HOW DO WE WRITE THE PERFECT ESSAY?
As students, we all want to know the precise dos and don'ts of essay writing. We search and search for a guide that tells us everything we need to know about essay writing but even hours of scavenging the internet can sometimes lead to a dead-end, with most websites either giving us a rather basic overview of what is needed, or simply not detailing the exact criteria that needs to be fulfilled in a full scoring extended response. In light of this, I have drafted up a comprehensive guide for students wanting to score perfect marks in their extended responses, explaining the criteria that I used to ensure that I was able to attain the highest marks possible during my HSC.
As we know, success in the HSC depends largely on one’s ability to write effective extended responses. In fact, ⅗ of our total HSC mark for English is based upon essay writing. Thus, being able to tailor nuanced and insightful responses to unseen questions in a flexible and adaptive fashion is without a doubt a necessary skill to perform well in the examination.
However many students often face great difficulty when constructing their responses, unsure of what exactly is required to formulate a foolproof essay. This is why I have created a checklist delineating clearly the criteria that needs to be fulfilled in order to have a perfect, full-mark response in the HSC. This guide should be used as a checklist during the process of you crafting your response, but can also be used afterwards as something to measure your essay up against.
Before we get into this however, it is critical you first understand that an essay is simply an extended response that dives into specific arguments about a text. Considering this, you should always ask yourself what you personally believe the author of your text is trying to express through their work and appreciate that the composer has his or her own purpose that governs how they develop their textual representation. For the most part, you should already have a general understanding of the key concepts overlying the text that you are interested in dissecting in your work, and this can be guided by the general focus of the rubric or module it is being written for.
Once you have identified this central idea, you then want to identify more specific concerns that branch from this core and synthesise your paragraphs around these more targeted ideas (i.e., the main ideas of your body paragraphs). In this way, we have a central thesis (the governing idea that forms the basis of your entire response) and then around three ideas which are anchored by the thesis but are more specific. By using this approach, we can also construct a more logical and coherent response where our ideas are interconnected and also fall under a larger central idea.
With respect to the more specific ideas you decide to discuss about, you should always ensure that your analysis (i.e., quotes, techniques and points) is built around trying to prove whatever it is that you are positioning as a central theme of concern in the text. This means you should have quotes that prove your point and exercise good judgement when deciding which ones to incorporate in your response versus those that are less effective. Similarly, when you are deconstructing the evidence, pay attention to the techniques that the author is using and consider how this facilitates their representation, accentuates their ideas or focalises their concern.
Now, on to the checklist.
Below is a comprehensive set of criteria that should be met when writing up a full mark response.
Note that this checklist explains what you should actively do in your responses as well as avoid in order to create the perfect response. However, the way that you engage with these different criteria alongside how you control your language, express your ideas, interact with the question, and accurately perform analysis of your text will determine the final mark your receive. Therefore, this checklist serves the purpose of giving a guide on how to polish your essay and assure that your work has a solid foundation, with the subtleties and nuances of your actual response remaining something to be discussed with either a teacher or tutor.
CHECKLIST FOR ESSAY WRITING
First, make sure that you have a clear thesis / overarching argument underpinning your entire response (this thesis statement needs to be adapted to fit different types of questions and when practicing for the exam, you want to ensure that you are able to modify and alter this statement in different circumstances). Of course, how stretchable and alterable your thesis statement is will make your life easier when exam day arrives. Thesis statements are one of the most overlooked aspects of an essay mainly because students underestimate just how important it is in forming the foundation of a work. The thesis statement gives conceptual and thematic direction to the response whilst also making clear the overarching argument that will be made in regards to the text, the module and the question. Ensure that you have a very clear thesis statement because this is the first point of contact that the marker will have with your work, and gives the teacher a first impression.
Secondly, you need to be very clear about the ideas you will be discussing in your essay in the introduction. Whilst you can list the main ideas you will be discussing in your introduction one after the other, more skilful students tend to integrate these ideas into a more meaningful form, such that interconnections between the discrete concepts are made, showing to the marker that you possess insightful and depthful knowledge about how the different concepts are related to each other. This creates a sense of cohesion in your work as well and makes your work sound less mechanical and robotic, which is something that we will touch upon later.
Ensure that for each body paragraph, you have a clear topic sentence (a conceptual statement that clearly delineates what the paragraph will be about). Too often, students craft topic sentences that are either too convoluted and thus confusing, or that do not make sense. Try and keep your topic sentence as specific and targeted as it can be, focused on a particular issue rather than some broad idea that is too lofty. A problem with having topic sentences that are too broad as well is that it begins to bleed into other body paragraphs and makes distinctions between the ideas you are raising in your response blurred. Be clear and targeted.
Ensure that the quotes you select as evidence to prove your idea is supportive of whatever argument you are making in the paragraph. Though this sounds like a rather straightforward and obvious criteria, you’d be surprised by just how many students select quotes that do not really coincide with the idea they are trying to prove. In fact, sometimes it seems students just pick any quote that they think is slightly connected to the idea of interest, which results in a very incohesive response. I would suggest that you be very critical about your evidence and always ask yourself before analysing the quotes, whether or not it is supportive of the argument you are trying to make. You should be judicious about the quotes you select. Also, your quotes should always build upon each other, layer by layer, to reach the bigger argument that you are making in your paragraph. This means that though your first or second quote might not necessarily prove your idea outright, it should nonetheless form the foundation for your other quotes and set in motion the idea you are trying to prove in the specific body paragraph such that when it comes to the third and fourth quote you are analysing, the idea you are trying to prove should shine through and be very clear to the marker. If it does not serve either of these functions then it would be wiser to simply cut it out and find another piece of textual evidence.
Techniques that you identify should be diverse and form specific when possible. This means that when you are analysing the language technique or device the author is using in the quote, you should appreciate the form of the work (e.g., film, novel, play, poem etc.) and identify a technique that is specific to the medium. Additionally, avoid reusing the same technique in the same paragraph and across different paragraphs as well. Having a good breadth of techniques that you know is a signal to the marker that you are well versed in the text as well.
Link backs sentences should be written in a meaningful and evocative way as opposed to sounding trivial. Students tend to treat link back sentences as a chore rather than a place to really make an impact on the marker and draw connections back to the question in an insightful, intentional manner. Oftentimes, link back sentences can be a place where you demonstrate to the marker a level of personal insight into the text and the question, whilst also adding your own flair to the paragraph. This can be done in many ways, such as by being a bit more philosophical in what you say or even being a bit more personal in whatever it is you are saying.
Make sure that the essay is written in a way that fits the focus of the module being studied (this means that the way you are analysing certain concepts should always take into consideration the general issues and concerns raised in the rubric for that module) - the essay cannot sound like a generic response bur rather should feel tailored to the rubric. Not only will this make life easier for you in the sense that your essay will be more easily adaptable to different questions, but it will also mean that your work feels very particular.
Ensure that they have a personal voice shining through in your response - the response should not sound robotic or mechanical, rather fluid and personal (this will be a differentiating factor between those essays which receive a perfect score versus those that just score decently well). Although this criteria is more important for Module B and C, it is nevertheless something that I would encourage you to consider across all responses. This is because a unique and personal voice will stand out amongst responses that use the generic and bland essay voice. This can be done by expressing your ideas in more unique and evocative ways, or even using words in slightly more interesting manners.
Finally, the essay should be wrestling with complex and sophisticated ideas rather than simple ones (of course, what is more important is that you are clearly communicating whatever it is you are trying to say- whether this is simple or complex is a secondary matter - but, once you have really developed a clear mode of expression you want to develop layers to your arguments as opposed to it being unidimensional). This can be done by ensuring that your argument has a clear ‘cause’ + ‘effect’; this can also be done by linking to private or public contexts; linking to the purpose of the module; discussing critical opinions; integrating textual integrity etc.