How to write exam essay

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the dross (the obvious dross, that is: dross can turn to gold if left to itself for a bit). Rewrite if necessary; make more notes if more ideas occur. Then file them in a way that you can find them again. Make sure you know where all the quotes came from: editions, page numbers, and so on.


4.2 Bibliography

For this you need a booklist, either computer-based, or in the form of a card index. A bibliography, some call it. Every book you read should have its details listed in your master book-list, your card index or computer file. Author/s, title, date, publisher, shelf mark, place of publication. I repeat: every single book and article you read should be in this list. In (only) two and a bit years time when you are desperately trying to find something original to say about The Book of the Duchess for an exam that is going to happen in a few weeks or days time, you will need this booklist and these carefully filed notes, containing your ideas about literary texts. Believe me.

5. Planning and structuring

So: youve gathered the material, read it, made notes, had ideas, written them down on separate slips, headed and filed them. How do you write the essay?

Like this. You gather together all of the slips you have on the topic of the essay. You read through, writing new ones and rewriting old ones if more or different ideas come to you, and making sure each of them is headed. You put the headings together in a logical order (headings, sub-headings, sub-sub-headings) on a sheet of paper in the form of an outline of the essay. You arrange the slips in order of the outline. You assemble the pile of slips, the outline, and blank paper (or a blank word-processor screen) in front of you. You write the essay, going from heading to heading and slip to slip. The essay writes itself, painlessly, because youve done most of the thinking already. On the way, you observe the following rules and wise bits of advice.

5.1 The outline

The plan you construct should be in the form of an indented outline. This is a series of headings and subheadings, indented, like this:

Main heading

subheading 1

notes on subheading 1

subheading 2

notes on subheading 2

and so on...

Behind every essay there must be a plan of that sort. This essay on essays is built from such a plan, as you can see. If you remember any lectures that use outlines, you will (I hope) remember how useful it was to have that written out in front of you so that you knew where you were in it. Now think of an examiner, having to read up to a hundred student essays. A decent level of concentration is hard to maintain. They get lost, and lose the thread, just as you do in lectures. It is essential therefore that an outline like that must be obvious to him or her, clearly perceptible in the way the essay is written. In order to achieve this effect the easiest way is to have one, written out for your own benefit beforehand.

5.2 The paragraph

The second thing, in order to maintain and make obvious a clear structure, is to be aware of the nature of the paragraph as the basic structuring unit in the essay. Basically, every paragraph should represent and flesh out a heading or sub-heading in the outline. The paragraph is the building block of the essay. Therefore:

  • It should be at least a third to half a page in length, but not too long or the reader will get lost. No one-sentence paragraphs! They give the impression that you read the Sun a lot. Its not good to give that impression.
  • It should have whats known as a topic sentence, near the beginning, that announces the theme of the paragraph. The paragraph should not deviate from this theme or introduce any new themes.
  • The first sentence should somehow be linked to, or contrast with, the last sentence of the previous paragraph.
  • The first paragraph should announce clearly the theme of the essay. I prefer first paragraphs that quite baldly say "I am going to do this and that in this essay". (Some dont, however). In the first paragraph also you should define your version of the title and make it clear. If the marker knows from the beginning what you are going to do, s/he can bear it in mind and be aware that you are sticking to the point and developing it, because s/he will know what the point is.
  • The last paragraph is not so important. You can proudly announce that you have fulfilled the aims of the first paragraph, if you like, or you can just end: its up to you.

But the main thing is to make each paragraph a solid unit that develops a clearly announced sub-theme of the essay. This way the indented outline thats behind it will be obvious (not too obvious: dont write subheadings before every paragraph) and the marker will not have that terrible lost feeling that immediately precedes giving the essay a low mark in disgust.

6. Presentation

Behind everything Ive said so far there are two themes. One, just to repeat it yet one more time, in case you might have formed the idea that I dont think its important, is: your ideas about literary texts are what matters. The other is this:

(iv) Always put the reader first.

Up to now, most of the writing youve done has been for people who are paid to read what youve written. They have no choice: they have to do it. After you leave here, most of the writing you will do (in the course of your working lives) will be writing you are paid to do for other people. They wont, on the whole, have to read it: if they dont follow it or feel offended by its scruffy presentation or even are having an off-day and are not instantly seduced by its beauty and clarity, they will just throw it away and do something else instead.

University teachers are somewhat in between these two classes. On the one hand, they are in fact paid to read your essays. On the other, if you can imagine the sheer labor of having to read a large number of long assessed essays on the same topic, you can imagine that no-one really likes doing it. Its extremely hard work, and they would normally rather be doing something else. Therefore, if theyre not immediately seduced by the clarity and beauty of the thing theyre reading, they may get irritated. If this happens they wont be able to throw it away and do something else, so they will get even more irritated. The end product of this will be: a lousy mark. Or at least, a worse mark than you would otherwise get, even if the ideas are good. This is a good thing, in fact, because you can use it to train you to



Therefore, make your essay as beautiful, compelling, and as professionally presented as possible, is my advice. Here are some guidelines.

6.1. The list of works consulted

Every essay without exception should end with a list of books and articles used. Often a marker will look at this first, to see what kind of work youve done: where, as it were, youre coming from. On the whole and within reason, the longer this is, the better. As long, that is, as you can reasonably show that you have indeed used the works on the list.

6.2. Styling references

This list should be set out in a particular and consistent way. The way I use is like this:

Horace Hart, Harts Rules for Compositors and Readers at the University Press, Oxford , (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983) Main Library General Reference 1 Z 253

A.S. Maney and R.L. Smallwood, MHRA Style Book, Notes for Authors, Editors and Writers of Dissertations , (London: Modern Humanities Research Association, 1981) Main Library General Reference 1 Z 253 Main Library Lang. & Lit. Ref. 1 Z 253
MLA Handbook for writers of research papers, theses, and dissertations , (New York: MLA, 1977) Gen. Ref. Z 253 and, appropriately enough, these are the books that tell you how to do it properly.

There are various ways of styling (as printers call it) references (ie book and article titles) and it doesnt matter which you adopt, but you should learn one and adopt it. Harts Rules is a beautiful little book, the printers bible and ultimate authority, and its very nice to own a copy; the MLA \f16 Handbook is more use for students (it has a chapter on how to do indented outlines, for instance--see section 8 for more on this.) I have both, right by my desk, all the time. These books will tell you how to style your references and how also to lay out quotations in an essay, how to refer to a book or an article in the body of an essay, how to punctuate, and so on. I would buy one of them, if I were you, and use it. I very rarely look at mine now: I more or less know what they say. So should you: its the essence of professionalism in writing.

Note (1997). The English Department has now published its own ideas about how to do styling. There are here. My advice is, start using this document NOW!

Check also the method for arranging references in the text. They should be indented on each side and separated from the rest of the text with a white line above and below, if they are longer than a line or so. And they should have a reference: author, title, and page number.

6.3. Type it if at all possible

No, you dont have to type it. But if you do then it will be far easier for the reader. And rule (iv) is? Right: put the reader first. In any case, stud