The Essay And The Short Story
Marion Field was Head of English in a large Comprehensive School, and an examiner for GCSE English. She is also the author of a range of other books on English language and usage. She is based in Working, Surrey.
If you are planning your own title, make sure you deal with only one aspect of a subject. Don’t make the subject too broad. If you are given a title, make sure you fully understand it before starting work. Remember that the titles of some essays can cover several lines and more than one sentence.
Example: GCSE Literature question
Lady Macbeth was a complex character who dominated her husband. With detailed reference to the text, show how she achieved her aims.
During both your preparatory work and the actual writing of the essay, it is essential that you refer frequently to the title so that you are not tempted to wander off the point.
Think about the following:
- What is the title asking you to do?
- Are there two parts to the question?
- What research do you need to do?
- What are the key words in the title?
The most obvious place to start your research is the library. Here you will find books on all topics classified by subject, magazines, newspapers and also archive material. Some of this may be on disk. Archive material is very useful if you wish to use ‘primary sources’ as they are called. These are original letters, diaries, books and periodicals. Librarians are usually very helpful so do ask if you are having difficulty finding something.
Visiting and interviewing
You may need to visit places and people to learn more about your topic. ‘Experts’ in their fields are usually very happy to be interviewed provided they are given plenty of notice. It is also courteous to write a thank-you note afterwards. Make sure your questions are relevant and you have written them down.
Avoid copying down huge chunks of material. If you do, you might regurgitate it in your essay and be accused of plagiarism (passing someone else’s work off as your own). It will always be obvious to the marker when the work is not yours. To safeguard against this always ‘translate’ the original into your own words. Of course, you are entitled to quote directly from the text but in this case you must put quotation marks around the quote and acknowledge its source. (See Chapter 4.)
Briefly write down the facts that you will need to use. If there are examples from a particular text that you may need, make a note of the book and the page number so that you can refer back to it. Use headings for your notes as this makes it easier when you start to write the essay.
Sometimes your essay will not need any research. Perhaps you are sitting an examination and therefore have all the facts in your head; it might be a personal experience piece or something that you have to work out for yourself. Whatever type of writing you are doing you must make notes first. Write down quickly all the things that come into your head relating to the title. Sentences are not important at the moment. Words or phrases are sufficient. Your brain works faster than your pen and it is important to get everything down before you forget it.
Remember to keep a record of the books you use as you are usually required to identify your sources. Write a list of the books you have used stating the title, author, publisher and publication date. This is called a bibliography.
After your note-taking, it is essential to plan your essay. Your notes do not constitute the plan. They have to be organised.
Your work should be set out in paragraphs and each paragraph will deal with one topic (see Chapter 4). From your notes you must decide how you can group your points so that the essay will flow naturally from one paragraph to the next. How you arrange your plan is up to you but remember to keep to the point. Use evidence to support what you say and explain why your quotations or references are relevant.
Remember that you must have an introductory paragraph showing what you are intending to do in your essay. The main body of the essay follows. From your notes pick out the main points that you will use and organise them under paragraph headings. Remember that a paragraph deals with one main idea but you may be able to group several similar points together. The concluding paragraph sums up the essay and shows that you have completed what you set out to do.
Decide the best way to approach your essay. This will depend upon what type of essay you are writing.
- Is it going to be a piece of narrative told chronologically?
- Will it be a descriptive piece?
- Will you be expounding a theory and supporting it with your research?
- Will it be discursive? In this case both sides of an argument are used and you must write a balanced essay with evidence supporting both points of view.
Figure 1 is a suggested plan for the Lady Macbeth essay: ‘Lady Macbeth was a complex character who dominated her husband. With detailed reference to the text, show how she achieved her aims.’
Having done your plan, you are now ready to start writing.
Make sure you keep to the point by referring frequently to the title. Always keep it in front of you as you write. Make sure that your essay flows naturally from one paragraph to the next.
Your opening sentence is very important because it will either stimulate the reader to read on or put him off. It should be concise so the reader can understand what you are saying. You should aim to interest your reader from the beginning. Sometimes it is a good idea to start with a question – perhaps a controversial one. Look at the following two examples:
Was Lady Macbeth a complex woman who dominated her husband?
Did Lady Macbeth murder Duncan?
The first example leads the reader towards the discussion of the title. The second one would be more appropriate for a more philosophical discussion of the actual murder. Lady Macbeth did not actually stab Duncan but she definitely incited her husband to do so.
In your final paragraph draw all the loose ends together and bring your essay to a logical conclusion. Make sure that you have already mentioned the points to which you are referring. Don’t introduce new material in the last paragraph.
THE SHORT STORY
Although you will probably not need to do any research if you are writing a short story, it is still important to plan your work carefully.
Write down an outline of the main events of your story in chronological order. Then decide where the story is to begin and how it is to develop. Will the events lead to an inevitable conclusion or will you use the ‘twist-in-the-tale’ device? The unexpected ending can be very effective if well done.
There will not be room for any detailed description as everything that is written must move the story on. Your reader will want to know what happens next. In a short story there is no room for any unnecessary words so descriptions of people and places have to be by implication. There is no room for long ‘flowery’ passages of description (‘purple prose’).
Dialogue is important in the short story as it can be used to give information to the reader. (See Chapter 4 to learn how to set out dialogue.) It can also set the scene and help to create believable characters. Effective short stories often start with dialogue and this carries the reader straight into the story.
Try not to have more than four characters in your short story. Too many become confusing. Aim to give each one a distinctive way of speaking so that each can be easily recognisable. There will be no room for detailed descriptions of each so their characters should be established by what they say, how they behave and how the other characters react to them.
A story is written to entertain and in your story there should be conflict of some kind. It could be between a parent and child, or between two neighbours. It could be a spiritual conflict within a single character. Should the heroine have an abortion or not? The plot should be simple and there should only be one. There is no room in a short story for a sub-plot. Plots are all around you. Your own experience or someone else’s could be woven into a short story or you could modernise the plot of a fairy story or a legend.
The start of a story is always important. The first sentence should grip the reader and carry him or her forward. Make him or her want to read on.
When you have completed the first draft of your essay or short story, check it carefully for errors and see if it can be ‘tightened’ by deleting words or changing your sentence construction.
- Check your spelling.
- Check your punctuation.
- Is each paragraph indented the same amount of space?
- Have you begun your dialogue with a new paragraph?
- Have you kept to the same tense throughout? (Most essays and stories are written in the past tense.)
- In your short story have you kept to the same ‘person’ throughout? Is it written in the first or the third person? (See Chapter 1.)
- Have you used colloquial language?
- Before writing or typing your fair copy, look to see if you can replace any words with better ones. Make sure you haven’t repeated words unnecessarily.
- Keep to the point and keep the title in front of you at all times.
- Write notes in your own words. Don’t copy from a book.
- Keep notes brief.
- Make a bibliography.
- Plan your work carefully.
- Structure your essay.
- Economise on words.
The short story
- Avoid unnecessary description.
- Don’t have too many characters.
- Keep the plot simple.
- 1.Plan an essay using the following title:
‘Holidays abroad are a waste of time and money.’ Do you agree with this statement? Give your reasons.
- 2.Plan the outline and write the opening of a short story. Use your own title or one of the following:
All that Glitters