How to write exam essay

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ies have shown that particular kinds of handwriting influence (without their knowing it) readers of literary essays such that they get lower marks. I would guess that typed essays tend to get higher marks, but this is just a guess. But it is my honest and truthful opinion that if you hand in an assessed essay (that is, an essay written for marks that will count towards your final degree) and its not typed, you would be making a foolish mistake.

If you are using a word processor, take some time to get the layout right. Double space, with an extra space between paragraphs. The first line of a paragraph should be indented. Number the pages, and put in a header with the short title of the essay and your name in it. A4 paper. If you want to beautify it with illustrations, drop capitals, a beautiful title page, hand illuminated or gold leaf embellishments, thats fine, though its not expected. (I should perhaps stress that the gold leaf is a joke.) And: make sure you use the spelling checker, before you print it.

A note on safe computing. While you are actually working on a document, it is held in RAM. All that you need to know about this is that RAM is volatile. This means that if a passing friend trips over the power cable, pulling it out of the wall, the computer will go down, and everything in RAM will vanish utterly for ever. What you will lose is everything you created since you last saved to disk. Moral: save to disk frequently. At least every ten minutes. Secondly, you should develop the feeling that whenever you switch the computer off, you are doing a dangerous thing. Dangerous to your data, that is. When you switch it on again, there is no guarantee whatsoever that it will come up and present you with your work. It might crash. It probably wont, its quite unlikely that anything bad will happen, but nonetheless this is the time of maximum danger for your essay. I have been working with computers equipped with hard disks since 1987, and in that time so far I have had three hard disk crashes. Wipeout. Obliteration. Everything gone for ever. I have also had computers stolen twice, from burglary: end result: once more, all the data on the hard disk gone for ever.

As a result, I never switch off the computer without making sure that all the data on it that I dont mind losing is backed up. Never. Ever. This means that whatever Ive worked on since the last time I switched the machine off gets copied on to floppy disks or zip disks. If its creative writing, like your essay, I usually make two or even three copies. If I feel really nervous about losing it, I print the file out on to paper, as a final security. I really advise you to do the same.

One final point: the last time I had a computer burgled, I was immaculately backed up, and I still lost some data. Why? I left one of the backup disks inside the machine...

6.4. One side of the paper only

When I tell students to write on one side of the paper only, they give me the same look that I frequently get from my cat: "Is this man totally out of his mind?" it says. Look: it makes it easier for the reader. A lot easier. Rule (iv) is? If that doesnt convince you, try sending any piece of writing whatsoever to any form of publication whatsoever, written on both sides of the paper, and see how long it takes for them to send it back. Unread. (Theyll also send it back unread if you dont type it, incidentally.)

6.5. Spelling and punctuation

There is a simple but unpleasant rule about this.

(v) If you produce work that is mis-spelt and/or badly punctuated and/or ungrammatical, however good the ideas are, people will tend to think that you are stupid.

They will be wrong; it will just mean that you cant spell, or cant punctuate, or dont know some of the grammar rules. Nonetheless, thats what they will think. Since it will almost always be in your best interests to show that you are intelligent, rather than stupid, if you have a problem in any of these areas you should do something about it. If you have a word processor, get a spelling checker. Persuade someone you know who can spell, punctuate, etc. to read over your work first and check it: learn the sort of mistakes you make, and dont make them again.

There are very good suggestions on how to manage punctuation in the Oxford Guide to Writing. If you have a problem with punctuation, I strongly suggest you get hold of this book.

Another much cheaper and also excellent book is Plain English, by Dian Collinson et al. (book details and current price) (Library reference).

There is one particular error that is very common, students quite often are in the habit of running two or more sentences together and joining them with commas, it is really a very bad idea to do this, a marker when he or she sees it will become very irritated, I hope you are by now with the strange breathless quality of this sentence. Dont do it. A sentence is a sentence. It should end in a full stop. Putting two sentences together with commas between them is becoming acceptable in creative writing, but its still a bad idea to do it in an essay.

6.6 Handing it in.

Controversy rages over the best way to bind the thing. My own view is this. It should be simple, cheap, and easy for the examiner. The pages should not be stapled, clipped, or in any way fastened together. They should not be bound! Some people like to bind them in a presentation folder, often designed by the same person who invented the rat trap, featuring spiked and sharpened strips of brass. Sometimes the essays come back with the examiners blood on them. This doesnt necessarily guarantee a lower mark, but theres always that possibility. I accept that the motivation behind this kind of presentation is good, and appreciate it as such, but its really not a good idea. Go for loose sheets, each page numbered, your name at the top of each page, of course written on one side only, and held together in a simple plastic sleeve: the kind with punched holes down one side and an opening in the top only. This keeps the essay clean and coherent, is unlikely to lacerate the examiner, and takes up no extra room, so the essays can be stacked without them falling all over the place.

7. How to write

Style is not something I can prescribe in a set of notes like this. Write well: if you have any problems in this direction, it is for your tutor to tell you about them. But here are a few random points instead.


This is what linguists call a style appropriate to the occasion. Be aware: a certain scholarly gravity is called for. Not too heavy so that its uninteresting. But avoid colloquial abbreviations: should not, not shouldnt. Jokes are hazardous: if they dont [do not follow my practice as regards dont] work, they can cost you a lot. Avoid them, on the whole: or at least dont be jokey. Dont for goodness sake imitate the way Im writing here, either the rather flippant colloquial style or the somewhat overbearing tone, or the numbered subheadings. This is an essay on how to write a literary essay, not a literary essay.



Firstly, quote sufficiently but not too copiously. Not more than a third of a (handwritten) page at the very outside, and usually just a few lines at a time. Its your thought, not the quotation, that is the point. On the other hand, never forget that your ideas should be tied firmly into the text, and that you should demonstrate this by quotation. Secondly, always give page numbers for your quotations: you will need to know where to find them again.


Short paragraphs

No short paragraphs.



A non-assessed essay should be about six sides of handwritten or four sides of typed A4 at least.


Copy it

Always make a photocopy of any essay you do before you hand it in. Academics are very unreliable, and not uncommonly lose essays.


8. Getting it back


Here is a summary of things to keep in your mind about writing an essay. When I mark an essay, they are the things that I particularly look out for:


  • Use of critics (ie dont slavishly agree with them)
  • Range of reference to literary texts, including obscure ones
  • Clear and perceptible structure
  • Interesting ideas tied in to quotations
  • The paragraph:

1. Length
2. Topic sentence
3. First sentence, last sentence
4. First paragraph (sets out themes)

  • List of works consulted (properly styled)
  • Quotations properly laid out, and references styled properly
  • One side of the paper only
  • Spelling and punctuation


9. Two how-to-do-it books


MLA Handbook for writers of research papers, theses, and dissertations , (New York: MLA, 1977) Gen. Ref. Z 253.

This is the most useful text to buy. It has notes on everything you need, including how to do indented outlines. Its not as full or as easy to understand as the next title below, but its all there.

Update (27/3/99): you dont have to buy it any more. Its here, in a really helpful frame format. This is wonderful. All students should use this site all the time.

Kane, Thomas S, The Oxford Guide to Writing , (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983).

This book has it all: how to make an indente