When it comes to essay writing, the majority of students fall into one of two camps. One side detests, abhors, loathes and despises the very idea of writing essays.

The other finds organising their ideas challenging, the pursuit of new information to support their theses enlightening and making full use of their language skills invigorating. The only thing this clan bemoans is the word limit. How can you say everything you want to say on a given subject in 1300 words or less?

No matter which of these three groups you identify with or, if you're among the minority of learners who enjoy writing essays but only if it's a subject they like, Superprof arms you with tips to write your best Higher English essay.

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A Nod to the Times

As you likely know, Highers and Advanced Highers have been cancelled this year because the pandemic has so disrupted learning and preparation for them. If you are among these students, you might know your qualifications will result from your course work, instead. That assessment will include different types of essays.

You will be given a topic to write about and what aspects to consider
The topic of your essay and what it should contain is already given to you. Photo credit: Frans & all on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC

Discursive Essays

A discursive essay may be persuasive or argumentative - you will try to convince the reader of your views either through persuasion or present a balanced view of an issue or topic. Effective discursive essays not only discuss a topic but also give arguments related to that topic.

The discursive essay format is rather straightforward: introduction, your position on the topic - for/against, present arguments supporting your views (you may also present an argument against your position if your wordcount allows), and a conclusion.

Reflective Essays

These are more personal; they call on you to reflect on an experience or topic and give your take on it. To do so, you will draw on your thoughts and feelings, both at the time of the experience and now, as you look back on it.

A particularly effective technique for this type of essay is to describe the event, experience or object in clinical terms, and then switching to a more emotional tone as you reflect on your feelings and behaviours as a result of that experience.

Critical Essays

This type of essay provides analysis, interpretation and evaluation of a text. Its primary function is to test your critical thinking skills. Of course, 'critical' doesn't mean you have to nag an issue to death. Indeed, criticising, expressing opinions and passing judgment are not the path to a good grade for this exercise.

As you finish your revision of the works you're to critique, pause to reflect on the themes the texts present - loss, love, morality and suchlike. How are they presented? How do they and the characters change as the story progresses?

As you develop your ideas, remember that all critical essays consist of three components: the central claim, the evidence to support it and a conclusion that restates the main idea and its supporting evidence.

As you write, remember to not summarise the story. It is unnecessary - the Scottish Qualifications Authority assessment team already knows it and, besides, doing so will eat into your wordcount.

Persuasive Essays

Some students say that persuasive essays are harder to write because you're trying to convince your reader that your ideas are the most valuable. Compare that to an argumentative essay, wherein you only need to present facts and you can see how persuasive writing is more difficult... but not impossible.

To get a good grade on this type of essay, you have to reach your audience on an emotional level so that they will see a subject in a new light or think about it differently. That may pose a bit of a challenge, considering that the SQA is your audience but there's no need to worry about their emotional state so long as you include the right elements in your text.

The best persuasive essays are the result of heavy thinking and, hopefully, brainstorming. If your class or study group allows for such discussions, you should engage in a lively back-and-f0rth about the texts you will write about. Once you've mined a few good ideas, think about how you will present them most expressively.

Organise your ideas and then introduce your topic, present your arguments and draw on parallel ideas/examples to reinforce them. Wrap your paper up by restating why your idea is solid, valid... indeed, the best.

Whether or not you have exams to sit, you will need to know how to write each type of essay if you plan to enrol at university. So it's a good idea to keep your skills sharp; to get and stay good at putting your thoughts and ideas down on paper in a logical, legible flow.

The Big Picture

Whether critical, persuasive or any other type of essay, writing can be challenging. Fortunately, our college classes - even if they were taken online, give us a few pointers. Some might say too few pointers.

After all, how is someone with no inclination for writing supposed to suddenly throw out a thousand words, more or less, so that they land cohesively together and communicate what we want to say? That's a panic-inducing argument.

If it's knocking around your head, toss it out; it's not helping you at all. Instead, think about this: you have read the texts you are supposed to report on. You likely have had time to ask a question or two about it, find more information and gain an understanding of the text, whether prose, poetry or drama.

Most important: you are writing from a prompt.

It's not like you have to come up with an idea of what to write about all on your own. That instruction tells you what your assessment of that text should consist of, and pretty specifically, too.

If your college teacher taught you how to use a mind map for critical reading, you should have no problem isolating the elements of the piece you're writing about. If your teacher hasn't shown you how helpful mind maps can be for outlining an essay, you can ask about them or just discover them on your own.

Once you've isolated and catalogued the various elements of a work, writing about it is a snap. You only need to refer back to your map for all of the important information.

A well-written, thoughtful essay is just one part of your English Higher; learn more about them in our companion article.

Mind maps help you organise information for later reference
A mind map helps you organise information so you can easily refer to it later Photo credit: TheCreativePenn on Visualhunt / CC BY

Structuring Your Essay

No matter the type of writing you're tasked to produce, typical Highers or Advanced Highers essay questions are very specific. They generally have three parts, meaning that you will draw on information from at least three of your mind map categories. Those categories are:

  • themes: what ideas are developed and/or explored?
  • characterisation: what motivates the characters? What do they feel and how do they act?
  • plot: what is the initial situation? What conflicts are there and how are they resolved?
  • setting: where does the narrative take place? What era? What environment?
  • narrative: the flow of the story; the coat the plot wears.
    • Is it a first-person narrative or told in the third person?
  • structure: how is this work divided - chapters, acts, verses?
  • language represents the various ways the writer communicates information,
    • a character may speak in a certain dialect or use a lot of similes to convey a high level of imagination

Your essay question might call on you to point out a theme, how it was revealed how it impacted the main character. It might read something like this:

Discuss the main theme of Macbeth and its impact on the king, also how Macbeth changed as a result of that particular theme.

This is an overly simplified example, of course. You can find more (and probably better) examples by reviewing past papers. Still, it should give you an idea of how your essay prompt will target at least three specific categories on your mind map for analysis.

If your question is: 'Write about Lord of the Flies, focusing on the themes this work explores', you might be hard-pressed to decide which theme to start with. The overarching theme, the most gruesome or the one that spoke to you the loudest?

The answer to that question and for structuring your essay is the same: there's no right way - indeed, not even a preferred way to do it. However, your English course materials should have given you an idea of how to go about getting started.

Your introduction should establish the work you're writing about and its author, and hint at what aspects the rest of your text will focus on. There is one more component to include in a proper essay introduction; we'll talk about it in the next segment.

Organise your thoughts before getting started with your writing
Before you can start composing your analysis, you have to organise your thoughts Photo credit: Kevin Doncaster on VisualHunt.com / CC BY

The Critical Element

As you practise for future writing assignments - you'll surely have to write a few papers for your university courses, you can build your skills and apply them today, even though nobody will sit English Highers or Advanced Highers this year.

Above, we've listed a few tips and things to look for when you're given a prompt. Now, let's talk about the most critical aspect of every entry you submit: how you address the topic question.

You might think it redundant to include the very words the question uses in your introduction paragraph but that is exactly the formula for success.

Let's go back to our Lord of the Flies example above, the one that asks about themes. Your opening paragraph might start something like this: William Golding's Lord of the Flies is a sometimes frightening study of human behaviour but the story addresses many other themes. 

In your opening sentence, you have included the name of the text and its author but, more importantly, you have made reference to the task you were assigned using the very words included in the prompt. Even better, you have communicated a preliminary analysis (it's frightening) and your fundamental understanding of this story (it's about human behaviour).

To close this article, Superprof presents the best tips for learners who need to construct a winning argument.

  1. Before you can write with any kind of authority, you have to have read the texts the national curriculum or SQA specifies will be included on the Highers. If it's been a while since you read it, consider reading it again.
  2. As you read, build your mind map - remember to flesh out all seven aspects.
  3. Once you've finished reading and your map is as fully detailed as possible, consider the essay question. As you draft your introduction, remember to include the author and the title of the work your assessing and, above all, reference the task.
  4. From there, you may build your arguments, going from most persuasive to least, most relevant to least or follow a PEER structure.
  5. As you conclude your essay, sum up your points. Whether you do so in reverse order - the last point you made listed first in the conclusion or follow the order they're presented in your work is up to you.

Writing is all part and parcel of sitting your English Higher and it will accompany you through university. Isn't it handy to have a complete guide to help you get through them?

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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.