Advice from those who’ve been there
1 Just study, don’t procrastinate. #RepeatAdvice @SueBo_
2 Put away the laptop. Get your parents to hide the battery so you won’t be tempted. @paddykell
3 Draw up a realistic timetable. Short, frequent study sessions. You need to be doing more than your homework.
4 Organise yourself. It’s never too late. Clear notes, tidy folders. Don’t stress yourself out. @Orlaith_Farrell
5 Don’t prioritise any one subject. All subjects should get equal time. Allow two hours each weekend for each subject and around 30-40 minutes per night for studying what was covered on that day in the classroom.
6 Print chief examiners’ reports for your subjects. They give sample answers which you can use as a guide for answering style. #studytips, @NatashaLynchEF
7 How much time do you spend on the internet? Half-an-hour in the morning, an hour in the evening? It all adds up. Two hours a day is 14 per week, 56 per month. Imagine if you were to spend just half of that revising.
8 Fewer late nights. The worst thing you can do at the weekends is spend the whole night up, and the whole day in bed. Try to get to bed by 1am at the latest on weekends, and get up early .
9 Divide up work with a friend, then meet up, photocopy each other’s notes, teach each other what you learned. #studybuddy, @NatashaLynchEF
10 Reading a book isn’t studying – it’s reading a book. Set a target: “I will revise this topic for 45 minutes”. Take notes as you go. Put away the books. Do an exam question. Now that’s study.
11 Get familiar with the layout of the exam paper. Some papers are tricky and complicated instructions could throw you on the day.
12 Don’t cut too many corners. Every year students emerge devastated because they listened to rumours about what was coming up. The truth is anything can come up. The papers are designed to be unpredictable.
13 Record your revision notes on a dictaphone, download onto your phone, revise on the move. #studytips, @NatashaLynchEF
14 Understand what you’re studying – or at least try. Rephrase in your own words when possible. Students who do well in exams don’t just vomit up facts, they demonstrate real understanding.
15 Keep the CAO in mind. Students tend to forget about what they put down on their CAO forms in the rush to study for the Leaving Cert. It’s no harm to keep thinking about what course you want to do, and keep researching different areas. @paddykell
16 Don’t talk about what study you’re doing and don’t listen to other people about what they’re doing. Lots of people lie about what they’re doing or not doing. The naturally brilliant friend who did nothing but somehow managed a B1 in the mocks is probably telling fibs about how hard they’re working.
17Eat! Porridge can be perfectly edible with some minor adjustments. Some fast ones include putting chocolate chips, bananas, peanut butter, or even molasses and strawberries on it. It takes the notion of inedible slop away and keeps you going all morning. @ClareReidy1
18 My friends and I started our own nerdy trend of dunking Nature Valley bars into yogurt pots, which I understand sounds revolting to some people, but it got us through. @ClareReidy1
19 Have something to divert your attention: being solely focused on a few days in June at this stage will fry your brain.
20 Exercise. Don’t study any later than 10pm, and if you can find the energy, go for a walk. It releases endorphins in your brain that make you feel good about yourself, and it clears your head after hours of studying. @paddykell
21 Peanut butter cups and chocolate bars with nuts are brilliant brain food, and addictive too. @ClareReidy1
22 Keep the exams in perspective. None of the following things will be dictated by how you do in the Leaving Cert: where you live, who you marry, how often you marry, how many icecreams you eat in your lifetime; your overall health and well-being; the number of stones that work their way into your shoes resulting in you repeatedly hopping about on one foot to remove them; the amount of love in your life.
23 About 75 per cent of Junior Cert and 55 per cent of Leaving Cert English is completely unseen until you open the paper. That does not mean you can’t study for the exam. You are learning skills rather than rote-learning information.
24 Read, read, read. If you don’t read widely, you’ll never become a good writer.
25 Learn quotes from your texts. Record them onto your smartphone or iPod and listen on the way into school.
26 Don’t learn essays off by heart. If you’re writing a short story, have some examples of characterisation and setting ready to adapt to your title. Creative writing needs to be vivid and entertaining. Show, don’t tell. The reader should have specific sights, sounds and smells in their minds-eye as they read your writing.
27 Read your work out loud. You’ll hear mistakes sooner than you’ll see them.
28 Judging a character is complex: examine what they say, what they do, how they look, what they think and feel and other people’s opinions of them. Don’t take them at their word – characters often lie, to themselves and others.
29Learn to spell the word character. There’s only one “h” and it’s at the beginning.
30Structure your answers. Stream-of-consciousness style answers rarely achieve a good grade, particularly if you get stuck exploring one point in excessive detail.
31 Essays on studied texts must use a formal style. Points must be supported with relevant and accurate quotes.
32 Know your single text very well, inside out. Whether you’re using reference or quotation to support your answer, you need to know the text in detail.
33 In the comparative study, you should ask yourself “what’s this text all about?”. When you make a list with that heading for all three texts, you can more clearly see what they have in common. You then need to find key moments in each to support your comparisons. And you should be comparing them all the time.
34 You have about an hour per section in the exam. Most people will write between seven and 10 paragraphs. Time yourself and write three paragraphs in 20 minutes for a bit of bite-sized preparation if you’re pressed for time.
35 Don’t listen to the poetry tips. Prepare your favourite poets well and you will be rewarded. The more you have to say about a poet’s work the better, so have a view which you can back up by referencing the poet’s work.
36 Practising past exam papers is a very important part of developing good exam technique. Start now if you haven’t already.
37 You must know the proofs and theorems and the explanation of the vocabulary used.
38 Use the official marking schemes. They often show more than one acceptable method of solving a question. The marking schemes also show you how marks were allocated by the examiners across all parts of all questions in previous exams, but there’s no real need for you to analyse this. It is not possible to predict the allocation of marks within a question – the allocation can vary hugely and in unexpected ways.
39 Suppose you decide to give five hours a week to maths, a reasonable amount at this stage of the year. Break this up into five 35 minutes slots each week-night giving you just about two hours at weekend.
40 Maths is the only Leaving Cert subject without a choice on the paper. Therefore you must keep up with the material covered in class.
41 Weekend study ideally should be used for attempting questions from past papers and sample papers. It is vital to know the exact set-up of your exam, how many questions, the wording used, etc. Time yourself to get used to the time restraints.
42 The project maths marking scheme is quite different from the marking scheme used in the past. There are five marking scales, with up to six categories per marking scale. It’s a lot more complicated than the previous system.
43 Begin with your favourite question. It will help settle your nerves on exam day. Of course if you prefer a sequential approach, do that.
44 It sounds obvious but get used to reading questions carefully. Make sure you’re not missing any information.
45 It is vital to practise and be comfortable with the basics before attempting the new word problems in maths. These questions have to be read very carefully. Try to understand the problem. Look at the information given. Jot down all the quantities given and what is being sought, ie, translating the English words into mathematical sentences. Often there is an equation that links the data you have with the data you require.
46 Sometimes you think you know a topic, but along comes a question which can be phrased in a way you have never seen before. Don’t let this throw you. The more practice you have from tackling different questions, the more confident you will become when you face a strange looking question.
47 If stuck, don’t look up the solution too quickly. You will often learn more by tackling it on your own for a while, even if you have to read the solution in the end.
48 Show all workings within your answer – do not do rough-work on a separate page. Don’t use Tippex, instead cross out any errors with a single line. You might get marks for the work you have crossed out, but not if it’s Tippexed. Also, if you solve a problem using a calculator, write out some or all of the steps taken. Don’t just give the answer. This is to ensure you get marks even if you make a slip.
49 Drawing a diagram or even a basic sketch can often be very helpful to get started in tackling a question, and may gain marks for you.
50 Get familiar with your formulae and tables booklet. It provides a lot of useful information. Use it.
51 Homework is actually study. It is recapping on what was taught on that day in the classroom and is more often than not, directly based on an exam question: ie, poetry questions or a léamhthuiscint or a character from a prós story.
52 Students often go home and learn a teacher’s answers on either filiocht or prós off by heart. You don’t need to do this. You should perhaps study how the question is opened – the structure of the answer – keeping an eye on relevant quotations used.
53 In the filiocht sections, if you can translate the poem you have virtually every answer required on the day as all poetry will be printed on the actual exam paper. The only areas that should be learned off by heart are the grammatical terms that will be asked in question 6A in the léamhthuiscint section – terms such as aimsigh and so on.
54 Past exam papers are vital. They show the layout of the actual exam and how questions may be subdivided in various sections. It is good practice to study a certain topic and then do out exam questions, keeping an eye on time constraints and sticking rigidly to them.
55 Keep re-reading the question over and over to ensure you are actually answering the question asked. No marks will be awarded for information that is not relevant. In the filiocht section, if you are asked on theme, only on theme and not feelings or emotions.
56 At this stage, you will have completed your mock exams and will have sat through two full papers in Irish. Whatever mistakes you may have made, will not be repeated in June. Remember, you will always learn by your mistakes. If you ran out of time in Paper 2 – a very long paper – you will need to adjust the length of time you spend on the various sections.
57 Don’t neglect the importance of the oral Irish examination which carries 40 per cent of the total exam mark. Know the picture sequences well as there are 80 marks going for this section. Practice asking questions. Students are generally better at answering questions than asking them. Also practise reading the poetry on a daily basis – with 35 marks for reading a mere 10-12 lines it is worth more that the entire poetry or prose course.
58Remember that this is a conversation, not an interview. The examiner is there to help you reach your highest potential.
59Marks are awarded for structure, communication, vocabulary and pronunciation, and vocabulary is really how you phrase your responses. Don’t use slang terms too much. Rich vocabulary is all about using a different way to say something.
60 Pronunciation is very important and accounts for 20 per cent of the exam. Listen to French, German or Spanish radio and record yourself to perfect your accent.
61Try spending 10-15 minutes a day on your oral work. Once you have learned a topic, practice it out loud on your own. When you are more confident, practise with a friend or a relative.
62 Ask your teacher to test you on previous aurals from years back as far as the early 1990s if possible. Listen to your own CDs and downloads.
63Log on to Google.fr for French, Google.de for German or Google.es for Spanish and search YouTube for clips in your chosen language. Even if you don’t understand every word, your ear will become accustomed to it.
64 For French, log onto tf1.fr and listen to Le Journal de 13h or 20h, a popular news channel on French TV. You can also listen to French news on rfi.fr and radiofrance.fr.
General language advice
65Do not learn off big long essays on every topic. You will get bogged down and become disheartened. Write three points on each topic and learn about 20 words of vocabulary. Make sure you have decent sentences to begin and end a written piece.
66 Don’t use Google translate as it translates literally and does not take context into consideration. Wordreference.com is an excellent translation site. It will only translate one word at a time, so it can be frustrating but there are interesting help forums on the site.
67Familiarise yourself with the way questions are asked at the end of each reading comprehension.
68 Don’t be tempted to learn off opinion pieces by heart. It is unlikely that the piece that you will have learned will answer the question given in the paper. You will be heavily penalised if you don’t address the question, even if the language that you have used is correct. Instead, build up your vocabulary for the different topics on the syllabus and practice with past or mock examination papers.
69Check out @PetitTweetCork for tweets in French to help LC students in prep for French exam. @NatashaLynchEF
70 It is best to spend 30 minutes at one time studying biology. Take a short, five-minute break after 30 minutes and then move on to the next subject.
71Try to spend about four 30 minute sessions per week devoted to answering past papers. These could range over the short questions in section A, the experimental questions in section B and the long questions in section C.
72About 25 per cent of the marks are gained from knowing your definitions. These should be learned off by heart.
73 Between 15 and 30 per cent of the marks are gained from the experiments. As there are only 22 experiments, it is possible to cover one experiment per day over the course of a month. When learning the experiments you have to know the steps taken and the reason for taking each step.
74Up to Easter, your study should range over the entire course. From Easter, concentrate on particular topics. These are the topics that come up every year along with any topics that are more likely to come up this year.
75Know what is involved: time – the geography paper is two hours and 50 minutes long; structure – five full questions have to be answered. All questions equal 80 marks.
76Plan your study. At least 80 per cent of your time will be spent on study so it is essential you acquire the skills to study effectively.
77 Plan reasonable targets which you can achieve in each study session, eg, write out 15 significant relevant points (SRPs) on your selected topic.
78Focus on topics that are examined every year. These include: core unit 1 – landform development; plate tectonics; human interaction; core unit 2 – economic activities in an Irish region; economic activities in a European region; economic activities in a continental/sub-continental region; economic elective – impact of EU policies on Ireland; multinational companies.
79When you read your notes, select the key words or phrases which will help you to remember what the topic is about.
80 Make a topic summary by placing the core theme or topic title in the centre then draw lines from the centre and write sub-themes at the end of the lines. Along each line, write the key words or phrases linked to the sub-theme.
81 Cover all the major topics. Don’t try to predict what will be examined. Instead, practise answering examination questions from past papers. Time yourself and see if you can write an answer in the time which the examination will allow you.
82Remember that the 30-mark parts of the question should have 15 SRPs
83 The usual key words are: “account for” – explain and give reasons; “compare” – point out similarities and differences; “contrast” – point out the main differences; “describe” – state the obvious; “explain” – write out the key points and write an explanation.
84Spend at least an hour-and-a-half on business revision every second night. So three or four one-and-a-half hours study sessions each week.
85The applied business question (ABQ) is on a five-year cycle, so the ABQs of 2008 and 2003 will be structured identically to 2013 and these ABQs must be practised first, before any other year.
86 Long question practice: 25-mark questions – spend 10 minutes on them; 20-mark questions – spend eight minutes on them. 20-mark questions are the most common and students mistakenly spend 10 minutes on them, which soon builds up to a lot of two minutes’s lost during the exam; 15-mark question – spend six minutes.
87The two most popular verbs are “illustrate” and “evaluate”. Yet with our above structure we automatically deal with these verbs. The example deals with illustrate and the student can use the advantage or disadvantage as their personal opinion by putting “in my opinion” in front or their advantage or disadvantage. This is excellent as it is a genuine opinion not rote learned from a textbook.
88 ABQ – you have 45 minutes to answer this section. It is essential to practise it as it takes most students over an hour to do this question. But after five or six ABQs the speed naturally develops. If you do not practise the ABQ, you will not get it done in under an hour in the Leaving Cert – major mistake.You should be doing at least one ABQ each week from now until the exam.
89 The long question can often contain one sentence, but there are two parts to be dealt with to correctly answer the question. The long question may also have a short story as an introduction, if so students must refer to the short story in their answer or marks will be lost.
90By now you should be finished, or nearing the completion of your special study. Look over the requirements for length, sources and background information, and remember someone will be reading 300 of these over a couple of weeks in the summer, so make it memorable.
91 Every topic will have details that are essential eg, terms such as fascism, sectarianism, ecumenism. Make sure you know essential dates and what order events happened. It’s like telling a story. Don’t leave out the important bits and it’s not very interesting if you tell it in the wrong order.
92 Don’t think of learning off essays. It would be great if you get the exact wording in your exam questions but it’s unlikely to happen, so think of moveable information that you can use to answer any question. Practise writing a point per paragraph; remember the answer is marked mostly paragraph by paragraph and if your work is organised and thoughtful, you’ll do well.
93 Remember, honours history is not about writing all you know about a topic. It is about learning to make links to the question you are answering with the information you know. For example, a question on the factors that led to the growth of fascism is not write all you know about fascism: you must isolate what brought about its rise such as instability after the second World War, the economic situation, threat of communism etc.
94Look at your documents: many students regard this question as a formality but knowing the topic, and how to handle written and visual sources can be worth an extra grade.
95Don’t forget to revise your compulsory case studies. There are only three, so make sure you know enough to write a mini-essay of two-and-a half pages in order to answer the contextualisation part of the question.
96The home economics course is huge. Break it down. Have a timetable, and take it one day or week at a time.
97Do three or four short questions every night. Each one is worth six marks – that’s 1.5 per cent of your total mark. Use your textbook to answer them, so you build up a bank of accurate information in your head.
98 Practice question 1 (a) in section B. You will have to analyse a graph or a chart in this question. It doesn’t appear in any textbook. You need to be familiar with it.
99 Read one exam question each night. Highlight key terms. What is being asked? Look at the marking scheme. How are marks distributed? Many students have the right information but lose marks because they don’t know their marking scheme.
100Know all the topics in your elective. Part (a) is compulsory. If you cut corners, you may get caught out.
is a first-year student studying English, Italian, French and art history in UCC.
Michael Dwyer is a fifth-year student in Gorey Community School.
Patrick Kelleher is in first year studying English and history in UCD.
Orlaith Farrell @Orlaith_Farrell
Susan Carey @SueBo_
Fintan O’Mahony, English and history teacher in Scoil Mhuire, Carrick on Suir, Co Tipperary.
Evelyn O’Connor , English teacher and founder of leavingcertenglish.net, which also has a section for on the Junior Cert.
Elizabeth Hayes-Lyne, French teacher in CBS Sexton St, Limerick. schooloffrench.ie.
Natasha Lynch, essentialfrench.ie.
Eamonn Toland, themathstutor.ie.
Teachers from The Institute of Education: Sandra Cleary, home economics; Paul McCormack, English; Jim Carberry, geography; Michael O’Callaghan, biology; Carole Oiknine, French; Hilary Dorgan, maths; Keith Hannigan, business; Clare Grealy, Irish; Susan Cashell, history.
Guide to Essay Writing
One of the most important skills you will learn and develop during your university years is writing, in particular essay writing. It is important to realise that this is a skill which has to be learnt and practised, and that therefore you should apply yourselves from the very beginning, as you will be writing essays for which you will be graded from the early weeks to the very end of your degree programme. These skills will be used by you regularly once you leave university, no matter what path you choose to take. Essay writing involves presenting an argument and communicating. It can be easily imagined that this covers a vast variety of scenarios in which you need to be clear and persuasive: arguing that you should be given the job you are applying for, selling the outline of a film script you have written, presenting products at various forums, writing articles for publication, persuading your bank manager to extend your loan, preparing reports, beginning and sustaining your career in journalism, and writing lectures and class plans for your future students. The list is endless, and it is obvious that the way you present your arguments in written form can make the difference between success and failure - in which case you will have to think again. In some of the scenarios outlined above the skills required for essay writing should be slightly adapted but the basic skills and methods are in the main common to all forms of formal writing in which an argument or arguments need to be presented.
The focus here is primarily on writing essays concerning literature. You may have many great ideas and be a very intuitive and fine reader of literature, but no-one will ever know if you cannot express your ideas properly and your communicative skills are not developed. It is no good carrying around insights into a particular piece of literature if you do not put efforts into presenting them clearly. Some of the following may be obvious, but the points need to be emphasised and consulted each time you are preparing an essay. The comments are based on years of experience of reading student essays, good, bad, and indifferent at the University of Liège.
An essay should not be merely a list. Too many in the past have been a list of notes, or a series of sub-headings followed by a list of dashes (-) or stars (*) accompanied by one or two words and/or quotations from the literary text with no explanation of what they are doing there. Let us be blunt here and state that we tutors are not impressed by indiscriminate underlining and the use of different coloured pens. Sub-headings written in magenta, underlined in ochre, followed by a list of quotations in vermilion are pointless. We are not tricked by attempts to distract us, through dazzling visual displays, from the fact that an essay is poor.
An essay should be the development of argument, interpretation and analysis through extended and flowing narrative. To do this you need to work at the level of the sentence, of course, but also, very importantly, you need to work at the level of the paragraph. The paragraph is a coherent passage of logically connected sentences usually concentrating on no more than one or two ideas relevant to your argument. Do not use very short and unconnected staccato sentences. It takes experience and practice to develop a sense of when a new paragraph is needed and when it has been finished. Examine the introduction to this booklet and this guide to get some sense of how paragraphs, or 'idea units' as they have also been called, can be developed and constructed, and how their 'natural' beginnings and ends appear. The first sentence of the paragraph should generally be a 'strong' one, used to signal or indicate the idea to be discussed within the paragraph. Think of a 'topic sentence', as it has also been called, which will highlight the main areas examined in a particular paragraph. Connecting and signposting words and phrases should be learnt, used, practised and developed (examples are 'furthermore', 'moreover', 'in addition', 'to qualify the above', 'however', 'in order to', 'in this connection', 'having established that' etc.). The argument should develop through the language you use and therefore in a short essay sub-headings are unnecessary.
Several stages are involved in essay preparation, choosing which points are to be considered, deciding how you will deal with them, and the actual writing. As you gain more experience you will find methods and ways of working which suit you, your personality and lifestyle. Generally, however, the process will involve the following. You should examine carefully the statements made in the essay question, making sure you understand each word and what is being asked, as misreading and misunderstanding at this stage can be fatal. Essay questions can be very general, very specific and sometimes deliberately provocative, and an understanding of them is essential. Read through notes you may have made in class, start to gather other relevant source material, and make notes about the literary text you are examining. Ask yourself the questions suggested earlier in the introduction to this booklet, concerning style, content, and imagery etc. Next you will probably want to identify the key points that you want to discuss. There may be many points you find generally interesting, but ask yourself if they are relevant to the essay in question. To do this it can be useful to try to think of a title for your essay. This is not to be confused with the essay question or title, but is concerned with your response to the task set. What title would best give the reader an overview of your approach and analysis, and highlight the main points you examine and the conclusions you reach? (Suggestions concerning conclusions will be given later). You should not assume that an essay has to include and cover all the possible points an interpretation may offer up. A short, well organised and structured essay focusing on some of the main points is far better than an over-long and unwieldy attempt to say a little about everything. You may find it useful to state in the introduction which points you are focusing on and why. Keep your reader informed of the development of your argument. Let her or him know which direction is being taken and the reasons why. Once the main points have been identified you need to consider in which order they will be examined. Students often do not make the most of the good ideas they have because they get lost if the argument does not develop coherently. Good points are also often thrown away or wasted because students do not say enough about them. Make sure the relevance of each point to the main argument is clearly stated and demonstrated. You should dwell and linger on the points: often this requires no more than two or three extra sentences, particularly if your writing is concise and focused.
A good essay takes time to prepare and write, so start to think about it and do the groundwork well ahead of the essay deadline (even in timed conditions, such as exams, it is important to take the time to organise and structure the essay before starting to write). You will probably find that you need to work out your ideas on paper before writing the essay, and are encouraged to prepare an outline of the essay: a point by point series of key words, phrases and ideas. This will help you to organise the structure and to recognise what is relevant and irrelevant to the essay as a whole. Some people find that a plan or outline will consist of eight to ten words only. Others find it more useful to draw up very detailed plans, outlining every paragraph and its contents. Again you will discover which method works for you as you go along. Some students find it easier to think and plan the essay point by point before beginning to write, whilst others find that after some initial preparation, reading, organisation and thinking they can only develop their ideas through writing. Both these approaches take time, if the essays are to be done well. It should be stressed here that the first plan does not have to be binding and may change as the work begins and develops. The main point here is that essays involve a certain amount of planning and preparation even before the actual writing begins. Having emphasised that essays are hard work and take time it should also be stressed that it can be very stimulating and rewarding to work through a number of ideas in depth and detail. Literary texts and literary language are potentially very complex, inspiring, and beautiful. The ideas and images often demand careful thought and attention.
Computers are essential in terms of using the time you spend on an essay efficiently and productively. As stated earlier, good essay writing demands time spent on every stage of the process: reading and research, making an outline, ordering and structuring your ideas, writing and changing various drafts, and final editing and presentation. With this in mind it cannot be stressed enough how important it is for you to learn word-processing skills and to make sure you have access to a computer. Use the university resources. Admittedly the space available is limited at times but this is no excuse not to learn the skills, if you do not already possess them, and to find out where there are available computer terminals. Of course if you use university resources it is even more important to start your essay early in order to avoid the last minute rush as most students, not only from this department, search for terminals in a panic on the Friday before a Monday deadline. It is appreciated that students are very busy and do have a lot of work, but it is a mistake to claim, as some students have been heard, that they are too busy to learn word-processing skills. Ultimately word-processing will save you a lot of time. It is far easier to add and delete material, and to restructure and reorganise essays by moving material around, on a computer than if you are writing by hand. Software has become really user-friendly; 'Word', for instance, will tell you what to do in explicit English or French, and typing skills can be learned whilst typing.
Your essay will be the representation of an argument on a given subject or subjects. It will include only points which are relevant to the subject, so be careful to get rid of material that is not directly relevant. Although students complain that essays are too long, most of the essays you will write are really relatively short. Part of the skill of writing is to write concisely and economically, without wasting material or 'padding' the work with irrelevant diversions and repetition. Once the points have been chosen they should be presented logically and coherently, so do not leap about from point to point. Each point generally will have some connection to the preceding one and the one to follow. If you do leave one area of the essay to move into another, but intend later to go back to the point you have left and show, for example, how the points may be connected or related, then it can be useful to say so by 'signposting', e.g. 'this point will be picked up later', 'this point will be returned to later, after taking into consideration ...'. After each draft of the essay check that each point is presented in a logical and coherent order. Read each draft carefully and critically. Is there a significant idea you have not included in the essay? Do you need to expand some of the points you have chosen to write about? Are some of the points, after due consideration, not really relevant? Have you been too long-winded or repetitive? If so, cut out and/or reduce some of the text. Does your argument need to be clearer, and do the links between some of the main points need more emphasis? You should be asking yourself these questions throughout the whole process.
A particularly distressing weakness in the past, but hopefully not the future, has been the absence of serious discussion of imagery and literary language. Some students have merely stated that the author uses imagery, illustrated this with an example, and then moved on to the next point on the list. If you discuss images, metaphors and other literary devices, then say how and why they are being used in the piece of fiction, and maybe if you think the imagery works or not. If you do not say how and why an image is being used then don't mention it. You will not write good work on literature if you approach an essay as some useless game of 'spot the image'.
Throughout your years at the University of Liège you will be writing essays on literature which will inevitably include numerous quotations, either from the literature you are working on or from secondary sources, be they books or articles on historical context, literary criticism or other relevant areas. These quotations can obviously add much to the texture and quality of your work, but they are often handled very badly by students. Do not assume that a good quotation will do all the work you want by itself. Poor essays are often merely a patchwork of quotations stitched together by the briefest of comments, and it is a mistake to leave quotations hanging in mid-air, as it were, without comment or explanation. Quotations need to be framed. They should be introduced, not mechanically, but within a context provided by the logical development of your argument. (See Example 1 at the end of this guide). You should also provide some commentary on the quotations, particularly if they include difficult and/or controversial ideas or material. This is often likely to be the case as there is really little point in including 'bland' quotations in your essay. You may want to gloss, explain, qualify or modify the quoted words, or you may have included quotations whose assumptions or arguments you strongly disagree with. The latter case can be useful, if handled well. Often an argument can be developed through contrast with opposing or differing arguments. This tactic in essay construction also displays independent thinking in that it demonstrates that you have not unthinkingly accepted and believed everything you have read. One final point on quotations: do not plagiarise. Using other people's work without saying so is a serious crime. Tutors have read widely on the subjects you will be writing on and are very likely to recognise when you are plagiarising. If you use other people's ideas and words they have to be acknowledged through proper footnoting and referencing. (See Example 2 at the end of this guide).
Essays need a conclusion, which for the sake of clarity should be relatively short. It is generally best not to include new ideas or new material in your concluding comments, particularly since many people think that a conclusion should be a summary of the prior arguments. You may, however, point to alternative conclusions or arguments, or briefly suggest areas of interest that have not been dealt with directly by the essay. People often get the wrong idea about conclusions and believe that this is the place to state firm convictions, and that a conclusion has to make a stand and come down on the side of one argument or another. This can be the case but it is not necessarily so. If an essay title comes in the form of a question, for example 'Is James Joyce seeking to distance himself from traditional forms of Irish culture?', and you cannot decide, do not think that this is a problem. It is as much a sign of intelligence to state that you cannot decide as it is to sift through the evidence and decide one way or the other. Think about why you cannot decide. Perhaps the evidence is conflicting. Perhaps the literary text and its use of imagery is ambiguous, or even contradictory; as is often the case. If you cannot decide, then say so, outlining why you cannot decide. Alternatively, you may partly agree or partly disagree with the statements or questions raised by the title, or by questions raised directly in responding to the title. If so, say so. A forced conclusion to an essay can be as bad as the essay having no concluding remarks at all.
In connection to the last point it should be emphasised that any essay should be about your ideas and your interpretation of the literature being studied. Of course your ideas may, and indeed should, develop through discussions with friends, fellow students, tutors and through the consultation of books and articles, but it is your ideas which should form the basis of the essay. Whilst you will use material that is not your own, it is the way that you use, add to, adapt and modify this material that makes the argument your own and original. Your own voice should be heard. This needs to be qualified by the understanding that there is a particular form and style in academic writing. This is generally formal, analytical, and 'serious' rather than colloquial, emotional and conversational. Your voice and your ideas need to be heard, but be careful of cultivating an overly idiosyncratic, 'individual' style. Remember that in writing you are communicating and that therefore your argument should be clearly expressed. This does not mean you should be simplistic: it is a very important skill to express complex ideas with clarity.
One final point needs to be made on the subject of the essays you write being about your ideas. Some of you may find this an extraordinary statement but it is a bad idea to tailor and construct your essay around what you believe your tutor or the head of the course thinks about the text, and what you think she or he wants to hear. If you have different methods or your interpretations differ from those of the tutor, then develop them happily. Remember that essay writing is all about presenting an argument and using evidence from the text and elsewhere to back up your statements, and if you do this well you will be given credit for it whether or not the tutor agrees with the overall argument. It is not particularly interesting for tutors to read in essays only what they have said in class, particularly if this is reproduced in a flat, unconvincing, and unconvinced manner. Of course you may agree and be persuaded by arguments and interpretations outlined in class but if you do not believe the arguments you reproduce in the essay it will be obvious and the tutor will wonder why you bothered to include them. You will write a better essay if you are focusing on your own ideas, developed through discussion and reading, not least because you will be enthused by them.
Eventually your ideas will be thought through, outlines planned and re-planned, main points developed, written down on paper, then rewritten, and finally given to your tutor. Nevertheless your work on the essay has not yet finished. Once the essay has been graded and returned it is very important that you do not merely look at the grade you have received before putting it at the bottom of your files. Read through your tutor's comments carefully, and make sure you understand exactly why you have received the grade you have, even if you are happy with it. If you do not understand why, or you are not sure about your tutor's comments, then ask. If it is not possible to ask during class or you would prefer to talk privately go to your tutor during office hours, or make an appointment if these clash with other classes. Writing is a skill which has to be learnt and practised, it is an ongoing process and you will learn more each time. Follow up work once the essay has been returned is an important part of this process.
Example 1: Using Quotations
The extract below, from a paper on Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, shows how quotations can be used. Because the paper quotes from the novel extensively, page numbers are found within the main body of the text, in parentheses, after complete bibliographical details have been provided in a footnote to the first quotation. Quotations from secondary sources are referenced by footnotes. Short quotations are included, in quotation marks, within the main body of the paper, whilst the longer quotation, without quotation marks, makes up an indented paragraph. Note that even when the writing by the author of the paper is combined with quotations from the novel and secondary sources the sentences are still grammatically correct and coherent.
Jean Brodie is convinced of the rightness of her own power, and uses it in a frightening manner: 'Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life'.1 This is Miss Brodie's adoption of the Jesuit formula, but, whereas they claim the child for God, she moulds the child for her own ends. 'You are mine,' she says, '... of my stamp and cut ...' (129). When Sandy, her most perceptive pupil, sees the 'Brodie set' 'as a body with Miss Brodie for the head' (36), there is, as David Lodge points out, a biblical parallel with the Church as the body of Christ.2 God is Miss Jean Brodie's rival, and this is demonstrated in a literal way when one of her girls, Eunice, grows religious and is preparing herself for confirmation. She becomes increasingly independent of Miss Brodie's influence and decides to go on the Modern side in the Senior school although Jean Brodie makes clear her own preference for the Classical. Eunice refuses to continue her role as the group's jester, or to go with them to the ballet. Cunningly, her tutor tries to regain control by playing on her religious convictions:
All that term she tried to inspire Eunice to become at least a pioneer missionary in some deadly and dangerous zone of the earth, for it was intolerable to Miss Brodie that any of her girls should grow up not largely dedicated to some vocation. 'You will end up as a Girl Guide leader in a suburb like Corstorphine', she said warningly to Eunice, who was in fact secretly attracted to this idea and who lived in Corstorphine. (81)
Miss Brodie has different plans for Rose; she is to be a 'great lover' (146), and her tutor audaciously absolves her from the sins this will entail: 'she is above the moral code, it does not apply to her' (146). This dismissal of possible retribution distorts the girls' judgement of Miss Brodie's actions.
The above passage is taken from Ruth Whittaker, The Faith and Fiction of Muriel Spark (London and Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1982), pp.106-7.
Example 2: Laying out a bibliography
The bibliography will usually include the relevant sources consulted in producing your essay, even if you have not referred to or quoted from them directly. The order is alphabetical and determined by the authors' names. Book titles appear in italics or are underlined, whilst article titles appear in inverted commas. When referring to books you should include the author's name, place of publication, the publisher, and the date when the book was published. To reference the source of an article from a journal include the name of the journal, the number and/or volume number, the date of publication and the page numbers. There are several styles for laying out a bibliography, but the same elements appear in each, and you must be consistent. Consult the handbooks to be found in the libraries for further details.
This is a model used by many British universities and publishers.
Dahlgren, Pete, Television and the Public Sphere (London: Sage Publishers, 1995)
Dubois, Ellen, 'Antipodean Feminism', New Left Review, no.206, July/August 1994, 127-33
Fussel, Paul, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975)
Gledhill, Christine, 'Melodrama', in The Cinema Book, ed. Pam Cook (London: BFI, 1985), pp.73-84
Lodge, David, 'The Uses and Abuses of Omniscience: Method and Meaning in Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' in David Lodge, The Novelist at the Crossroads and Other Essays on Fiction and Criticism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971), pp.119-44
Pettifer, James, The Greeks (London: Penguin, 1993)
This is the model recommended by the Modern Languages Association (MLA) and is used by most American universities and publishers.
Dahlgren, Pete. Television and the Public Sphere. London: Sage Publishers, 1995.
Dubois, Ellen. "Antipodean Feminism." New Left Review 206 (July/August 1994): 127-33
Fussel, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.
Gledhill, Christine. "Melodrama" in The Cinema Book. Ed. Pam Cook. London: BFI, 1985. 73-84
Lodge, David. "The Uses and Abuses of Omniscience: Method and Meaning in Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" in David Lodge The Novelist at the Crossroads and Other Essays on Fiction and Criticism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971. 119-44
Pettifer, James. The Greeks. London: Penguin, 1993.
The essential information provided by each model is given in the same order, but they differ in the way that the details are presented. Whichever model you choose or are instructed to use ensure that you stay consistent to it.
Consult reference works for further advice. These books are on the open shelves:
· John Clanchy and Brigid Ballard, How to Write Essays (Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1992)
· Joseph Gibaldi, MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (New York: MLA, 1995)
Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (London: Macmillan, 1961), p.7. All further references are to this edition and given in the text.
David Lodge, 'The Uses and Abuses of Omniscience: Method and Meaning in Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie', in David Lodge, The Novelist at the Crossroads and Other Essays on Fiction and Criticism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971), pp.119-44.