Your approach to each essay will depend on what type of prompt is being asked. Be aware that not all essay prompts are the same, which means that sometimes your preferred essay structure simply won’t suit the type of prompt asked. This month we look at 5 types of essay topics – what you should watch out for and how you could approach your essay writing. The topics used in this blog post have been gathered from the VCAA English past exams.
1. Character-based prompts :
Cosi is more than an entertaining comedy. It reveals the sadness of the lives of the characters. Discuss. (Cosi, Louis Nowra)
These prompts focus on one or more characters. In this case, you would most likely structure your essay paragraphs based on particular characters or something in common with a set of characters. Essays can become quite repetitive if each paragraph is based around one character so try to add in discussion about themes or the character’s relationships with other characters. Remember that minor characters can be just as important as major characters.
2. Theme-based prompts :
To what extent is love an escape from the horrors of war in A Farewell to Arms? (A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway)
Usually your paragraphs will be based around particular themes. For example in this case, paragraphs may be based on ‘love’, ‘escape’, ‘horrors of war’ etc. These paragraphs can have character discussions embedded within them in order to demonstrate how the characters represent each theme. Discussion of the author’s choice of language such as symbols or imagery can be essential to the analysis of a theme.
3. Quote prompts :
Terry says to Charley: “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum. Which is what I am”. Does the film support Terry’s judgment of himself? (On the Waterfront, Elia Kazan)
These prompts can be character- or theme-based. However, it differs from other essay topics because it includes a direct quote from the text. Remember that the quote is part of the prompt, so ensure that you address it. One of the best ways of doing so is to incoporate the quote into the essay itself.
4. Question prompts :
To what extent does Pi’s imagination help him in his quest to survive both physically and emotionally. (Life of Pi, Yann Martel)
These prompts are usually structured, ‘how does the character do this.’ Since it is often focused on one main character, your essay will be rather monotonous. Try to weave in the main character’s interactions with other characters and how other characters influenced them.
5. Analysis prompts :
In her foreword to this collection of poems, Judith Wright states: “I think poetry should be treated…as a way of seeing and expressing not just the personal view, but the whole context of the writer’s times”. How does her own poetry reflect this? (A Human Pattern – Selected Poems, Judith Wright)
Analysis prompts are the rarest of the 5 prompts but don’t be suprised if you’re asked one. They focus more on the language part of the text; rather than the plot, themes or characters. Your discussion will revolve around the author’s use of language (metaphors, prose, syntax etc.). These discussions are typically viewed as ‘harder’ prompts because you need to think about how the author achieves a particular message about character or theme through their choice of words. Check out our blog post on metalanguage and what you need to look out for.
In a text response essay, you will be assessed on your ability to develop an argument/discussion relating to a prompt, your ability to analyse themes, issues and characters in an insightful way, your ability to identity an author’s intentions and unpack their narrative devices.
Remember, the reason you are studying your particular text is because it has some complex and thoughtful themes. You must discuss the text’s complexity, but in a systematic way. Start with the simple and obvious points and then show a progression of thoughts.
If you are getting around a mid-range C-B, you probably need to work on:
- Sharper and more analytical topic sentences. Make sure they directly answer the question and set up a paragraph that will develop the main theme in a thoughtful and profound way.
- Make sure that each topic sentence has a different focus so as to avoid repetition. In a B-range essay there is often considerable repetition of ideas.
- Evidence: you must be as analytical as possible and avoid general statements. Show an insightful knowledge of the text by choosing key evidence/insightful/ ambivalent examples in the text to support the topic sentence.
- Build your discussion around the author’s intentions, purpose, narrative devices. These will keep the focus on analysis rather than summary.
- Be sure to show readers/assessors that you are capable of precise and accurate analysis of characters, themes and significant moments/turning points in a text’s narrative.
The flow of ideas throughout the paragraph
- Take each topic sentence and brainstorm the points/quotes/insights that you must include in the paragraph. Group together similar ideas and then delve deeper.
- Make sure that your paragraph flows. Do not just cobble together a list of statements or quotes. Make sure that each point follows and adds to the previous point.
- Make sure you give priority to the narrative devices.
- Do not just add irrelevant details in order to pad the paragraph; or if there are two perspectives/views on the statement, include them separately.
- Please see sample paras on Romeo and Juliet.
- Awkward phrases: work on sophistication of expression. Avoid clumsy verb phrases. Use nominals. Work at incorporating quotes into the grammatical construction of your sentence. Use a combination of short, snappy sentences and longer sentences. Do not lose control of the subject. See Notes on Improving Expression.
Write a 1-2 page summary of the “most important” or key points/issues in the text. Ask yourself, if you had to write a response on this text, what could you absolutely not leave out, or omit to mention (taking into account that given the prompt, you may make a short or longer reference to this key piece of evidence/quote/views/values.)
- See Writing a Comparative Essay
- See Romeo and Juliet : Study Page
- See Macbeth: Study Page