opening paragraph should be used to give only the briefest details of each text (but succinctly!) a fuller overview for each text can be left until the paragraph where that text is first discussed. Many of the best essay writers also include carefully chosen key words from both the question and the text (in speech marks) in their overview to further suggest confidence with the text and question. A good overview provides a 'springboard' from which to launch your essay proper.

SOME KEY ANALYTICAL IDEAS & TERMS FORM, CONTENT, STRUCTURE AND STYLE FORM Showing you understand how language works is at the heart of your English studies. Words are quite complex things - as well as having meaning, they also have shape and sound. This is called their form. Form is important when you are discussing how a writer makes language work. Form always adds - often very subtly to the way words create meaning. You yourself make use of the form of language all the time. For instance, when you choose to say a word or phrase loudly or softly, or when you write in capitals or lower case, and so on. When you build your words into separate sentences and paragraphs in order to make your meaning easier to absorb - easier on the eye and on the mind this, again, is using the form of words to aid their meaning.

A novelist makes use of form by writing in sentences of a particular length - imagine the effect a very short sentence can have, or a one-line paragraph. The use of dialogue (words inside speech marks) is also an effective use of form as is the use of underlining, bold or italics. Poets are acutely aware of and very creative with form. A poet can makes use of form, for example, by splitting up sentences into lines. Imagine the effect of a certain word staring out from the end of its line (and how lost it might be if it was in the middle of its sentence, as is the case with prose).

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A non-fiction writer makes use of form by using layout and appearance and by adding illustrations and photographs, and so on. All writers use form by using patterns of sound, such as by using alliteration, rhyme, rhythm, onomatopoeia, and so on.

Can you now see how form can aid meaning (i.e. content)? However, when you look at the form of a text, you do need to be sure that it is a sufficiently important for you to comment upon. This will depend upon whether or not it appears to you to be helping the writer create a style that is useful for its audience and purpose. CONTENT Words contain meaning. There are several ways that writers are able to make use of the content or meaning of words that are creative, interesting to readers and effective in engaging their attention: LITERAL MEANING Every word and phrase has a literal meaning. This is its basic dictionary meaning - a 'basic' meaning that is also called its denotation. E.g. 'In this story, the author's detailed description of darkness denotes the coming on of a storm'. 'FIGURATIVE' MEANING This is away of playing with the meaning of words that can certainly help make writing more vivid, emotional and interesting. Words and phrases can be used outside of their literal context and be given a different kind of meaning called a connotation. Using connotation or figurative language, a writer can easily create more than one layer of meaning. The most common way this is done is to use a word not for its literal meaning but for its metaphorical meaning. Another way is to use the word as a symbol. E.g. 'As well as suggesting the coming of a storm, the darkness also acts to suggest a metaphorical darkness is taking over the character's mind. In this way the darkness seems to be symbolising a kind of evil'. Using a pun is another way that meaning can be played with in an interesting way. Punning works because some words - in a certain context - can have an ambiguous meaning, one of which is usually humorous or rude. IRONY Unlike sarcasm which is a form of irony that is often rather crude and easy, irony is generally sophisticated, witty and subtle - and can also be difficult to recognise. Yet it is probably true to say that irony is one of the most common means by which a sophisticated writer creates layers of meaning in a text. Irony makes readers think closely about a text by engaging them with its intended meaning. Creating an 'ironic tone of voice' in writing is much harder than in speech because the original sound of voice and facial expression or body language of the speaker are absent. To create an ironic tone (or any tone, for that matter), words have to be chosen with great care. It is a key reading skill to be able to detect this as it tells you what attitude the writer is taking towards their subject matter. STRUCTURE Meaning builds up throughout a text in ways that are often important to the overall effect on the listener or reader. This is called the structure of the text. Structure is the way a writer consciously 'shapes' a piece of writing to make it as effective as possible for their audience and their purpose.

It is important TO comment on the structure of a text if it is clear that it is an important contributor to the text's overall effect on the reader, e.g. 'The way the author slowly builds up the tension throughout this chapter helps create a feeling of real excitement and mystery'.

STYLE Style refers to the ways a writer or speaker consciously chooses language (i.e. choosing from both content and form) to suit a particular audience to achieve a specific purpose. Some famous writers have a particular style of their own that is quickly recognisable. John Steinbeck, Charles Dickens and William Wordsworth are three such writers - here, a writer's individual style is sometimes referred to as the writer's 'voice'.

Your primary job when writing about any text is to comment on its style - on what are called the stylistic or language choices its writer has made, especially those that seem to you to have been chosen to create a particular effect to achieve a certain purpose. So... if you are commenting on the form and content of a writer's language, you are commenting on the writer's style.

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Good essay writing  

What can you do to gain a higher grade from your essays? Plenty! And englishbiz is about to show you how. Essay writing can seem a daunting...