How to write exam essay

How to write exam essay

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HOW TO WRITE AN ESSAY

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 professionally

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 disagree with. 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.