Literature Exam Essay Guidelines

In this blog we will explore:

 Personal response

Once, essays were expected to be impersonal, with phrases like: ‘It can be seen’ .or ‘It should be recognised that …’. This form of writing is no longer expected, but giving your views are. You will not get credit for quoting second-hand opinions. Do not avoid reading literary critics because they help deepen your response to literature. Use what you find helpful and ignore what doesn’t fit in with your own analysis of the text. Examiners really do not want to read the opinions of a literary critic in an exam essay, they want to read your response to it. Thus absorb and internalise the most useful ideas of the critics, but do not quote them.

Consistency of style and response is important. There is a temptation to copy others’ phrases. Such borrowings will stand out, because they will be in a different style. Personal response is lost, and personal response is what examiners are looking for.

A suitable register.
The opposite extreme from the highly impersonal approach already mentioned is the highly colloquial approach. An essay is a formal exercise which demands a formal structure and register. Slang and contemporary colloquialisms create an impression of lack of control. Effective communication is essential in any essay, and accuracy is a vital aspect of it.

Writing a ‘correct’ answer
There is no such thing as a ‘correct’ answer to an English Literature question but this does not mean that whatever you write can never be wrong: ignorance or misunderstanding of the text, or judgements based on historical anachronism, will not impress. What is important is a lively argument, well presented and carefully backed up by apt quotations from the text.

Structure and presentation of an essay

A sound knowledge of the text, and a thoughtful and personal critical response, are essential for a successful literature essay. Organising ideas into a clear structure is vital.

Basic essay structure

How many paragraphs you should write and how long it should be depends on how much time you have. In a single hour you will not write much more than three to four sides. Less than two sides (depending on the size of your handwriting) is going to be rather short.

    You need an introduction and conclusion. In class work essays both introductions and conclusions need to be more expansive than in an examination where getting straight into the analysis is preferable.

    Each main paragraph should explore an aspect of the question and have a clear theme or informing idea.

    Points you make have to be illustrated/substantiated by specific textual reference and short, relevant quotations.

More Literature Exam Essay Guidelines

To state an idea, develop and illustrate it, takes at least half a side. In an essay of say three sides, with a brief introductory and concluding paragraph, there will be about four or five main paragraphs.

First, make sure you understand the question – highlight the key words:

Having highlighted key words, while writing your essay, keep checking them to ensure you are not straying into irrelevance.

The introduction

A brief introduction is all that is needed. Do not get bogged down trying to perfect your introduction. All that is needed is a few lines setting out your understanding of and approach to the question Your introduction must be general: leave specific analysis of and quotation from the text for the body of the essay.

Main paragraphs

The main paragraphs must develop an argument in such a way that the examiner can see clearly the way it is progressing. Each paragraph should focus on a specific aspect of the question.

The opening sentence of each paragraph should state the focus of that paragraph. This is the topic or key sentence that makes clear to the examiner (and you) what the paragraph is about. The paragraph should then show how the theme/idea is developed. Each point is stated and then related to (a) detail(s) of the text, and into which quotations are fitted to support the argument you are developing. The quotations need to be short, and blend naturally into the flow of your writing In the main paragraphs:

    The theme of each paragraph should be made clear and kept in focus as the text is discussed.

    Never make assertions about a text without textual support. No credit is given for assertions about a character or theme or language feature which are not related to quotations from the text. Make sure that you relate the textual evidence you provide to the point you are making clearly. If there is any doubt, then the sense of development will be lost.

    NB! Avoid lengthy explanations of the story or poem or play, without clearly relating them to the question posed. No credit will be given for unfocused paraphrase. Rather get into detailed analysis of the text as it relates to your essay topic.

The conclusion

The conclusion needs to be brief, completing the essay in a satisfyingly definitive way. Your conclusion must tie the whole essay together.

I hope you have found some useful guidance for writing compelling essays in Literature Exam Essay Guidelines. For more on writing literature essays, read Writing Literary Essays.

Good luck, and enjoy the challenge if you can!