Writing an exam answer

English Language > Extended Reading > Writing an exam answer

Using close reading

You know that to support your points you need to use quotations. You also need to make the most of them. Using a quotation and moving on immediately will not get you as many marks as making a close analysis of the language in the quotation and using that to support your point.

There are several ways you can do this:

  • Pick out a word from the quotation and explore what the choice of that word means. The connotations of a word are the things or ideas it reminds you of, rather than its meaning. Some words might have connotations which are important to the point you are making, eg The word ‘scythe’ has connotations of death; it might be being used to create an ominous atmosphere.

  • Perhaps your quotation has a metaphor, simile, or other device in it– what is the effect of that technique? Make sure you that if you use a quotation with a literary technique in it, you name the technique in whatever comment you make about it.

  • Link the quotation to something elsewhere in the text. Perhaps it reminds the reader of another event in the text. Perhaps the same word is used to describe another person or event.

For example, ‘How does the setting in Of Mice and Men reflect the themes of the novel?’ ‘The opening scene of the novel shows a peaceful natural setting. However, from the very beginning of this peaceful description there is a note of warning: it is only a ‘few miles south of Soledad’. ‘Soledad’ is the name of a town, but it also means ‘loneliness’ in Spanish, which reflects one of the main themes of the book. It is a theme which is picked up by various characters, including Curly’s wife who gets ‘awful lonely’. The use of this place name at the beginning of the book creates an ominous effect.’

If you are not allowed to take your book into the examination you need to learn some quotations – but pick them carefully. Short phrases which can support different points are best. It’s also a good idea to make sure at least two of the quotations have a literary technique in them.

Even if you can take the book in, you need to identify good quotations for different points during your revision period.

Finishing the essay

You need to make sure you finish with a conclusion – even if it’s only a couple of sentences. Summarise the main points from your essay. Now is not the time to say anything new. Finally, finish with a sentence which answers the question which was asked. A strong conclusion will leave the examiner with a positive impression of your work.

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