How to write exam essay
HOW TO WRITE AN ESSAY
1. What is an essay?
. An organized collection
. of YOUR IDEAS
. about literary texts
. nicely written
. 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 (I'm
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 it's 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 can't
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 can't 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: it's not difficult, and
if you don't know how to do it by now go immediately and find out. If you
have a problem, ask a librarian, they'd 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. They're 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 aren't 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 won't even
have heard of (but don't count on this: stealing ideas is heavily
penalized). Also of dross and garbage, of course. But this is good too,
because you'll 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. There's one on every main floor. I can't tell you
here how to work it: find out, it's 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 aren't 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
Note: this information is now out of date. There is a wonderful database
called BIDS that lists articles published since 1981. It's on the Web; it's
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 don't 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 doesn't
matter if they don't 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
writer's block: the small voice inside your head that tells you that what
you're 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
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. Don't make
notes in the form of summaries, unless you need it to help you remember a
plot (lecture notes are an exception to this): it's 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 you're 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 you've 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 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.
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: you've 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 you've 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:
notes on subheading 1
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
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. It's not good to give
. It should have what's 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 don't, 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: it's 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
that's behind it will be obvious (not too obvious: don't 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.
Behind everything I've 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
don't think it's 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 you've done has been for people who are
paid to read what you've 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 won't, on the whole, have to read it: if they don't 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. It's extremely hard work, and they would normally rather be doing
something else. Therefore, if they're not immediately seduced by the
clarity and beauty of the thing they're reading, they may get irritated. If
this happens they won't 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
ALWAYS PUT THE READER FIRST.
Therefore, make your essay as beautiful, compelling, and as
professionally presented as possible, is my advice. Here are some
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 you've done: where, as it were, you're 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, Hart's 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 doesn't matter which you adopt, but you
should learn one and adopt it. Hart's Rules is a beautiful little book,
the printer's bible and ultimate authority, and it's 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: it's 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 don't 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,
studies 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 it's not typed, you would be making a
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, that's fine, though
it's 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 won't, it's 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 don't mind losing is backed up. Never. Ever. This
means that whatever I've worked on since the last time I switched the
machine off gets copied on to floppy disks or zip disks. If it's 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 doesn't 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. (They'll also send it back unread if you don't type it,
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 can't spell, or can't
punctuate, or don't know some of the grammar rules. Nonetheless, that's
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 don't 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 Dianй
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. Don't 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 it's
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 examiner's blood on them. This doesn't necessarily guarantee
a lower mark, but there's always that possibility. I accept that the
motivation behind this kind of presentation is good, and appreciate it as
such, but it's 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
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
it's uninteresting. But avoid colloquial abbreviations: should not, not
shouldn't. Jokes are hazardous: if they don't [do not follow my practice as
regards don't] work, they can cost you a lot. Avoid them, on the whole: or
at least don't be jokey. Don't for goodness sake imitate the way I'm
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. It's 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
No short paragraphs.
A non-assessed essay should be about six sides of handwritten or four
sides of typed A4 at least.
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 don't 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:
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. It's not as full or as easy to
understand as the next title below, but it's all there.
Update (27/3/99): you don't have to buy it any more. It's 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 indented outline, how to spell,
how to punctuate, how to write a paragraph, how to take notes, how to
sharpen your pencil--everything. The bad news is that (a) it's rather
American, and (b) it's out of print. Go and look at the short loan copy and
photocopy anything you find useful. It's of particular use if you have any
10. Read a different poem every day.
Finally. One of the key attributes of success in an English course is
knowledge of a wide variety of styles, periods, and topics in English
Literature. Here is a painless way of learning this. Subscribe to this site
and they will email you a different poem every day. Take time every day to
read the poem, think about it, and post a short comment on their bulletin
board. The site is frustrating and often bizarre, but the exercise is the
most useful single thing I can think of at the moment for an English
student to do.