How can I write something original on my set texts, when so much has already been written on them by experts?

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Firstly, it’s important to remember that this isn’t a doctorate or university thesis – you don’t have to write something entirely original. But obviously, you also don’t want to just repeat a critic’s arguments. There are two main ways of doing this: language analysis and responding to critical arguments.

Language analysis is the clearest way of being original – it’s rare that a passage has been entirely analysed. Or if it’s a poem which has lots of close readings on it, try linking it with another poem from the selection which is not its most obvious pair. These oblique references also strengthen your essay as it shows you have read and understood more than just a central few poems. Very brief references to non-set texts will also impress the examiner as it shows that you have not limited yourself to the prescribed texts (though be wary of making this element too big).

Alternatively, responding to a critic’s argument can also make your essay stand out. Don’t go overboard though – it’s not usually a good idea to scorn their entire argument. Rather, pick at one element of their argument which seems unconvincing. For example, you could look at A. C. Bradley’s famous criticism in his book Shakespearean Tragedy which has been discredited by many critics, though is still held to be one of the most important works of Shakespearean criticism. This would give you an opportunity to acknowledge the wealth of critical debate, while showing that you have not just accepted a critical reading as the ‘right’ reading.

Frances H. A Level English Literature tutor, GCSE English Literature ...

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