(take it from someone who knows how to essay)
Essays are a wonderful means of expressing ideas related to a text, or the links between a series of texts. However, the essays you’ll write between the ages of 13 and 16 in school will be as similar to actual academic essays as the film Happy Feet is to the lives of real penguins. As such, writing essays at and around GCSE level is dull, irrelevant and a waste of time, particularly if you’re not going to go on and do an essay-based subject at University or as a career. As such, I present to you five pro tips for dragging yourself through the chaos of early teenage essay-writing.
This is the scourge of A-level writing, but its a basic way of generating ideas for an essay; it stands for Meaning, Imagery, Tone, Structure and Language, and these five broad areas are generally what you’re gonna write about in your essay: you’ll be saying stuff like the poet uses the present tense here [quote] to suggest the idea of immediacy and an uncertain future, for instance – this is an example of a ‘Language’ idea.
These five demons are helpful for coming up with ideas to start an essay, and serve as a checklist for what to include; obviously every essay, in both exams and coursework, will have a different mark scheme, but they’ll all include these five types of discussion in some, usually more intelligent, form.
However, don’t use MITSL to structure your essay – so don’t do a paragraph on each of these types of ideas. Each paragraph should be focused on an idea that the poem presents, and you then discuss each of these ideas using MITSL: so say the poem shows the theme of destruction, then give examples using each of the five strands of MITSL, then say the poem shows fear in the next paragraph, and come up with another five, MITSL-led points. Otherwise,you’ll end up with five, totally unrelated paragraphs, which is’t a good thing.
2) Fall back on language analysis
The ‘Language’ bit of MITSL is great as it allows for ‘language analysis’, where you take a quote and discuss the meanings of the individual words used; remember, the writer picked each word to be in there out of the millions in the English language, so each word is important.
Discuss things like the importance of the poet saying ‘he slaughtered’ as opposed to ‘he killed’; here, ‘slaughter suggests a more violent action, but also a more passionate and senseless action – perhaps this attack can be linked to the killer’s dead lover, who was hurt by the victim? Here, the individual words used are broken down, and can clearly be linked to broader contextual points – maybe the poet himself was a killer whose lover died, and so this poem is about revenge? This idea is clearly supported by that bot of language analysis.
This kind of writing is great because it’s so flexible; if you need more words, stick in a few language analysis points. At GCSE, they don’t really need to add any new ideas, and are best used to further support other points you’re making, so adding them in only strengthens your argument, and removing them if you’re over the word count doesn’t remove any of your fundamental points to your essay. Also, because they don’t add any new ideas, it’s hard for your marker to dismiss them; they might think you’re going too far with linking sentence length to philosophical ideas, but adding extra language analysis points is much safer than needing more words and trying to add new, off-the-wall, crazy philosophical ideas, which the marker will just say ‘lol no, you’re wrong’ to.
3) Word counts are easily changed
Leading on from this, word counts more generally needn’t be a problem; need more words? Convert every full stop into a semi-colon followed by ‘furthermore’ or some other connective and replace argumentative points like ‘therefore, the poet…’ with longer ones – ‘therefore, it can be said that the poet…’. If you’re over the limit, just do this stuff in reverse. I found its better to fart around with rewording sentences like this than trying to decide which of your awesome analysis points to cut out so they essay hits 1,000 words exactly.
But keep in mind this micro-management only really works if you’re less than a hundred words over or under the limit: don’t try to make a 500-word essay a 1,000-word essay by hedging out all of your concluding points.
4) Introductions and conclusions are written last
At the start of each paragraph, you must have a ‘topic sentence’, one that reads ‘the writer presents the theme of [blank – whatever the question asks for] as [unnecessary/painful/destructive/loving etc].’ That way, each paragraph will make it painfully obvious what you’re gonna talk bout in that paragraph, and this kind of clarity is a good thing. Once you’ve got these topic sentences, stick them all together to create your intro: ‘the writer presents the theme of [blank] in four key ways, as: [idea from paragraph 1], [idea from paragraph 2], [idea from paragraph 3], [idea from paragraph 4].’ This way, your intro makes it very clear what you’re going to talk about.
The conclusion is the same thing; use the topic sentences to sum up your argument, but change the wording slightly from your intro obviously, in a clear and succinct manner. Then, stick on a line at the end that says ‘These four methods overall suggest that the theme of [blank] is [another adjective]’, and here, you bring all of your points together in a concluding statement. See? Simple, clear intro and a different, but summing-up, conclusion.
5) Use similar letters to illustrate similar points
Okay, this last one is the bloody holy grail of essay-writing hacks, an idea that its taken me four years to develop and find successful, that still works at A-level: if you’re trying to argue to the marker that two different bits of a poem are linked, or two different texts show similar features, explain the links using a series of words that start with the same letter, in the same sequence. I’m not kidding.
If you wanna compare the tragedy of Lenny at the end of Of Mice And Men to that of Jekyll in Jekyll and Hyde, argue it like ‘Although his violent destruction comes at the hands of a friend who is conflicted, Lenny’s sudden death can be linked to Jekyll’s vulgar deterioration, from a high-class doctor to a fraudulent killer.’ (c and k are linked just as closely as if they were the same letter, I have noticed’.
This sounds dumb and that example was pretty forced, I came up with it in about 45 seconds exclusively for the purposes of this post, but it can be very effective in establishing a subtle link between two seemingly unrelated ideas. I found that I was receiving much fewer ‘these ideas are unrelated’ points after I accidentally stumbled across and then implemented this idea. You have to use it sparingly, maybe no more than once for every thousand words long your essay is, otherwise your marker will realise you’re trying to trick them, and you need to make the links very subtle, moreso than I did there – use Cs, Ks and Xs to link ideas, or maybe use words that rhyme or are of a similar length for the same effect; I’ve not tried all of these, so give them a go if you want.
Overall, there is no perfect way to write a good essay; however, there are many formulae to write a good GCSE essay; use these tips wisely and sparingly so that markers and teachers don’t realise you’re trying to hide a lack of point behind verbose language or alliterative analytical points, but use them all the same. They might not work for you, but I’m gonna do an English degree off the back of some of these.