Advice on short-form essays
[I wrote this for students in my English 340 survey course, after their midterm in December 2012.]
A 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:
- It directly addresses the terms of the question, rather than adding extraneous information for ‘extra credit.’
- It quotes the text a few times, and makes use of this textual evidence rather than letting it speak for itself.
- 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:
- 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.
- It has a beginning, middle, and end.
A less effective short essay essentially does none of the above. But here are some other characteristics:
- 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.
- It spends too many words on plot summary at the expense of analysis.
- It avoids the terms of the question in favour of the themes and ideas you’d rather talk about.
- It repeats your terms or thesis more than twice.