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Top Five Essay Tips

1. Answer the question - whatever it may be that you are asked to write about, you need to plan and prepare. Often it can seem that time spent annotating a text and planning out an answer are wasted in an exam scenario, because you are directly given marks for this. However, if that's how you feel about it, you need to rethink. Nothing good comes from a place of lack: if you haven't spent the time thinking about the text, extract, question, for example, then what do you expect to get marks for? The purpose of an essay response is to share your ideas. If you don't take time to form those ideas and work out how to present them clearly and thoughtfully, your time is most certainly wasted. Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech is not so widely known and remembered because he came up with it on the spot. Rihanna has not had 14 no.1 hits because she made it up during recording. Jess Bezos isn't one of the wealthiest entrepreneurs in the world because he disregarded planning and preparation time. 

2. Answer the question - you must stay focused on the question. This follows on logically from having a plan, and feeds into points 3 and 4. Ever asked someone a simple question only to have them go off on 1001 tangents about barely related things? It's frustrating because it doesn't serve the purpose required. Don't be that person in your essay. NB. it's easy to end up going off the subject if you've run out of ideas; if you haven't spent sufficient time planning and preparing, you're likely to run out of relevant ideas...

3. Answer the question - with an introduction. An introduction is another example of something that is only worth doing if you do it well. And if you write a decent introduction, it can make your entire essay. Unsurprisingly, it is nearly impossible to write a worthwhile introduction if you haven't planned or prepared! Your essay should open with a short paragraph in which you state how you are going to tackle the question. If you were asked, 'How is the theme of love presented in Romeo and Juliet?' you might use your introduction to explain that the theme of love is inescapable in the text as Shakespeare explores courtly love, romantic love, and familial love. You might also explain that your essay will focus on exploring Shakespeare's exploration of familial love through the theme of loyalty. The introduction is also an excellent place to introduce your ideas about why the writer is doing this and how this idea links to any key aspects of context. 

4. Guess what? Answer the question! Topic sentences are crucial to a clear and coherent essay and therefore to answering the question asked. These are the sentences at the start of each paragraph; you could think of them as mini introductions. Put simply, a topic sentence ought to give the reader a clear understanding of what the focus of the paragraph will be. If you've been asked about how Macbeth is presented as violent, each topic sentence should state what element of his violent/non-violent presentation you will explore in more detail throughout the paragraph.

For example, 'Throughout the extract, Shakespeare is presented as rightfully violent in his duty as a soldier and protector of his King and country'; 'Although Macbeth has violent tendencies, his soliloquies tend to unearth his more rational and empathetic views'; 'Whilst it is easy to consider Macbeth as a violent character - given the deaths at his hands - his violence is diminished when in comparison with the non-physical violence of Lady Macbeth'.

5. Explore WHY. Although tips 1-4 are inherent in the idea of answering an essay question, the exploration of why a writer may be doing what they are doing is perhaps less so. 'Why' is perhaps the word I find myself asking the most when it comes to giving feedback on English Literature essays. Yes, Shakespeare may well have been presenting Lord Capulet as livid in Act 3, Scene 5, but why? Dickens could certainly have been using Scrooge's stinginess to comment on the stinginess of the upper classes in Victorian Britain, but why? Stevenson most definitely creates a stark contrast between Hyde's house and all the other homes in the 'bystreet' in chapter 1, but why? 

Sometimes, the 'why' seems obvious; write it down anyway. Sometimes, the 'why' requires you to pause and contemplate, and be tentative: perhaps the writer was trying is possible that the author wanted us to understand...