Treat your reader (whether it’s your class teacher or an external examiner) like a child who can’t do any interpretive work of their own; imagine yourself leading them through your essay by the hand, pointing out that you’ve answered the question here, and here, and here.Now, this is all very well, I imagine you objecting, and much easier said than done. Structuring an essay that knocks a question on the head is something you can learn to do in a couple of easy steps.
It means looking at the directions the question provides as to what sort of essay you’re going to write.
I call these ‘command phrases’ and will go into more detail about what they mean below.
But your essay isn’t met with the lavish praise you expected. The grade your teacher has scrawled at the end is nowhere near what your essay deserves. And the comment at the bottom reads something like, ‘Some good ideas, but you didn’t answer the question! If this has ever happened to you (and it has happened to me, a lot), you’ll know how deeply frustrating it is – and how unfair it can seem.
When it’s tossed back onto your desk, there are huge chunks scored through with red pen, crawling with annotations like little red fire ants: ‘IRRELEVANT’; ‘A bit of a tangent! ’; and, right next to your best, most impressive killer point: ‘Right… This might just be me, but the exhausting process of researching, having ideas, planning, writing and re-reading makes me steadily more attached to the ideas I have, and the things I’ve managed to put on the page.
How does Shakespeare figure the supernatural in Macbeth?
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To what extent are the three witches responsible for Macbeth’s tragic downfall?
“Within Macbeth’s representation of the witches, there is profound ambiguity about the actual significance and power of their malevolent intervention” (Stephen Greenblatt). I’ve organised the examples into three groups, exemplifying the different types of questions you might have to answer in an exam.
The first group are pretty open-ended: ‘discuss’- and ‘how’-questions leave you room to set the scope of the essay. Beware, though – this doesn’t mean you don’t need a sturdy structure, or a clear argument, both of which should always be present in an essay.
Let’s imagine you’re writing an English essay about the role and importance of the three witches in Macbeth.
You’re thinking about the different ways in which Shakespeare imagines and presents the witches, how they influence the action of the tragedy, and perhaps the extent to which we’re supposed to believe in them (stay with me – you don’t have to know a single thing about Shakespeare or Macbeth to understand this bit! Now, you’ll probably have a few good ideas on this topic – and whatever essay you write, you’ll most likely use much of the same material.