How can I write an exam answer on an unseen text that I really don’t understand?

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Having to analyse an unseen passage or poem in an exam can be very daunting and it’s often tempting to panic when you first see what you’ve been given. The most important thing to do, however, is to stay calm. If you put aside fifteen minutes of your answer time to work out exactly what you think the writer is doing (and how they’re doing it!) you’ll get way more marks than starting to write without a focus and getting tangled up in your own ideas halfway through.

If you don’t understand what’s going on in your passage or poem the first time you read it, don’t give up! Go back to the beginning and read it through again, this time slowly. Try and get the building blocks of the piece clear in your mind. Who is speaking in the text? Is it a third person narrator, or is it from the perspective of a character? If there are other characters in the text, can you work out their relationships to one another? If the text is a poem, do you think the voice is that of the poet or a persona? How does the text make you feel, what is its tone? Is it funny, sad, poignant, dramatic, scary? Does it describe an event or a moment or is it more personal, about something that someone thinks or feels? These are just a few starting points that might help you to unlock the basic meaning of the text; if it helps, underline or draw stars next to the bits that seem to communicate these important bits of information. If not all the details are completely clear in your head, that’s fine, just try and get a vague sense of the text as a whole and you can use this as a springboard for your analysis.

Once you’ve done this second reading go back and read the text or poem a third time, trying to keep your general sense of ‘tone’ in mind. If you’ve decided that the poem in front of you is a love poem, for example, circle or underline key bits of emotive language. Bonus points if you can find relevant devices such as metaphors, similes and alliteration, but if you struggle with this then just focus on the bits that really jump out at you. As you do this, your understanding of the poem as a whole will probably develop. Jot down any further thoughts you have so you don’t forget them. By this point you should not only have a better knowledge and comprehension of the poem but also some bits of evidence to use to explain your thoughts. Here’s when you should start worrying about details like structure and form. This tends to be what people find the most difficult, so it makes sense to leave it until you feel more comfortable with the text. On a large scale, look at how the text is laid out on the page. Are some stanzas or paragraphs much longer or shorter than others? Do some lines or sentences seem to disrupt the general rhythm of the piece? Mentioning a few details like this and suggesting why they might be important will make your answer look really thoughtful and sophisticated.

Another nice way of doing this is to look back at the bits of language you’ve picked out and think about where and how they are positioned in a text: for example, if they are within a long paragraph full of long sentences, that could indicate that you’ve found a point the author wanted to expand upon, or alternatively you could argue that a piece of language you’ve found is hidden in a long, descriptive passage so it loses some of its importance next to all the other interesting imagery. Shorter lines, sentences and paragraphs are usually used for emphasis, so if you find them significant you’re probably right! If you can find a nice structural point that links to a point you want to make about language, you can produce a coherent answer that ticks all the boxes on the mark scheme without trying to write a whole paragraph on structure, particularly if this is something you struggle with.

By this point, you should be ready to organise your evidence into a few paragraphs and get writing. Don’t worry if there are still bits of the text you don’t really understand, just don’t draw attention to those bits in your answer! Instead, focus on the parts of the text you really have a handle on. As long as you justify your ideas and try to write with some level of confidence and enthusiasm you can’t really go too far wrong – good luck! 

Emily L. A Level English Literature tutor, GCSE English Literature tu...

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is an online A Level English Literature tutor with MyTutor studying at Durham University

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