For many students, there is only one thing worse than reading English literature and poetry: having to write about it.

If you're a university student, it might not be quite so difficult to tease out meaning and themes of these classic works. However, for teenagers, a demographic with limited life experience, writing about morality and philosophy can be a bit hard... but not impossible if you know the two truths of essay writing.

The number one reason students are tasked to write essays is to help them build thinking skills.

Modern communication methods allow for short bursts of thought, quickly typed out. These messages offer no depth to an argument; only a reaction to what others posted. By contrast, writing essays demands deep thought and requires ideas to be presented logically.

The second reason for writing essays is learning how to address an audience.

Admit it: you talk differently to your friends than you to your teachers and parents. Unconsciously, you have been practising audience discernment your entire life; essay writing just makes the process formal. It causes you to commit to your ideas and forces you to present them so that your intended audience will understand them.

So, if you think about essay writing as a chance to put your ideas into the world, the job becomes less annoying and more challenging... right?

Superprof now shows you how to meet that challenge head-on and walk away with the best marks.

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Planning Your Essay

It seems like, every day, there's a new Twitter feud between high-profile individuals. Of course, we're not privy to the whole debate; all we get are those text-snapshots. Still, they're enough to prove that arguing in public is a messy, disorganised affair.

If you're going to argue, at least keep your thoughts straight.

Your teacher has probably shown you how to build arguments
Educators' jobs includes teaching students how to build logical arguments Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

Of course, an essay is not just so much vitriol and there's no back-and-forth... but you are still building and presenting arguments. To do that well, you have to plan what you want to say.

Luckily, you'll be given a prompt: the essay question will tell you specific aspects of the literary work to analyse and write about. Such aspects might be a particular theme or a character's mindset or thoughts, or even a particular scene.

Before you begin, reflect on the text. And then, write down every key point and idea you have that relates to the essay question in no particular order - we'll get to what order you should present your ideas later.

Keep in mind that you shouldn't simply retell the story in your own words, nor is an essay a rendering of others' opinions. Your audience is looking for your ideas, not soundbites or regurgitation.

Thinking about who will read your essay is vital to how you will write it. Put yourself in your teacher's shoes: from that stack of essays s/he will read, how can you make yours stand out?

Readability is the key. If you're not thrilled to read your own essay, you can be sure that others won't be, either.

Readability goes beyond correct spelling and proper sentence construction; it involves a logical flow of ideas arranged to draw the reader in. For that, you must have a sound - or, at least a novel argument, and build it so that your reader can't wait to find out what the next paragraph contains.

Planning is not just for essays; it's an essential part of revising for your English Literature exams.

How to Structure Your Writing

Now that you've listed your arguments, you may consider arranging them from the most to the least important, the least to the most important or most-to-least persuasive (and vice versa).

Beware that some exam boards expect you to answer the essay question in the order they appear in the prompt. For instance, if your question asks "What are the themes, how do they play out and how do they impact the main character?", your first paragraph should address the themes, the second how they played out and the third, their impact.

As you outline your essay, keep your word count in mind.

Word count can be both a kindness - yippee! you don't have to write too much! - and a tool to discover how concisely you can express ideas. If you only have 800-1000 words allotted, you will have to be economical with your words while still getting your point across.

The first sentence of each paragraph should serve as an introduction to the argument and evidence it contains. Likewise, each paragraph should contain more than one perspective; your audience isn't going to be enthused with a one-sided rant of everything you thought was right or wrong with the texts you're writing about.

A speech should be like a woman's skirt: long enough to cover the subject but short enough to keep it interesting. - Winston Churchill, et al.

Substitute 'paragraph' for 'skirt' and you have the ideal frame of reference for paragraph length.

Winston Churchill gave good advice about public speaking and writing
As you continue to study language usage, remember this critical piece of advice about a woman's skirt. Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Overly long paragraphs may cause your reader to lose interest and, more critically, will throw your essay out of balance. Each of your arguments should be given equal weight, meaning that they should be about the same length and contain about the same amount of information.

We'll cover how you can be sure of that in a mo...

Final thought on paragraphs: they should flow into one another.

Let's look again at our essay question: themes, how they play out and impact the main character. Your essay might flow a bit like this:

  • (end of first paragraph): Overall, love is this text's dominant theme.
  • (beginning of second paragraph): We see how Mr X's mother demonstrates her love for him...
  • (end of second paragraph): He would search for a love as deep as his mother's for the rest of his life.
  • (beginning of third paragraph): His quest for the perfect love led him around the world...

If you need more than one paragraph to address an idea, use connecting words/phrases such as 'however', 'In addition to...', 'Despite that,'. However, to keep things simple (and stick with the word count), it's best to stick with one idea + supporting evidence per paragraph.

Applying the Rule of Three

The Rule of Three is a well-established writing pattern based on the idea that a trio of words is more engaging, satisfying and memorable. They create a short rhythm that makes such nuggets of information more appealing.

Did you notice that we used the Rule of Three in the sentence above?

Groups of three words can make your writing pop; they are short, catchy and a pleasure to read - sort of like a literary earworm. They also make you appear more knowledgeable.

Naturally, this rule does not permit using synonyms of the first word in the trio. You wouldn't write "She was amusing, comical and funny." The point is to convey more information by sparing the words. For instance, 'engaging, satisfying and memorable' represent three different concepts, yet they all have the same goal of keeping the readers' attention.

To keep your notes neat and organised, you might also consider applying the Rule of Three as you analyse English literature texts.

The Rule of Three is not exactly considered a linguistic device but it is very effective at making your writing memorable.

Further Tips to Help Structure Your Writing

The three segments you just finished are the most valuable tips to apply to your essay writing; what follows now are more ways you can save words and make your writing stand out.

Using Linguistic Devices

Ideally, you want your teacher to respond favourably to your writing. You can do that by making use of these language devices that paint pictures in readers' minds with words.

Metaphors, similes and analogies are perfect for that. 'He ran like the wind' (simile) gives the impression that he was very fast and 'Finding a needle in a haystack' (analogy) suggests an impossible task. Personification means crediting a non-human element with a human activity, such as 'The wind combed through her hair.'

You might also try allusions - referencing something familiar to underscore your meaning: 'He's a real Casanova' and 'She's such a shrinking violet!' are two examples of such.

Upon their introduction to English literature, most students are unaware that literary texts are filled with linguistic devices...

Be careful about applying too many such devices, though. For greater effect, use them sparingly.

Use similes and metaphors to make your writing more visual
Those horses ran like the wind - applying similes will make your writing more visual Image by Alexandra from Pixabay

Literary Techniques

These word constructs are just the way to make your writing zing. For instance, alliteration - using a series of words that all start with the same sound. "From forth the fatal loins of these two foes" from Romeo and Juliet is an excellent example of alliteration but we needn't reference Shakespeare to see that such constructs are all around us.

Think Coca Cola, Fantastic Four, Door Dash and House Hunters.

Alliterations are fairly easy to use but anaphora is a bit trickier. Think of Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech; many sentences start with that phrase. That is anaphora... but, be careful! Starting each sentence with "I think..." is not anaphora; it's repetition.

Sibilance works the same way as alliteration but uses soft sounds: th, sh, ch and s. The nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence is a sibilance.

Pop quiz: can you think of any famous literary works that use any of these techniques?

Quotations

Whatever you're tasked to write about, quoting the text can help you make your point. The thing is, how should you do it - and how often?

If a character speaks a line that resonated with you and you're building an entire argument around that line, quoting is appropriate - necessary, even. However, you shouldn't quote entire passages and what you do quote should be short and zippy.

Most importantly, quotes should fit well within your writing. For instance, writing about Frankenstein: 'The doctor "calmly appraised" his monster... ' Only "calmly appraised" is taken directly from the text; the rest of the sentence is yours.

Such text-borrowing is acceptable but you want to avoid wholesale plagiarizing of entire sentences... unless you will include a footnote for reference. And, if you do, offset it so that your teacher can recognise it as a direct quote.

Writing literary essays is not so hard if you can organise your ideas and express them on a progressive framework, using engaging techniques and language. Maybe a bit of practice... or a writing tutor could help?

Now, join the discussion: why do we study English Literature?

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Sophia

A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.