You have such strong words at command, that they make the smallest argument seem formidable.
As with most subjects, the step up from GCSE to A level English literature is tough. You can get a pretty good grade at GCSE without developing a critical style or understand much about the art of constructing an academic essay. Students’ work is routinely littered with stock phrases such as “I know this because” and “this shows” all of which shift the focus from having to think about subject content in sophisticated ways to simply learning a collection of fail-safe formulas.
Of the 4 (now 5) Assessment Objectives against which students are assessed at A level, AO 1 often presents the greatest hurdle to o’erleap, so how can we teach students to “articulate informed, personal and creative responses to literary texts, using associated concepts and terminology, and coherent, accurate written expression?”
Here are three ideas I’ve found useful over the years:
- Writing a thesis statement
- Slaloming & tacking
Writing a thesis statement
Most often students write essays in response to a question. For example, ‘Cordelia’s death is the shocking climax of cruelty in Shakespeare’s exploration of evil.’ To what extent do you agree with this view? or,‘Tragedies leave readers and audiences with a final sense of emptiness and disillusion.’ To what extent do you agree with this view in relation to two texts you have studied? Test designers deliberately make the questions as open as possible to allow for as great a breadth of responses as possible, but attempting an answer can seem overwhelming precisely because there are so many possibilities. The trick is to narrow the range of options by constructing a tightly focused thesis statement which sets out the terrain to be explored. In addition, a good thesis statement should present an idea which can ‘tested’ against different interpretations and aspects of the text.
In the case of the question on King Lear we might come up with something like,
Cordelia’s death, whilst shocking, has more to do with the redemption of her father than as an inevitable consequence of evil.
For the question on tragedy we might construct a statement such as,
As both Richard II and Death of a Salesman demonstrate, the aim of tragedy has always been to leave audiences with a sense of catharsis.
Both statements can be tested, both offer students a clear way into an essay, both usefully narrow the field of possible interpretations to a more manageable pool, and both demonstrate to an examiner exactly what the essay sets out to prove right from the outset. Students can easily check whether or not their ideas are helping to build a case and pursue their argument along a pre-determined path.
Slaloming & tacking
Once begun, where next? In the same way that a skier slaloms between the poles set out on a downhill ski slope, so too should students follow a line of argument; not directly, but weaving in and out between the points they make, always progressing to a predetermined finishing line.
A line of argument should flow naturally from a well-designed thesis statement. Consider the example from King Lear above: Cordelia’s death, whilst shocking, has more to do with the redemption of her father than as an inevitable consequence of evil. What is the finish line? Such an essay begs for a conclusion in which death is seen in a larger context than evil, perhaps even with the sort of rhetorical flourish which links the death of Cordelia to the death of Christ, thus redeeming Lear and, by extension, the audience. Rather than setting off to stride from A to B, the path between our thesis statement and this conclusion is tacked towards indirectly.
Similarly, when a ship sails against the wind, it needs to tack in a zigzag pattern to make headway. These metaphors help students to see that the points we want to make can be approached directly or indirectly, but the indirect approach is more artful and elegant.
While there’s no substitute for a thorough knowledge of texts and contexts, the use of discourse markers – words and phrases that signpost our discourse – can be a real boon both in the construction of an essay and in the ease with which it can be read. Here’s a handy collection of such markers:
Adding: and, also, as well as, moreover, too
Cause & effect: because, so, therefore, thus, consequently
Sequencing: next, then, first, finally, meanwhile, before, after
Qualifying: however, although, unless, except, if, as long as, apart from, yet
Emphasising: above all, in particular, especially, significantly, indeed, notably
Illustrating: for example, such as, for instance, as revealed by, in the case of
Comparing: equally, in the same way, similarly, likewise, as with, like
Contrasting: whereas, instead of, alternatively, otherwise, unlike, on the other hand
A note of caution: it’s perfectly possible to include these types of marker in an essay and make it less readable. The key is to be clear about the connection between each phrase and its intended purpose. Some, like the markers for sequencing, adding and cause and effect make writing more direct. Qualifying and contrasting discourse markers – on the other hand*- allow us to tack in unexpected directions. And then illustrative and emphasising markers allow for useful slaloms.
So, not only should we select textual references and position critical perspectives which allow us to follow a course we select our language too. These act as buoys around which we must navigate, always conscious of the conclusion to which we’re building. Sometimes we need to explain away or argue against an irritatingly awkward piece of information, but that’s all part of the game in a subject like literature. It’s not true to say that style is valued over substance, you still need to know your texts inside out, but the point is not to arrive at a universal and eternal truth, it is to be both erudite and stylish in the construction of your argument.
And on that point, nominalisation is one such way students can appear more erudite and take on that all-important critical style.
This is simply the act of turning verbs into nouns. Informal communication tends to be active and depends on verbs to give a sense of immediacy and action. Academic writing is abstract and depends on nouns to convey densely packed concepts or ideas. Turning an action into a concept is to nominalise it. This is sometimes the difference between a good essay and a poor one: essays which are nominalised tend to exude confidence and authority, essays which aren’t can suffer from sounding a bit vague.
Consider these brief examples:
- Because Cordelia dies at the end of the play, many people decide that King Lear is a play about the consequences of the evil things people do. Before she dies Cordelia is ready to forgive her father and because they are reunited we think the play will end happily. This is also suggested by fact that she dies offstage and that we only learn about it when Lear enters carrying her body and howling. When he says “She’s dead as earth. Lend me a looking-glass; If that her breath will mist or stain the stone” he seems pathetic and feeble; his grieving is undignified. This could suggest not so much that evil has triumphed but that Lear has to lose the last shreds of his authority in order to be truly humbled.
- Cordelia’s death at the end of the play is often seen as evidence that the consequences of evil are inescapable. Before her death, Cordelia’s reunion with, and forgiveness of, her father is suggestive of a happy ending. The arbitrary nature of her sudden death provides further evidence of the inevitability of evil, but a different interpretation of the lines “She’s dead as earth. Lend me a looking-glass; If that her breath will mist or stain the stone” might lead to the conclusion that his grief and the pathetic desperation with which Lear clings to the possibility that she yet lives is proof not of the triumph of evil but of the need for the king to lose the last shreds of royal dignity and authority before he can truly experience humility.
Although both say pretty much the same thing, is one better than the other? Or more to the point, which better demonstrates “informed, personal and creative responses to literary texts, using associated concepts and terminology, and coherent, accurate written expression?”
Nominalisation sometimes gets a bit of bad press and Stephen Pinker demonises it as the ‘zombification of language’ with the passive lurch of an awkward noun replacing elegantly leaping verbs. Clearly nominalisation alone is not enough to elevate an essay, but teaching A level students about how to nominalise concepts provides them with a straightforward, easy to implement strategy to shift style from the clunkily informal to the confidently academic.
But, when learning to communicate in a suitably academic style, nominalisation is a useful jumping off point. It is an easily grasped concept which, once explained, allows students to see at a glance where their prose style can be spruced up. A simple N in the margin of an essay can be sufficient to prompt an elevation in their critical perspective.
I hope these thoughts are at least marginally useful, do let me know if you have any other handy essay writing tips.
* See what I did there? Sorry.