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Exam warfare (Part II): generals' briefing

15mm Greek Hoplites painted by jwrait a long time ago...

So we know that preparation is important if you want your essays to win. We discussed how sitting an exam is a battle to win marks by persuading your marker. You’re the General – that’s your job.

So if you’re the General, what’s the essay? Your essay is your army. The war metaphor is one that I find useful because it provides an analogy for different levels of functionality within your essay. Here’s the extended metaphor (great for those of you studying English Literature):

  1. The whole essay is your army. If the essay is pointed in the right direction, answers the question, and the sub-parts work together well, then that is what will win the war for the marks.
  2. Paragraphs are regiments of troops. Each deployed regiment has a specific aim – they provide developed ‘mini-arguments’ and evidence to back up the overall thrust of the essay.
  3. Each word is a warrior and sentences are ranks of “word-troops”. There are different types of warriors, with different advantages and disadvantages. You want to use them in a combination that allows each to them to combine their strengths and minimise any weaknesses. We’ll go into diction, syntax, and other aspects of expression in future posts.

How do you organise your ideas to get the most marks out of them? We’ll go into more specific strategies at various levels in the army in future posts, but here’s one broad one to get you started:

Set your troops in formations based on concepts that you are discussing. Know what piece of “intellectual ground” the words and sentences have to hold – enable them to capture the key ideas and express them compellingly on paper. This clever manoeuvring and structuring will surpass the effectiveness of the individual words themselves.

There are different types of ideas/concepts/components that you should structure your essay around to get maximum marks, but for that you have to understand SEX (the sequel is here). To discover another simple trick that can dramatically improve your essays, go to “Cooking up the perfect essay”.

Now you’re thinking more like a General, you’ll be able to make the strategic decisions that earn more marks.

“Onwards and upwards!”

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Deadly deadlines: studying for exam essays

Studying for Exams

Studying for Exams

“You can’t study for English exams”. I’ve heard this supposed axiom uttered many times. Well, actually, yes you can study for English, although I agree that the strategies are quite different to those for other subjects. Here’s a quick overview of some that I’ve used, they can be adapted to suit other essay-based subjects too. We’ll go into more detail on these in future, but here are some pointers to start off with.


1) Know the themes of the set texts

2) Know the important techniques used in the texts

3) Memorise some quotations

4) Hone your technical analysis skills

5) Practice writing under pressure!


On that last point: there is absolutely no substitute for this! You will be examined by having to write an essay under time pressure; so practice writing an essay under time pressure. Exams come with deadly deadlines, so your study strategies should address the critical issue of TIME PRESSURE. For all other study tasks, spend only the smallest amount of time necessary to get to this all-important practice stage. You will not be asked to carefully craft beautiful study notes in the exam! To ease the burden slightly, I suggest you start this phase of your study by writing practice paragraphs and then doing a few full essays closer to the exam.


Yes, I know writing academic essays under pressure can be painful initially, but once you get into it, it really isn’t that bad. All you think about is what you’re writing and the time that’s left; you don’t have room in your mind to mull over how repulsive the exercise first seemed. Besides, this is one of the most effective ways to study, so you don’t need to spend so much time studying overall to get the same result.  Thus, it will actually free up your time to do other things. That’s what I like – “work hard, play hard”.


All the best for you studies!

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SEX and Essays (Part II)

In the last post, we looked at how to improve an essay’s body paragraphs by using the SEX acronym. The best way to explain SEX though, is to give a demonstration. Here’s an example body paragraph from an essay on the poem “Rising Five” by Norman Nicholson. I wrote this in Year 12 (for Cambridge AS English). It’s not perfect, but it’s a verbatim example which will be relevant to many of our followers. I’m open to your comments and suggestions. Take a look and see what you think…


Although the form of the poem is comparatively erratic in the previous stanza, the next is more traditional in layout – it is here that a subtle shift in the mood of the piece can first be detected. The opening line is a startling image of how, over time, changes occur and perfectly suitable opportunities are lost as we grow up; we push them into the past just as “new buds push the old leaves from the bough”. The simile in the next line coincides with this image: “we drop our youth behind us like a boy throwing away his toffee-wrappers.” Verbs like “push” and “drop” have negative connotations, while even the nouns “youth” and “boy” may show the naivety of ignoring the present. After “toffee-wrappers”, caesura is used to show that the past and all its choices are cut off from and inaccessible to us humans who inhabit the present. It is ironic that people often desire to be younger again when they are adults – this backs up the poet’s argument that we need to make prudent decisions about what we do with each day; once we have decided, we can never get that day back again.


SEX in practice:

See how the evidence to support the statement comes in “couples”? Examples are paired with supporting explanations. These pairs of Evidence back up the Statement made in the first sentence (red text). Broadly categorising the parts of the paragraph, there are three Examples (orange text) and three eXplanations (green text). The more SEX in a paragraph, the better! However, don’t overwhelm the reader with a mammoth paragraph – break it up into digestible chunks. Be nice to your reader!

So there’s an overview of how to use the SEX acronym in essays. Can you see how this will enable you to write more compelling paragraphs, and therefore stronger essays?



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Cooking up the perfect essay

Now that's a paragraph!

Mmm, hamburger...

Want higher marks for your essays, but don’t know where to start? Here’s a trick that I learned that makes your essays clear, coherent, and compelling: use “Topic Sentences”.

Topic sentences are one of the most important and powerful components of a functional essay. They are the first and last sentence of each body paragraph. Simply put, their role is to introduce the main argument of the paragraph, then, at its end, summarise the point of the paragraph and show how the point relates to your essay’s overall answer. Which would you prefer to read: a well-planned paragraph that is structured with the main idea stated in the first sentence, further developed, then re-iterated at the end of the paragraph; or a random assemblage of thoughts that were just dumped on a page in clusters? The planned one of course – because the topic sentences make it easier to read.

Topic sentences are like the buns of a burger – they hold the rest of the paragraph’s information together and make it easier to ‘pick up’ for the reader. Topic sentences make your essay’s points clear. If markers can understand your argument, they’ll give you more marks. Unfortunately, some students write ‘paragraphs’ which suggest they erratically threw some ingredients around, rather than methodically making a burger (which isn’t that hard – just ask any McDonald’s worker). Messy paragraphs earn fewer marks. So don’t make a literary dog’s breakfast that looks like it was kicked around the floor then put on a plate. Give your paragraphs some structure! Use topic sentences. Make your essay clear and easier to follow – make it easier for the marker to give you marks.

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