Insight writer and English teacher Claire Warr gives some tips and strategies to get your writing skills into shape for Section A of your VCE English Exam.
Staring at a blank page is not conducive to inspiring a coherent and fluent response to a specific essay topic. Instead of contemplating the entire response, break it down into smaller chunks. While you will only have 60 minutes to plan, write, and proofread your response in the exam, preparing and practising is more important than time limits at present. Try the following tips for building your writing muscles before attempting an entire response within the time limit.
Tip 1: If you read the topic and can only think of one or two key ideas, try flipping the key terms in the topic around. Consider the following example from Hannah Kent’s historical novel Burial Rites.
‘In the novel Burial Rites, prejudice is a stronger force than truth.’ Discuss.
‘In the novel Burial Rites, truth is a stronger force than prejudice.’ Discuss.
- This should help you consider the question from a different perspective. You might be able to come up with one or two key ideas about how prejudice is stronger than truth, as well as one or two key ideas about why truth is stronger than prejudice. This works very well with a ‘discuss’ type of topic and can help you to produce a nuanced response that considers different aspects of the theme or idea.
Tip 2: Note the adverbs and determiners in the topic, not just the key words or terms. These include words such as ‘all’, ‘every’, ‘most’, ‘everyone’, ‘everything’, ‘mainly’, ‘majority’, ‘only’, ‘never’, ‘always’ and ‘none’. These adverbs and determiners are designed to prompt you to challenge or reconsider the statement. Consider the following topic statement from Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.
‘It is only because of Estravan’s loyalty and resourcefulness that Genly Ali is able to succeed in his mission.’ Discuss.
- The determiner ‘only’ should alert you to consider all the other options – it is unlikely that any idea, character, theme or example will be the ‘only’ one, so this topic is inviting you to discuss alternatives.
Tip 3: Exam topics rarely ask you to tell the assessor everything you know about a text. Consider the topic as a slice of pizza, or a slice of cake if you prefer sweet to savoury. If the pizza or cake represents the entire text, the topic is asking for a particular slice, not the entire pizza or cake. Do not be tempted to slice a little more from either side of the portion to include a great quote or more about your favourite theme or character. Focus on your slice and monitor the examination calorie count!
Tip 4: Flex your reading and thinking muscles by looking at a variety of exam topics, flipping each to create new ideas (see Tip 1), and quickly coming up a contention and three or four supporting ideas in response to each topic. You can do this with any topic, even before picking up your pen.
Tip 5: Write the topic and your contention on a piece of paper (or type it into your phone), and give or send it to a friend or classmate. Ask them if you have answered the question or formulated a clear response to the topic – their answer should be a simple yes or no. If the answer is no, rewrite your contention. Keep rewriting until you get a yes.
Tip 6: Repeat the process outlined in Tip 5 with your supporting ideas. Write your key ideas down (no more than four sentences) and pass them on to a friend. Ask the recipient, ‘Does idea 1 support my contention?’, ‘Does idea 2 support my contention?’, and so on. If the answer is no, or the reader is unsure, start again.
Tip 7: Flex your writing muscles for introductions by beginning with quick-fire oral quizzes. Have a partner supply you with a topic on your text. Give yourself one minute to gather your thoughts, then attempt to deliver a verbal introduction that responds to the topic. Remember that your introduction should clearly express your contention and your main supporting reasons. Next, try writing an introduction in response to the same topic. Delivering your introduction orally at first can help you to generate ideas more easily, without feeling intimidated or defeated by the blank page. You can apply this technique during the exam, but remember the oral part should only be in your head!
Tip 8: Topic sentences need to express an idea or opinion, not a fact or an obvious restatement of a piece of information from the text. Consider the following example of an inadequate topic sentence from a response to Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant.
Rooke and Tagaran share an important relationship.
- This is a fact; it does not reveal an idea or communicate your point of view. To help this topic sentence perform its proper function of contributing to an analysis, add a specific detail that reflects your analytical thinking about the relationship. For example:
Rooke and Tagaran share an important relationship that develops from a shared interest in language and communication.
- The reader now knows what to expect in the rest of the paragraph – an exploration of the ways in which the characters’ shared interest in communication influences the development of their relationship.
Tip 9: Flex your writing muscles for body paragraphs by writing one at a time, rather than trying to complete an entire essay. Write one paragraph, ensuring that the content is logically ordered and supports your contention. Write a second paragraph and take note of the time it takes you. Keep going until you are familiar with and confident about the way in which you structure your paragraphs and can consistently produce strong body paragraphs within a reasonable time limit. If you have a rough idea of how long it takes you to write a single paragraph, you will be able to pace yourself appropriately during the exam.
Tip 10: Flex your writing muscles for conclusions by trying the following activity. Find a sample essay on your selected text. Possible sources of sample essays include friends, textbooks and your teacher. Read the essay but do not read the conclusion. Look at the content of each body paragraph and reduce each key idea to a single sentence. Now try writing a conclusion for the essay, based on the main ideas in the body paragraphs. When you have finished, check your conclusion against the one in the original essay. When you are planning your conclusion in the exam, you can apply this technique of gathering together the main ideas in your body paragraphs.
Now set the timer. Break a practice essay down into sections, try each tip, and remember that the key to finishing Section A within the time limit of approximately one hour is preparation, which is all done well before you enter the exam room.
Need help preparing for the English exam? Purchase our English Exam Guides by Robert Beardwood and Melanie Napthine. The Guides include revision strategies and activities to help you prepare for the VCE English exam. From time management to proofreading responses, Insight’s English Exam Guides cover all the knowledge and skills required for success in the English exam.
Any purchase of English Exam Guide: Area of Study 1 or the English Exam Guides: Areas of Study 1 & 2 Value Pack comes with 64 FREE high-level sample essays.