It can be daunting having no prior knowledge of the extracts you are about to compare but here are some simple tips as so how to approach this stressful situation during your exam:
1 – Read through each extract three times (30 minutes)
This may appear like a waste of time but trust me it’s incredibly valuable, as my A level teacher once told me “your grade is decided by what you do within the first 30 minutes”. There is no need to panic, everyone around you is in the same boat. There is also no need to rush. Say that your exam is 2 hours long with 2 extracts, you should spend about 30 minutes reading and note-taking around your extracts. If your exam is 2 hours long with 4 extracts, then cut the time proposed in half. This time is invaluable as if you are misread the extracts or don’t fully comprehend them it will come through in your essay:
On the first reading keep a clear head while slowly looking over both of the texts you are given. Take in each line and try to not panic if you don’t initially understand what is being said, especially if the extract is written in Middle English or is a passage of Shakespeare. These can be tricky at first but usually becomes clearer as you become more familiarized with what you are reading. I suggest you read through each passage for about 5 minutes, as many times as you can within that time frame, even if it’s just once slowly. (10 minutes in total)
During the second reading you should begin to think about how the texts relate to each other.It is important that on this second reading you take in all the information you are given included the time period that the extract was written and whom they were written by. Feel free to begin to jot down notes about your ideas and if your pages are aligned with one another then even draw arrows to the lines you believe will hold a crux of your argument. This should take another 10 minutes. It may seem like a repeat of the first reading but by now the extracts shouldn’t seem to daunting, therefore you can think of both simultaneously.
The third reading should be the beginning of your planning for your essay. A useful tip is to write 3 ideas regarding how the extracts are similar to one another and 3 of how they are different e.g. both are addressing one theme however the tone of the pieces is different; one is melancholy while the other hopeful. It is not expected that you will get through elaborating on all these points in your essay, but it does mean you won’t run out of ideas. which may become lost in thought when you begin writing or may help bulk out your essay if your points are too concise. This is the last 10 minutes of solely close reading so it does not mean you should have even begun to have written your essay as planning is neccessary before beginning.
2- Planning your essay with bullet points (15 minutes)
The chances are you have now got some idea of how your extracts relate, however you are probably not fully confident in how to write an essay on text you have only just seen. Don’t be! Every essay you have ever written has once been a novel, play or poem that you had never seen before so you may be surprised how quickly you can pick up ideas on the first reading alone. Except by now it is not your first reading, now it should be at least your third. There are simple ways to checklist what is needed in your essay and by having it laid out in front of you can put your mind at ease for when you are about to begin. Those that rush straight into the essay will struggle far more than those who planned ahead and you want to prepared. Here is a list of what to think about and include in your essay:
Voicing (identify who the speaker is and their potential motivations)
Tone (what is the tone of the piece?)
Punctuation (does the punctuation effect how you read and relate to the text?)
Form and content (it may seem obvious but don’t forget to clarify what the content of your reading is, essays should be written so that those without previous knowledge can still grasp what you are saying)
Subject (who/ what is the main subject? Are there multiple subjects?)
Author (if you know about the author then include it if relevant to how the text is written and the themes conveyed)
Period/Date (this historical context is relevant and even if it’s a generalization about the time period it is better than nothing, however if you can be specific about how it relates to their writing then this is incredibly useful. It can also show the examiner you are well read.)
Title (again it may seem obvious but the title can help you not only understand the content of what you are reading especially if you seem perpetually stuck. Moreover, it is still part of the text you are given even if it’s one word it still counts)
Vocabulary (why was this certain word used, what effect does it have on the reader?)
Imagery (visual and colour imagery appears in most all extracts you will be given, don’t forget to utilize this even if you believe your point to be irrelevant just back it up with quotations as evidence)
Theories (Marxist, Feminist, Modern Day Reading etc. these can be applied to the extract to give it another perspective, showing the examiner that you have considered the extract beyond what you have been given)
Overwhelming I know, but remember that these bullet points should be written somewhere on your plan for you to consider and tick off when used, of course not only once if possible! The texts may be relatively new to you but you can answer all of these questions by merely getting acquainted with the extracts. Spend these 15 minutes considering these points and thinking of ways to incorporate them into your essay. No time is wasted even if you think spending 45 minutes merely planning and thinking, it will make your essay solid. It’s not about how much you write it’s about the content of what you write. Less writing of substance will always earn you more marks than a large bulk of writing without purpose.
3 – Writing the essay (45 minutes)
Now it’s finally time for you to put pen to paper officially. You may believe this to not be enough time to write an essay but its plenty of time when you already have your ideas, your checklist and are now familiar with what you are writing on. 2 hours of writing without guidance will never produce the quality of writing that comes from excessive planning. By now you are most likely relieved of the pressure you felt when you first turned over the exam page to unseen extracts. Remember that examiners appreciate when texts are compared closely. Make sure to not only show how they are similar but also how they differ, moreover directly quote so as to never generalize. The text is all the evidence you have as relying on prior knowledge is rarely an option. If you have any spare minutes, make sure to look over your essay and check for grammatical errors that can lose you marks carelessly.
These tips are generalized rather than pertaining to poetry/ drama/ prose to allow you an overview of what will be expected of you. If you wish to be given more specific advice, especially when comparing two different forms then I would be happy to oblige.