Despite my love for writing, creating and analyzing, English essays don't always come easy. They require depth in understanding, a considered thesis and strong evidence supporting your point throughout. It's important for you to know that writing a compelling essay in your English class is completely possible— and much easier with these few tips!
1. Tear Apart the Question
Take a look at the cognitive verb in the question (analyze, evaluate, explain, explore etc.) to know exactly what the essay requires from you. Annotate the question word by word to ensure you miss absolutely nothing— sometimes even one word can impact how you are supposed to formulate your work. As you're doing so, if you've studied the stimuli enough, ideas will already start popping up in your mind! Take these ideas and quickly jot them down as you annotate, so that you can return later and use them as food for thought. Doing this also ensures you have tackled and considered each part of the question, so there's no room for error there!
2. Get to Know Your Enemy
Your enemy could be Shakespeare, Jane Austen, a poem, a film or documentary— whatever it may be, it is ten times easier to write your essay if you know it back to front (or at least very close to that). You see, you never know which characters or themes will need to be highlighted or focused on, and knowing where to begin looking for evidence in your stimuli will save you a lot of time.
My suggestion is to read it once for enjoyment, or watch a film version if there is one available. This gives you a grasp on the story and characters, so that you no longer need to pay close attention to them as you read. Instead, you can then pay attention to the choice of words and/or imagery to represent themes and key messages. This is the knowledge you need to hold onto leading up to the writing of your essay.
3. Mindmap it All Out
Mindmaps, while tedious and almost painfully detailed, are a necessity when brainstorming your arguments and points. Mindmaps are brilliant for your brain, and even though they are challenging, they can also be therapeutic. Starting a mindmap is by far the most difficult part, so I would begin with something that you like to talk about and/or find fascinating about the story, and you'll see it magically branch off from there!
4. Gather Evidence and Pick it Apart - In Comes Analysis!
As you read or watch, pay attention to the metaphors used, and question everything. What might this mean? What if this foreshadows this scene? Why did they phrase it this way? If you do this and consciously recognize decisions that the creator made, it makes connections in your memory as you continue to read. These ideas will also connect!
When you come across a golden line or example that you wish to use, spend a solid 10 minutes or more pulling that quote apart. What does it say about relevant characters? Does it show a new perspective of the villain? Does it expose part of the plot twist? Just like when you're editing your essay, look at that section as a whole, and then go into the paragraphs/sentences specifically. Having general evidence for your points is just as important as using single sentences of direct evidence. As you're going, this may even branch out in a mindmap form. Pay attention to this! If one piece of evidence links well with another, follow that structure in your essay for better flow.
5. Create a Mind-Blowing Thesis
The thesis is arguably the most important sentence in your essay. It shows your grasp of the topic and context, along with how well you can think outside the box in response to the question. A thesis will typically directly refer to the question you are responding to, and to ensure that you considered each aspect. For example, if there are characters or themes that you are asked about, state them explicitly in your thesis. There is no way you can miss the mark this way.
Next, you should look at your braindump or your mindmap in search of connections to these main ideas. Come up with an overall statement about your position, and be clear. Don't try to use your great metaphors and subtle representations here— you need to clearly explain your take on the question, and then follow that with reasoning for why your point is valid in accordance with your stimuli. For example, this could mean character interaction, monologues, camera angles, acting... anything that is something you plan to discuss in your essay! Make sure to keep it relatively broad, though.
6. Play with Word Choice and Grammatical Structure
It goes without saying: do this within reason. Many teachers do ask for flowery and fluffy writing— it's the easiest way to see who is pushing themselves out of their comfort zone and learning new words or phrases. But, teachers will also take notice of how smooth your essay is to read, and will grade it accordingly.
Here are 5 interesting and engaging sentence structures you can use to mix up your paragraphs:
Short: Consist of around 5-7 words, used for power and emphasis. If you use this once or twice in your essay, they can help to highlight complex points that might be difficult to get across to the reader.
Adverb-start: Choose an adverb to begin the sentence, followed by a comma and then complete the sentence.
'Explore-the-subject': Introduce a character or alternate subject, place a comma and follow with 'who __' before using another comma and completing the sentence. For example, William Shakespeare, who is renowned for his plays, was born in 1564.
'W'-start: Start the sentence with a 'w' (ie what, when, who, where, why) to add more specific detail about the topic.
Em-dash: Use in place of brackets. For example; the vicious villain— mischievous, sharp, threatening— strutted comfortably into the throne room.
You may like to browse through those and practice integrating them into your essays.
Word choice can be hit-and-miss, and something that comes with practice. I recommend— and I'll go into more detail about this soon— doing as many practice essays as you can so that you can nail the real thing.
7. Make Use of Topic Sentences
Topic sentences are powerful things. That is, if used effectively. In some essays, you may be required to write fairly lengthy topic sentences to formalize the point you are about to discuss. In others, this topic sentence may set the scene or context for your paragraph by including a broad statement about the main theme. The shorter sentence may make for a more engaging read, but the longer sentence is a way for you to clarify your point in case you are less clear throughout the paragraph. It's up to you what you choose to do!
8. Be Brutal.
If you don't like a sentence or struggle to easily read over a section, cut it. Or, you can edit it. Chances are, if you're not fond of a particular phrasing or loose connection you made between the stimulus and the themes, your teacher will be as well. Provided you have time, I would strongly recommend removing it or asking your teacher for advice. In an exam, it's completely situation-dependent whether you remove/replace that section.
9. Practice Really Does Make Perfect!
Ah yes, the cheesy phrase makes a return. I can't stress practice enough, and as someone who has seen my writing excel and grow over the past 2 years, I am a proud supporter of the 'practice makes perfect' campaign. If you can find practice questions online about what you are studying, go ahead and put the effort into trialing new methods of writing until you find something that works for you. If you find something specific enough to your topic, this is incomparable in value when getting to know the enemy (just like in Tip 2!). The more you engage in the activity, the easier it will become.
Writing the perfect essay for English is tough work, and requires a lot of focus. Without a love for reading and writing, much of the work seems very dull too. Make sure that you take breaks while producing your essay (except if it's in exam conditions, of course) and to add fun bursts of creativity into the process. If possible, try to use the question as fuel for your own passions. I once had to write an essay about how climate change affected human health. While many chose to research the effects of unclean air on the lungs, I researched how the changing environment affected our mental health because I have a love for psychology!
Making an essay fun to write is also hard, and deserves an article of its own. However, I'm sure following these steps next time will boost your ability for the craft! Good luck!