How do I start my answer?

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Before you start writing, make sure you know what you’re going to say. Take ten minutes to do a rough plan. Often the best place to start is the wording of the title – it will focus what you say on the question, while giving you a very broad scope of things to talk about, if you dig deep enough. Don’t just define the key words, but discuss why they mean what they do, and what role they play in the text you’re writing on. Take this question, from Section A of the 2014 OCR A2 paper: ‘King Lear is a study of brutality, not only of human beings, but also of the natural world.’ Many of the words in that sentence are worth unpicking; perhaps the most obvious one to start with is ‘brutality’. You could certainly take the common understanding of ‘brutality’ – harsh violence, potentially out of cruelty – to lead off into a discussion of how Goneril, Regan and particularly Edmund behave, and why; you could talk about the effect of placing the kindness of the servants at the end of the ‘brutal’ scene III.vii, and even the effect of Peter Brook’s decision to cut them out of his 1961 production. Dig further, however, and you get a whole new plethora of opportunities. ‘Brutality’ comes from the word ‘brute’, and originally means behaviour which is beast-like, animalesque. King Lear is a play brimming with animal imagery, and immensely concerned with the difference between man and beast – arguably the climax of Lear’s anagnorisis is the realisation that ‘unaccomodated man is no more but such a bare, forked animal as thou art’ (III.iv).  You could do the same with ‘natural world’ – don’t just take it on face value, but really examine the concept of what is ‘natural’, and how it’s questioned in the play (with a Baconian view of nature held by characters such as Kent, Gloucester and Lear, whose faith in benign order is challenged by the more Hobbesian approach of characters such as Edmund, an ideological conflict which was very current in Shakespeare’s era, with the rise of the Elizabethan New Man figure).

As you can see, using the wording of the question as a springboard is generally a very good approach, allowing you to talk about all manner of things while remaining rooted in what’s being asked. It’s how the questions are designed – every one will contain at least one broad idea which can be discussed and dug into. It also makes starting answers really easy, because you’ll always have a good place to begin. This said, I always find it useful for the very first thing I write to be a relevant quotation from the text or a critic. Again, it gives you something to talk about immediately, and it reads so much better than ‘In this essay I will argue’ etc. 

Louis N. GCSE English Literature tutor, A Level English Literature tu...

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is an online A Level English Literature tutor who has applied to tutor with MyTutor studying at Cambridge University

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