How do I plan and structure an essay in an exam?

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Writing an essay under exam conditions is daunting, the pressurised environment can sometimes make you forget what you're doing altogether! Here's some tips on planning and structuring an exam essay:

It's been said many times, but one of the most important things you can do is read the question. Make sure that you read the question properly, at least 3-4 times to make sure you understand what the exam is asking of you. Then, make sure your answer is tailored to this question. It may sound silly, but it's very easy to end up not properly answering the question when you're in an exam and have revised particular aspects of your text.

The best way to approach this is to decide what your main point is going to be at the start. Let's take this exam question as an example: 

Explore the significance of the aspects of dramatic tragedy in the following passage in relation to the play as a whole.

So, let's pick out the key parts of this question. Firstly, it is asking you to 'explore', this might mean that you consider many different aspects and approaches before coming to your conclusion. It might help to phrase this question differently: How is dramatic tragedy being created? And Why? In this way, you need to analyse, through a close reading of the passage, how Shakespeare is making the scene dramatic. Then, you need to link this to your wider point of why Shakespeare is making the scene dramatic. Your final point could be something as simple as, "Shakespeare heightens the dramatic impact of tragedy through the dialogue between Lear and Kent, which demonstrates Lear's madness"

Your essay plan may look something like this:

Introduction: Introduce the passage of the play you are studying, where is it situated within the play? what has happened before/after? (notice how the question asks you to link to the wider play - here's a great place to show off your knowledge!) then, state what your main point is?

Paragraph 1: Dialogue (what dialogue is Shakespeare using? is it dynamic, is there imagery or themes that crop up throughout the play? why is this important?)

Paragraph 2: Character/Relationships (who is in this scene? are they family, friends or enemies? why is this important?)

Paragraph 3: Setting (where is this scene set? is it dramatic? how does it add to the tragedy? why is it important?)

Paragraph 4: Mood (what is the mood of this scene? how is it created? are there visual/aural effects? why is it important?)

Conclusion: conclude by briefly summarising your main points, and link it back to your bigger point, "Shakespeares use of dramatic tragedy through the plot, the relationships, the setting and the mood is significant because..."

You may notice that at the end of each paragraph I have asked: "why is this important?" The exam question asks you to "explore the significance", using this structure will help you to keep in mind the bigger question and help you keep coming back to your main point.

Remember, planning in an exam is just as important as writing. With a good plan, you can keep on track and maintain a strong essay structure. Make sure you dedicate some of your time to planning, you could even plan which quotes you want to use and where to help save time when writing. 

Jordan I. GCSE English Literature tutor, A Level English Literature t...

About the author

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

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