Improving your essay writing

Improving your essay writing

English teacher Kylie Nealon explains how to approach the text response essay.

Getting the text response essay right in a SAC or exam is, without doubt, your best chance to show off what you know about a text. But how do you do that? What should you include? What should you leave out? And how on earth do you get down what you need to in a single hour? Read on to find out one way of approaching this!

For those of you who love a formula, here’s one that might demystify the process:

E = C + S x A

E = Essay

C = Contention

S = Structure

A = Analysis.

Let’s break this down.


E = The Essay. Your text response essay will be your ‘answer’ to a topic or question. The two most common question types have a statement about the text followed by a prompt, either discuss or do you agree?

  • With discuss, you can frame what you are going to talk about on your own terms, but you always need to work closely with the idea or ideas in the given statement. You must avoid writing up an essay beforehand, memorising it and then going in and shaping whatever the question is to what you’ve prepared. Assessors will spot this a mile off, and you will score well below what you might have achieved by responding to the actual topic.
  • With a do you agree? type of question, you (obviously) want to avoid responding with a simple ‘no’ or ‘yes’ answer in your introduction and leaving it at that. (There really are students who will do this – don’t be one of them!) Again, you can decide what you want to agree with, and the extent to which you agree. State this in your introduction; it’s important that you signal to your assessor early on what you think about the topic. You can disagree with the statement, too!

Both question types can be preceded by a quote from the text – there were several of these on last year’s exam. A key thing to remember is that you don’t respond to just the quote. It’s there as a launching pad to help you explore the text and essentially show off what you know.


C = Contention. Have something clear to say and make this response your own. Use five minutes before you start writing to note down some key words that you can use to express your central idea or argument.


S = Structure. Many of you will be familiar with your old friend, TEEL. If that works for you, great. If you’re feeling that by now you can push that structure a bit further, then go for it. How might you do this? I suggest that you still begin each body paragraph with a key idea and build in several textual references, but be bold in analysing the authorial intent and include your (detailed) interpretation as to the ‘how’ and ‘why’. While TEEL works well for covering the basic elements, in breaking out of those boundaries you are showing what you know about the complexities of the text’s concepts and construction. You should also work to use metalanguage with more independence and confidence in a controlled and expressive way.

However you structure your body paragraphs, aim to lead the assessor through a clearly structured argument. It’s worth considering:

  • topic sentences for each paragraph
  • linking sentences to join paragraphs and connect ideas.

Above all, avoid retelling the story. This is a refuge of someone who either a) isn’t sure about the text, or b) doesn’t feel that the question is one they can respond to confidently.

  • If it’s a), then make time to get familiar with the text. Pair up with someone and work with them, get the audiobook, go and have a chat to your teacher – immediately! Like, right now. Then, come back and read the rest of this.
  • If it’s b), go back and look at the key words in the question. What important ideas are they asking you to consider? What character insights can you explore that show off what you do know? The key words are your way in – focus on them.

A well-structured essay is, for all you science-y people out there, much like a body. The bones are the key elements/ideas of your response. The ligaments are the topic sentences and the linking sentences that connect the body paragraphs. And while the skin is the textual details, the heavy lifting is done by the muscles – the analysis.


A = Analysis. This is what is going to make you stand out. Your teachers are doing a great job at going through your texts, making you consider connections and details. In order to do their efforts justice, now’s the time to begin thinking for yourself.

  • What do you think about this story/scene/chapter/character? What insight is offered to the reader/viewer? How does it propel/inform narrative/character understanding? This level of thinking is like the second layer of chocolate on a Tim Tam or the marshmallow on a hot chocolate – essential.
  • Don’t throw in a reference and fail to back it up or explain it. Make every word/quote/reference in your response count.
  • Pull apart a theme or character and play around with some ideas. Write a paragraph, hand it in to your teacher and ask for feedback. They’ll be delighted that you’re thinking outside the box and doing it at a point that isn’t just before your SAC or exam.
  • While they’re (mostly) rational people, English teachers do a small happy dance to themselves when they get a student who brings something fresh and new to the text.


Your best approach is to practise – a lot. But focus on parts of the essay rather than the whole thing, and don’t simply churn out essay after essay. Pick the parts that you’re weakest on and focus on them to begin with. Then branch out into bigger sections of the essay as you gain confidence.

Keep it clear, keep it concise and keep trusting that you can do this.


Not sure how to approach your text essay? Insight has two Insight Sample Essays for each List 1 text and List 2 text comparison for English. Each high-level essay features annotated assessor comments identifying the elements of the essay that work and areas for improvement, as well as tips on how to approach the essay topic and appropriate strategies for analysis.

Insight Sample Essays are produced by Insight Publications, an independent Australian educational publisher.


Photo credit: Festa/Shutterstock

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