Advice on short-form essays

[I wrote this for students in my English 340 survey course, after their midterm in December 2012.]

Typewriter 01A short essay in an exam is different from other kinds of critical writing, in a few ways. Its main motive is to demonstrate your ability to interpret the text in a brief argument addressing the terms of the question.

I am more concerned with what you say than how you say it. An exam essay is a first draft, so it’s okay to do the things you’d clean up in revision, like using the passive voice or run-on sentences — so long as you follow the rules of grammar.

Here are some characteristics of an effective short essay in an exam:

  1. It directly addresses the terms of the question, rather than adding extraneous information for ‘extra credit.’
  2. It quotes the text a few times, and makes use of this textual evidence rather than letting it speak for itself.
  3. It shows that you have a grasp of the whole text, and its most relevant moments and character developments. It stays focused, and avoids non-essential themes and ideas. But at the same time:
  4. It addresses more than one dimension of the question. For example, in response to a question about the author’s motives for a character’s death, you deal with more than one.
  5. It has a beginning, middle, and end.

A less effective short essay essentially does none of the above. But here are some other characteristics:

  1. It offers few or no quotations of textual evidence. It asks the reader to trust that you have read the text, without doing enough direct interpretation.
  2. It spends too many words on plot summary at the expense of analysis.
  3. It avoids the terms of the question in favour of the themes and ideas you’d rather talk about.
  4. It repeats your terms or thesis more than twice.


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