Great advice here from our Oxford English graduate tutor, Barney …
An English essay can be a scary thing. Sometimes it’s easy to forget what essays actually are, because we get so used to completing them for homework or trying to write them quickly in exams. The word ‘essay’ comes from French, and its root means ‘to attempt’. I think this is useful to remember. When writing an English essay, all you’re doing is attempting to explain a handful of interesting aspects of some literature. I encourage my students to imagine they’re taking someone round a museum or art gallery. They can point to specific artefacts and pictures and say, “look at this! It shows us this!” Nobody can explain everything about all the objects in the gallery, so just pick the things that seem important and interesting to you. Here are my five top tips for writing great English essays.
Trust your instincts. If you found a line in a poem hard to read, or the rhythm suddenly slow, or a metaphor particularly troubling to visualise, it’s important to remember that this is a legitimate response. As a literature student, you’re your own measuring tool – you can’t check a text against some ‘objective’ test, so you have to trust that your own response is legitimate. There really is no right answer when it comes to this.
Ask ‘why?’ The essential skill for literature students is the ability to keep asking “why?”. For example, “why did this word make me laugh?” or “why is this such a long sentence?” or even “why did someone bother to write this?” These are all really important and useful questions for an essay. The clue that you’re doing this is that you’ll find yourself writing the word “because” a lot. When you ask “why?”, you’re analysing the effects of text, and this is the central demand of almost all marking criteria.
Learn the terminology. One of the other crucial skills you need to demonstrate is the ability to express your ideas clearly. The sheer amount of terminology surrounding literary analysis can be a bit daunting – nobody on earth knows all the terms – but learning some of the most common and useful ones will help your answers stay clear and precise.
Always make a plan. If you’re confident at writing, it’s tempting to dive straight into an exam essay without planning first. But you’ll never regret spending ten or fifteen minutes at the start, roughly mapping what points you’re going to make, and what order you’ll make them in. It’s great to think of new ideas throughout the essay – these ideas are sometimes the best ones! – but if you’ve got a plan, you’ll stick to the question, and, in an exam scenario it’ll help make sure you don’t run out of time before you’ve made all the points you want to.
Read other literary critics. One of the best ways to improve your essays is to read other essays. Famous critics like Christopher Ricks, Virginia Wolf, Terry Eagleton and Susan Sontag have written all kinds of essays on a wide variety of subjects. In the same way that an aspiring painter might learn a lot by looking at some Picasso paintings, writing critical essays makes much more sense if you discover what a really excellent one looks like. Obviously these critics aren’t writing to get marks from an exam board, and they’ll often be dealing with much more complex and difficult topics than most of us could hope to tackle, but it can be still useful and inspiring.