How to Write the Perfect Essay

Stressed student sitting in a classroom at a table while doing a test

Ah, apparently I’d already written about this a couple of years ago, so this is more of a refresh than a new post.

So recently I’ve been getting a lot of panicked comments and emails about essay structuring and exam technique. For an Arts student this is one of the most important skills to master and once you’ve got your approach sorted, you should find that your grades shoot up. You can know everything about a text, but if you don’t know how to respond to an exam question then you’re not going to get far.

When I was at school this was my speciality! I was a bit lazy when I did my GCSE, but managed to get through thanks to my approach and then excelled when I actually started putting in some leg work at A-level. At university I became the go to person for sorting out essays for my friendship group and I’ve nailed each written assignment I’ve had for about 15 years, so I know what I’m talking about.

Below you’ll find an example essay  I wrote from the previous iGCSE Poetry Selection with a breakdown of what I am doing and why in red. I’ve separated each paragraph with some mini-stars to make it clearer where the breaks are.

*****

Explore how Wordsworth presents the relationship between the natural and the man made worlds.

[Introduction – address the task or question head on. Explain what you think the answer is/your opinion and very briefly the main points you are going to discuss to prove this.

Do not tell me who wrote the book/poem, when or why… it’s simply irrelevant nonsense and wastes time away from your analysis and ideas about the text.]

In this poem Wordsworth explores his joy and inspiration when witnessing a slumbering London interact so perfectly with nature. The combination of the sleeping magnificence and scale of man made structures alongside the perfection of the natural beauty of the morning are presented as being awe-inspiring.

*****

[Analysis Paragraph 1 – once you’ve given me an overview in your introduction, we’re going to dive into your ideas in detail in the main body of your essay.

Start with your strongest opinion or idea relating to the question. Make sure you are focused on one clear point and do not mix unrelated ideas as this will confuse your examiner.

I’ll break down my first paragraph into different sections so you can see what I am trying to do.]

Immediately Wordsworth presents the reader with his sense of being overwhelmed by the image in front of him.

[POINT what is this paragraph about? Try and use the words of the question to keep your paragraphs on track]

This is not just a beautiful sight, but is ‘so touching in its majesty’ this tells us that Wordsworth is not just impressed he is almost lost for words and feels an emotional response the beauty before him, the word majesty might further suggest that this image is somehow godly or divine.

[EVIDENCE – back up what you’re talking about. Depending on the exam and question you’re answering this may be quotation based or textual reference based (explaining something specific, but without using a quotation). For closed book exams and non-extract questions a well-chosen specific reference can be just as effective as a quotation and you’re not being marked on your ability to remember entire texts.

For poetry, I wouldn’t be comfortable answering a question about a poem that I didn’t have 4-5 key quotations memorised to include in my essay. ] 

[EXPLANATION – you may have been taught this PEE method and been used to having separate sentences or sections for each E, but really they belong together. Every time you use evidence you must immediately explain its meaning and significance.

An explanation should do two things. Firstly it should show the examiner you understand what it means (this can be done without stating it explicitly) and secondly it should delve into the significance of the quotation/reference you’ve just referred to. Notice that I’ve actually given three analytical ideas here to stress my understanding: ‘not just beautiful’, ‘almost lost for words… feels an emotional response’ and ‘somehow godly or divine’. It is good practice to explore in as much detail any implications or meaning you have derived, thus justifying why you’ve bothered to include the reference.]

Even in the first line he is hyperbolic as he says that there is ‘not anything to show more fair’, which promotes this quaint image of a city in the early hours being the most wonderful creation on earth, above traditional ideas of beauty that may picture a waterfall or a rainbow. 

[MORE EVIDENCE AND EXPLANATION – I’m still in the same paragraph, but I have more to say about the initial point I’d made. Therefore I am going to explore another quotation or idea that is complimentary to what I’ve just been talking about.]

[*MENTIONING TECHNIQUE – you should not feel like you constantly need to be identifying techniques that have been used in a poem. However, when it feels right or natural to mention it, do. Below I talk about him being hyperbolic because it helps me to explain what I think Wordsworth is doing; however, I wouldn’t necessarily do this all the time. You do not get marks for technique spotting, only for your ability to dissect and analyse a poem.

E.g. If Wordsworth used a simile, I might simply commend on the impact of the comparison rather than showing the examiner that I know what every English Literature student over the age of 11 knows]

His hyperbole demonstrates that this sight has not only impressed him, but has left him deeply touch and effected by the power and beauty of the city working with nature.

[ANCHOR – I consider this a trademark of mine, but I am sure I’ve actually just stolen it from someone else and forgotten.

An anchor is something that holds a ship in one place on a turbulent sea and if you can’t see why that analogy is appropriate for an essay written in the pressure environment of an exam then let me enlighten you.

In an exam most people panic and are so stressed about writing something vaguely impressive they often lose track. Some of the hardest working students are left scratching their heads when they get lower than expected grades despite having written throughout the exam and it is often down to deviation. We start making a point relevant to the question and then go slightly off track… then we can’t even see the question because we’ve just followed our train of thought.

The anchor is a crucial sentence that I include at the end of each paragraph where I try to go back and ensure that everything I’ve said in my paragraph firmly addresses the question/task. It is very easy to waffle in essays and to lose track of the question, but this acts as a mini-conclusion or summation to show the examiner what you’ve just demonstrated in the paragraph.

Notice how in my anchor I’ve tried to include specific words relating to the question – ‘demonstrates’ = presents; ‘city working with nature’ = natural and man made worlds. I’ve not done anything dramatic, but I’ve kept myself on track and made my ideas clear for the examiner. This also helps you to begin your next paragraph with the question directly in your mind.]

*****
[POINT AND LINK] This relationship between the city and nature is not a typical one, but Wordsworth describes them complimenting each other to make something not just beautiful, but powerful and moving.
[LINK PARAGRAPHS – an essay is not a selection of independent points or paragraphs and links between your ideas is a simple way to avoid this. You can use connectives like ‘Another way that Wordsworth…’ or ‘In addition, Wordsworth…’ or you can begin as if you are carrying on from the prior point.
Here I’ve said ‘This relationship’, which shows that I am referring to something I have already defined. This is smooth and subtle, but ties my essay together]
[EVIDENCE] The city is personified and apparently ‘wear[s] the beauty of the morning’, [EXPLANATION] which suggests that nature is a changeable outfit that adorns the city and in this case is making it extraordinarily beautiful. [EVIDENCE] He also talks about how ‘Ships, towers’ and other man made structures ‘open unto the fields, and to the sky’, [EXPLANATION] which connects the brilliance of human architecture with a usually non-associated beauty of the natural world; in the early morning the city almost seems at one with nature and these images are interconnected. [EVIDENCE] This image is enhanced with the claim that ‘never did the sun more beautifully steep’ on any natural landmarks, [EXPLANATION]  telling the reader that Wordsworth thinks human architecture can rival mountains and valleys in the awe-inspiring stakes. [ANCHOR] Wordsworth’s complimentary imagery and personification demonstrate the beauty he feels comes from the combination of man and the natural world.
*****

[POINT AND LINK] One of the main reasons the poet presents such an appreciative and admiring tone is that this is not the London he normally knows, but rather is a London that has yet to rise. As one of the busiest cities in the world, London is usually associated with traffic, fumes, noise and bustle, but in this poem it is a tranquil paradise.

[EXPANDING POINT – as I wasn’t convinced that I’d made my point clear enough, I used a second sentence just to make it clear to my examiner. This will also help my explanations be clearer as the paragraph develops.]

[EVIDENCE] First the scene is describe as ‘silent, bare’, [EXPLANATION] in stark contrast to what you may expect of London, which tells us that this poem is written before the day begins and the noise and busyness is yet to start. [EVIDENCE] We are given pleasant imagery of a ‘bright and glittering’ sky that is ‘smokeless’, [EXPLANATION] an image that may remind us of the countryside, peace and quiet and a lack of industry. [EVIDENCE] In addition, the personified river ‘glideth’ by [EXPLANATION]  at its own pace, relaxed and tranquil and not yet disturbed by people. [ANCHOR] This contrast between the real bustling London and this early morning peaceful oasis of London are stark and it is probably this contrast that makes Wordsworth all the more awestruck and impressed.

*****

The houses that seem ‘asleep’ and stilled ‘mighty heart’ suggest this hustle and bustle still exists, but it is resting and allowing man-made architecture to peacefully interact with the beauty of a calm morning in nature.

[This paragraph is really part of the one above. It explores directly complimentary ideas, but really developed from ideas I had when summing up in my anchor sentence.]

*****

[POINT AND LINK] Wordsworth clearly feels that this image he was confronted by is worthy of admiration and goes so far as to romanticise it through his use of the sonnet form. [EVIDENCE] Sonnets are usually associated with love and romance and this is no exception.  [EXPLANATION] The poet feels this is a romantic image, such that it has inspired him to write and touched him emotionally. [POINT AND EVIDENCE] In addition, we see this inspiration through his use of punctuation and caesuras when painting this image. [EXPLANATION] When he describes the city wearing the beauty of natures morning the lines are heavy with punctuation to slow the pace of the poem and allow us to appreciate and ponder the images he presents. 

[COMMENTING ON STRUCTURE – I often get asked whether it is crucial to mention features of structure in response to poetry questions.

I always say no as there is nothing worse than someone shoehorning a comment about how many stanzas and iambs are each line. However, that doesn’t mean you should ignore structure. You don’t mention every line or word of a poem, but instead focus on the bits significant to your interpretation of the poem. The same goes for structure.

If you think that there is an important element of the structure that impacts upon your understanding, which you can relate to the question, then go for it. Just make sure you are analysing and talking about significance rather than just point out structural features.]   

*****

Throughout this poem, Wordsworth has demonstrated how overwhelming and inspiring he feels this image is. The contrast of the size and power of the city interacting with the beauty, grace and tranquillity of nature make the image seem divine and magical. In addition, the use of hyperbole (even down to the romantic structure as a sonnet)  throughout shows that for Wordsworth this is not just a remarkable image, but something truly important and effecting.

[CONCLUSION – yes, you’ve made it to the end of the essay and said all you’ve got to say!

NO! Don’t stop! 

A conclusion is an absolutely crucial part of your essay. Remember those anchor sentences we’ve been using? Well, a conclusion is exactly the same thing. It focuses your entire essay to provide a direct answer to the question. It should touch upon each of the points you’ve explored (not rejustifying or supplying any more evidence and discussion) and direct them at the question.]

*****

Other common questions or issues:

How many analysis paragraphs?

Don’t worry! There is not a set amount of paragraphs you need to write for any exam and the length of your paragraphs will be a key determiner of how many you write.

However, think about the time you have to answer each question. My GCSE students have 45 minutes to answer each, a time that I associate with a minimum of around a page and a half of writing and four well-developed paragraphs, while my Year 12s have 1 hour and thus 2 pages is my minimum and five analysis paragraphs.

Writing pages and pages does not guarantee higher marks, but writing less than these minimum expectations is probably going to make your examiner knock you down a band or two.

What if I don’t understand the question or it is too narrow?

Then you are royally f**ked!

No, that’s not helpful is it?

You should get two choices for questions, so it is usually a case of making a choice. I always advise my kids that there will be one stinker of a question in every exam, which helps to focus their preparation. You need to take a bit of time to ensure you know which question is best for you.

If you get a question about a poem you’d be happy to take on, but the question is a little odd or too specific (i.e. it seems to focus on just imagery or a specific theme that you hadn’t prepared for), then I have a few tricks up my sleeves.

How does Sheers present the theme of loss in this poem?

Use your introduction to take charge of the question.

Sheers explores the concept of loss by contrasting his relationship with his parents as an adult to that of his youth.

Within my introductory sentence I have now broaden the question to focus on the things that I want to write about. Now all I will have to do is use anchor sentences to relate my thoughts back to the question at the end of paragraphs, but I have established the connection between the question and what I want to/am comfortable talking about.

How do I prepare for an exam?

This will definitely be the theme of a later post, but I will give a short answer here.

Be thorough and prepare for every essay you think you could be asked to write. I do this by breaking prose down into key characters and themes. For each character I detail what happens to them, their relationship with other characters and their relationship to the main themes. While doing this I always grab one or two supporting quotations for each relationship. It is much easier to do this if you start early and don’t leave everything to the last-minute.

For poetry, I would suggest identifying all the major themes and narrowing down your selection to two poems on each theme that you’re really confident with. For these I would have written an essay in note form about their meaning, key quotations and connections to theme.

It takes a bit of work, but with this preparation you’ll feel really confident in the exam.

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

13 thoughts on “How to Write the Perfect Essay”

  1. Hello!

    I love this site already,sad that I only found it today though. I love literature but my grades are not at the level that I want them to be at as I am writing my IGCSEs very soon and I would like a second teacher’s opinion on where I am going wrong. Is it possible for me send an essay I’ve written by email?

    1. Hi Maggie,

      I’m glad the site is of some help. In terms of helping out with your essays, I am afraid I have put that on hold as I got a bit overwhelmed by requests previously. However, there are quite a few example essays, annotated and evaluated which should give you a decent start. In addition, my How to Write the Perfect Essay post has a lot of key tips and ideas.

      Hope this helps and feel free to comment again if you have specific questions you’d like me to offer my ideas about.

      Cheers,

      Mr Sir

  2. Love this website,its the key to sucess, this is being very helpful and solving my life thnks all ok u who make my life easier everyday

  3. Bless you!! This site is my saviour. Always hated preparing for English Literature but I suppose it doesn’t seem too difficult now. Would definitely opt for this subject in A Levels if I had you as my teacher 🙂

  4. This website is probably the best thing to happen to me in the two years ive been doing IGCSE. Bt my English literature is still a mess and I was wondering if you could give an email ID or some other way to contact you and solve doubts? I don’t know if you give advice and feedback on essays, but it would be wonderful if you did.

    1. Hi Riya,

      That’s nice to hear, glad to have helped out!

      By all means send me some questions or essays and I am happy to help out where I can. As long as you are happy with me publishing any work you submit then I am quite happy to give my two cents. 🙂

      Cheers,

      Mr Sir

      1. I have no issues with my answers being put up on this website- like the other ones I’ve seen where you give your comments and advice.
        How do I send my answers in? I’ll send the ones for poetry, since you haven’t gotten around to prose yet. Can I send one for the merchant of venice?

  5. This is cool, I am in The AS program as an art student and this i think should help boost my grades not only in Literature but also in History. I am so lagging in essays probably because of bad high school. I have to try keep up with the fast moving pace, and have big problems assimilating what i read, hope you can help with that

    1. Glad to help. You’re right, once you get how to write an essay it makes a lot of subjects much easier.

      Cheers,

      Mr Sir

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *