How to write exam essay

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1. What is an essay?

  1. An organized collection
  2. of YOUR IDEAS
  3. about literary texts
  4. nicely written
  5. 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 (Im 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 its 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 cant 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 cant 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: its not difficult, and if you dont know how to do it by now go immediately and find out. If you have a problem, ask a librarian, theyd 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. Theyre 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 arent 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 wont even have heard of (but dont count on this: stealing ideas is heavily penalized). Also of dross and garbage, of course. But this is good too, because youll 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. Theres one on every main floor. I cant tell you here how to work it: find out, its 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 arent 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.

Note: this information is now out of date. There is a wonderful database called BIDS that lists articles published since 1981. Its on the Web; its easy to search, very user-friendly, and it emails you the list of articles you are interested in. Remarkable. You need to go to the equally friendly Information Desk in the Main Library to get a login and password first.

3.3 Using the World Wide Web

The Web is rapidly becoming a fantastic resource: easily available, full of material, and with an an answer to every question. However, there are problems, and you should use the Web carefully.


4. Reading, making notes, having ideas

When you have found the books and articles you are going to read, you will need to read them. Here are the golden rules:

(iii) Always carry a notebook
Always read interactively
File and rewrite the notes so you can find them again
Make a bibliography

I will explain. The key is: you are in the business of making a collection of your ideas (do I have to say it again?) about literary texts. These can come to you at any time. If you dont write them down, you will probably forget them. If you do write them down, you will probably think of some more ideas while you are writing. Write them down too. It doesnt matter if they dont seem very good: just write them down. Carry one of those spiral-bound shorthand notebooks at all times, and, if an idea comes to you, however intimate or urgent the accompanying moment, write it down. No-one need ever see this notebook, so you need feel no self-consciousness about what you write in it. This is perhaps the most useful attribute of the shorthand notebook: it beats the censor. The censor is the cause of writers block: the small voice inside your head that tells you that what youre writing is rubbish. In your notebook you can ignore that voice, and as a result you will accumulate ideas. Some will be good, some bad; when you re-read the notes you can sort out one from the other more rationally than while under the stress of creative writing. Thus the censor has been by-passed.

4.1 Making notes

The best time to have ideas is when you are reading, either a literary text or a work of criticism. This is where note-taking comes in. Dont make notes in the form of summaries, unless you need it to help you remember a plot (lecture notes are an exception to this): its normally best to read the thing again (and get more ideas the second time round). But always, always, read with a pen and notebook to hand: read interactively. Think about what youre reading and write down your thoughts. Always. When a thought occurs under these circumstances it will be in reaction to a piece of the text at hand: a quotation. Copy out the quote, and a page reference so you can find it again to check it if necessary, and then put your idea underneath it. If you tie the idea in with the quote in this way, then your ideas will always be text-based and close to the concrete life of the text, as Leavis might possibly have said.

Always write one idea and one idea only per page of the shorthand notebook. Why? So that you can file them. Once a week go through all of the notes that youve accumulated during the week. Take them out of the shorthand notebook: tear them out, or remove the spiral. You put headings on each note, throwing away