A famous Shakespearean lady once said to her beau: ‘Screw your courage to the sticking
place, and you will not fail!’ Meaning: ‘get over your cold feet, you wet fish, and kill the King!’
Whilst Lady Macbeth’s aspirations are not wise to aspire to, you’d do well to emulate the gusto with which she goes about her task. ‘Screw your courage’… and let’s begin.
It’s easy to confuse long-winded, loquacious, sentences with sentences that are smart and well put together. Go for the latter. Don’t give your examiner a headache by jumbling a lot of ideas together. Now is the time to show great clarity. Let one idea lead to the next, just as one paragraph should follow the previous. Be generous with commas. They need to breathe as they read. Try reading it aloud (in your head). If you run out of (head) breath, then the likelihood is that you’ve also run out of sense.
Now you’re at the top of the school tree, you think more is expected from your performance in exams. But don’t worry, your brain is larger and juicier than it was last year. Really the same rules apply. Achieve excellent results by really zoning in on the specifics of the question. See that pen? Underline the question with it. Now do the same on the extract on the exam paper. Create your own code so that you can plan speedily and unashamedly. Jot a circle next to ideas that relate to paragraph 1, a square for paragraph 2, and so forth. Planning is the key to writing succinct clean essays. Practice it. Give it gravity.
If in doubt, ask yourself, ‘What is this author trying to say?’ ‘And how are they saying it’. At school one of my English teachers made me write ‘Yes… But…’ on my pencil case. Essays really should be able to be broken down that simply. ‘Yes I agree with the title in this way… but not in this way’.
Now impress them with your vocabulary. Start keeping a list of new words by your bed. Technical words for literary devices will raise your work to the next level. Do you know what ‘partisan’, ‘tautologous’, and ‘caesura’ mean, and how you might use them?
Read your texts upwards of 3 or 4 times before the exam. Set daily goals. And furthermore, read criticism. Not only will it enhance your arguments, but it will also give you a benchmark for your writing. Read smart, write smart.
York Notes are infamous, but there are now a plethora of online resources at your disposal too. Try Sparknotes, and use their ‘No Fear Shakespeare’ facility, which translates Shakespearean verse into modern English. The Poetry Archive and Youtube are your friends too.
It’s never too early to begin making notes. Make notes on key themes and key characters. Type them out so you can print them and scribble on them. Turn your A4 sides into flashcards; turn your flashcards into buzz words. Synthesise. Distill. Synthesise. Distill. Naturally you will begin making patterns and connections across the text. This will help you when they ask how the extract relates to the whole. Absolutely necessary for drama and modern texts, and for looking at a poet’s work in its entirety.
Know those assessment objectives inside out. Know the context in which the text was written. Know about the author. Look at their other work. Look at the work of their contemporaries. These are easy marks.
Is it on at a theatre nearby? Is there a TV or film adaptation you can watch? Do you have any actor friends that can talk it through with you? These plays were made to be performed. This is true of all drama. It is your duty to see them as three-dimensional pieces, which were conceived to be spoken aloud and played live in front of an audience. How is the playwright effecting the audience in any given moment?
Annotate your poems heavily and understand the key themes, symbols, and motifs. The poet is creating a feeling or atmosphere. What is their experience? What is our experience as readers (listeners too)? If a poem seems jumbled and hard to follow there is probably a reason why. What is the poet’s intent in styling her poem in such a way? Read as much of the poet’s work as possible. Understand their oeuvre.
If you would like some one-on-one tuition book your English A-Level tutor in London with Tavistock Tutors. You don’t get long in an exam to write those essays, and you wont’ be able to say everything you’ve read, learnt, and thought about. The best thing you can do is prepare well, and then answer the question. After writing out a iron-clad plan…