It can be difficult when your teacher gives you an essay topic but you’re not sure what you need to do to write a good essay. This week, Insight writer and English teacher Kate Macdonell gives her tips and strategies on how to approach a topic for a text response essay.
By the time your teacher gives you an essay topic on a text you are to write an essay about, you will probably have a fairly strong understanding of the text. You should be familiar with characters (main and minor), the plot, the key ideas, some of the textual features used (such as key motifs or symbols), and some of the views and values evident in the text.
If you know the text well you should be able to approach the topic confidently, but there are some key strategies you need to apply in order to show off your knowledge of the text and provide a clear, comprehensive response to the topic.
1. Be alert to different types of topics.
In the course of your schooling you will see a range of different topic formats. Here are three of the most common.
- A quote followed by a question. For example:
“These deeds must not be thought after these ways; so, it will make us mad.”
To what extent does guilt play a role in the destruction of the Macbeths?
- A statement followed by ‘Discuss’, ‘Do you agree?’ or ‘To what extent do you agree?’ For example:
‘Night shows that human goodness can prevail despite the horrors individuals face.’
- A question – sometimes beginning with the word ‘How’. For example:
How does Gattaca show that valuing perfection above all else can have negative consequences?
- Regardless of the format used, all topics require you to develop an argument in response to them. An argument is a sustained and supported point of view. You should have a main argument and then three supporting reasons that you will use to structure your three body paragraphs in the essay.
- If your topic contains a quotation you must address that quotation somewhere in your essay. It is in the topic to direct your response or to present an aspect of the text that your teacher wants you to address.
- If your topic has the word ‘How’ at the start, you need to think about the ways that the text demonstrates the point in the topic. That means you will need to write about textual elements involved in the text’s construction. For example, for film these elements include close-up shots, the soundtrack and the use of lighting; for novels and short stories they include narrative point of view, motifs and contrast; for a play they include stage directions, symbols and dialogue.
2. Work out what the topic asks you to focus on.
It sounds like common sense but it is absolutely crucial that you read the topic carefully. You need to work out exactly what the topic is asking you to focus on.
Consider this topic on To Kill a Mockingbird:
To what extent does fear shape the lives of the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird?
Here the key focus is on fear and, more particularly, on how it shapes the lives of the characters in the novel. If you wrote an essay just about different examples of fear in the text, you would not really be answering the question. The question asks you about how fear shapes lives.
The phrase at the start of the topic, ‘To what extent’, also needs to be addressed. This alerts you to the need to consider the different degrees to which fear affects the characters’ lives. You might say that for some characters fear influences their lives a lot, for others it manifests subconsciously, and others face and overcome their fears.
Note also that this topic addresses the idea of characters – it doesn’t just refer to one or two particular characters. With this kind of topic you would probably discuss two characters per paragraph and possibly make a reference to a third. Although the topic alludes to all of the characters in the novel, you don’t have to discuss every character. However, you should know the text well enough to select a range of characters that help you to develop an argument in response to the topic. And your selection of characters needs to be careful: you do not want to miss a character who would be integral to your discussion, such as Atticus or Aunt Alexandra.
- A ‘to what extent’ topic does not give you licence to say, for instance, ‘Fear doesn’t shape the lives of the characters at all’ and then discuss something totally different. With this topic the focus must be on fear and the degree to which it influences characters’ lives.
- Sometimes a topic will have two or more elements that you need to address. For example, the topic above on Night asks you to explore the idea of human goodness as well as the horrors evident in that text. If you wrote just about the terrible things that Elie Wiesel bears witness to in this Holocaust narrative, you would only be addressing one part of the topic.
- Identifying any verbs in the topic will allow you to home in on what you need to focus on. If a topic refers to characters struggling to overcome a situation or longing for independence, then you need to show evidence of those experiences in your discussion.
3. Resolve the topic.
The phrase ‘resolve a topic’ is used quite a bit in VCE circles so it is good to be alert to it now. Basically, it means that in addition to developing an argument in response to a topic, you also need to consider, in light of the topic, the wider message promoted by the text and its author.
So, once you have an argument, ask yourself, ‘So what?’ and then answer that question. Your answer might be that the writer endorses a particular view (e.g. that it takes courage to face one’s fears) and a value (e.g. that demonstrating courage is essential if a society is to be just and fair).
4. Lastly …
The best way to feel confident when tackling a topic, especially under assessment conditions, is to practise brainstorming responses to a few. It can be useful to brainstorm initially by yourself and then to bring in a study buddy to play off and test your ideas.
Need help getting to grips with your English texts? Insight Text Guides provide clear, comprehensive analyses of a wide range of popular texts. They include chapter-by-chapter analysis, discussion of characters and relationships, practice essay topics, in-depth analysis of themes and much more. Head to our website to view the full list of Insight Text Guide titles.
Insight Text Guides are produced by Insight Publications, an independent Australian educational publisher.