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I often struggle to help students who want to improve their writing for English without realising that this means improving their writing in general. This article from Lifehacker explains why accuracy in your writing – all your writing – matters.

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I’ve recently discovered a great podcast by Mignon Fogarty, who goes by the online moniker Grammar Girl. Not only does she delve into the minutiae of the language, she also has some quick and dirty tips to improve overall writing.

One piece of advice that teachers seem to be giving students more and more for HSC essay writing is to find their own voice and express it through their responses. The students I know are struggling with this difficult concept, but I think Grammar Girl can help.

You can listen to the podcast and read the transcript here.

Many of my students are also more confident with analysis than they are with creative responses. I think this is partly because they haven’t made the connection between being able to identify and explain a literary technique, and being able to put it to use for their own purposes. Again, Grammar Girl can help. She also has some more tips on word choice and genre here. Finally, for those whose stories always return to them with the words “show, don’t tell” scrawled in the margin, some more help.

If you struggle with any elements of grammar, such as malapropisms, or punctuation, I recommend checking out the rest of the podcast episodes.

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A marker will spend around six minutes reading your essay. More than half of that time, and of the marker’s attention, will be spent on the first page. I’ve heard teachers say that they can just about predict the eventual mark from the introduction alone. So what are the ingredients of a good introduction?

Establishing statement

The first sentence of your introduction should show the marker that you have engaged with the syllabus. The best thing about this statement is that you can use the same one for each essay you write in a given module. Here are some suggestions for how to go about developing establishing statements.

Area of Study: your personal (not a dictionary) definition of belonging; an interesting quote about belonging; or a statement about why belonging is a significant concept.

Module A: a statement about the value of a comparative study; a statement about the significance of context or values; or a statement about why some themes endure.

Module B: a statement about why some texts remain significant; a statement about the significance of a particular composer; or a statement about how texts are open to interpretation.

Module C: a personal definition of conflicting perspectives or history and memory; a statement about representation; or an interesting quote about conflicting perspectives or history and memory.

An establishing statement can and should be prepared in advance. The other benefit of this is that rather than staring at a blank exam booklet, you have something you can write straight away.

Thesis

This is your one sentence answer to the question and cannot be prepared in advance. The good news is that it’s usually embedded in the question. If you’re given a quote or a statement to respond to, you can just repeat it, word for word, as your thesis. If you don’t agree with it wholly, you can modify it to fit your argument. NB: you should never outright disagree with a question; however, you can give a “yes, but” answer.

Texts

Introduce the texts you’ll be discussing in the essay. Be sure to include the title, composer, and text type. It is also important to format the title correctly: underlined for whole texts, single quote marks for texts that are part of a larger text; for example:

These ideas are explored in Raimond Gaita’s memoir Romulus My Father, and ‘Iron,’ a narrative essay by Primo Levi.

‘Iron’ is in single quote marks because it is one section of The Table of Elements. Treat most short stories, poems, episodes of television shows, short films, and articles the same way.

Main supporting points

Briefly outline your main supporting points. Each point outlined here in your introduction will get its own paragraph in the essay. If you’re really struggling with structure, just write out your topic sentences. You may or may not mention your texts here.

Reinforce thesis

Remind the marker that you’re answering the question by restating your thesis using different words or sentence structure.

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The ingredients of a strong essay are:

An Establishing Statement. This allows you to demonstrate your personal understanding of the module, and because it focuses on the module rather than on the question (we’re getting to that) you can prepare it in advance. This gives you something to write so that you’re not staring at a blank exam booklet or computer screen for too long. This should be the very first sentence in your essay and it should include key words from the rubric but also have a personal twist to show that you’ve thought about the key ideas in the rubric and gone further with them. A pithy quote can often make a good establishing statement. For example,

“Part of the beauty of literature,” argued F. Scott Fitzgerald, is that “you discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”

I like this one because it’s about belonging through textual engagement, which, as an English teacher, is my favourite way to belong.

Thesis statement. This is your one-sentence answer to the question. A lot of essay questions will give you a thesis statement, others will give you more space to argue your specific interpretation. It should include key words from the question and appear early in your introduction. The thesis should be something arguable but it should be stated as if it is fact.

This question gives you a thesis statement:

‘An individual’s interaction with others and the world around them can enrich or limit their experience of belonging’

This one gives you space to write your own:

Explore how perceptions of belonging and not belonging can be influenced by connections to places.

Topic sentences. A topic sentence is a mini-thesis statement. It should support your thesis the same way that a beautiful corinthian column supports the pediment of a Greek temple: with elegance. It should be concept based rather than focused on a specific text or composer; this will allow you to write integrated paragraphs. Taking the above thesis here are some topic sentences:

1. An individual’s interaction with others can enrich their experience of belonging.

2. An individual’s interaction with the world around them may also enrich their experience of belonging.

3. However, negative interactions with the world and others can limit an individual’s experience of belonging.

These are obvious (and, to be honest, a little dull) however, they support the thesis, leave room for integration, and remind the marker that you’re answering the question. You may also notice that topic sentences 2 and 3 have linking words in them (also, however); this gives the essay flow and helps the argument to hang together. Without them, responses can sometimes read like three or four separate essays rather than a single sustained argument.

Concluding statements. Conclusions are the most difficult part of essay writing and, to make it even harder, they don’t just come at the end of a response. Each paragraph needs a concluding statement that explains how the evidence proffered supports the thesis. A popular way to begin is, “Thus it can be seen that…” however, I prefer something simpler such as a restatement, in different words, of the topic sentence. An example of a concluding statement for the first topic sentence above could be:

Through relationships, individuals find and nurture an enriched sense of identity.

Strong sentences make strong paragraphs, which make strong essays.

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If you’re in Year 11, you can probably see the pre- and post-Trial HSC chaos around your school. If you’re in Year 11 and you’re smart, you might be thinking, “that’s going to be me in a year’s time.” If you’re in Year 11 and you’re really smart, you might be thinking, “what can I do to prepare and ensure that I’m less freaked out than the Year 12s are now?”

The answer to that last question is two-fold:

  1. READ
  2. WRITE

What you should read depends on the English course(s) you’re currently taking and what you intend to take in Year 12. Obviously the reading list for someone taking Extension 1 and 2 is going to be different from the one for someone taking Standard. Keeping this in mind, I will post separate suggestions for each course with particular ideas for different module/elective/text combinations.

The writing, though, is pretty much the same for everyone and it goes like this:

  1. Write notes in class
  2. Practise expanding and summarising your notes
  3. Write paragraphs whenever possible
  4. Write personal and analytical responses

One caveat:

IF YOU ARE INTENDING TO UNDERTAKE EXTENSION 2, START KEEPING A READING JOURNAL NOW!

I’ll say more about the value of a reading journal in a later post (or, as I often do, I’ll forget then someone will post a question, then I’ll write a post).

1. Write notes in class. Practise note taking from what you hear in class; not just what the teacher says, but interesting points that come up in discussion. Chances are you’ll have to do a listening task as part of the HSC and, in that type of assessment, to the successful note-taker go the spoils. Note taking is a skill that can be improved easily and quickly with practice. You also never know when an offhand comment by a classmate might become a kick-ass thesis for an essay.

2. Practise expanding and summarising your notes. Our Year 11s are gearing up (or should be gearing up) for their exams. One of the best ways to prepare is to make summaries of your notes. Of course, in order to make summaries, you need to have notes to begin with (see dot point 1). Before you hit the summarising stage, it is useful to go back through your notes and add to them. You can do this through annotating or rewriting. You can also work with a study buddy, filling in the gaps in each other’s notes. Summarising should pare your notes down to what you will actually use in an exam-style essay: themes/ideas, quotes, techniques, explanations. Check out earlier posts on how to summarise for specific modules to see what I mean.

3. Practise paragraphs whenever possible. A fairly typical English class may consist of a discussion followed by writing some short responses on a text. Rather than writing dot points or unconnected sentences, try writing short paragraphs. For example:

Question: What is the purpose of the prologue in Romeo and Juliet?

Answer 1:

  • outline the story
  • introduce the characters

Answer 2:

The prologue in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet acts as a Greek chorus. This dramatic technique would have been familiar to an Elizabethan audience. In the prologue the characters are introduced and their fate as “star cross’d lovers” is foreshadowed. The prologue also tells the audience the play’s message about the tragic consequences of continuing and “ancient feud.”

The second student has spent a few more minutes thinking about the question and may not have had time to check her text messages under the table when she was done. But she has also, with just a little time and effort, improved her essay writing skills. In fact, she has produced a short, but well structured, paragraph that would not be out of place in an essay on Romeo and Juliet. Every time you write a paragraph when everyone else is writing dot points, you get better at essay writing and they…well, you’re smart, you’re reading this, you work it out.

4. Write personal and analytical responses. I’ve gone over this in earlier post but writing personal responses is a really good way to start clarifying your ideas about a text. The analytical responses come next. My senior students are required to submit one extended response every two weeks, we start with personal responses and then ramp up to analytical. The students who do this consistently get feedback and get better at articulating their ideas as well as structuring their writing.

If your teacher doesn’t have a regular routine for writing and submitting extended responses, make one for yourself and ask your teacher for feedback. If your teacher can’t look at them regularly, ask a parent, a sibling, a tutor, or a study buddy for feedback, even if it’s just, “does this make sense?” Make sure you put the date on each response and file it away so when you’re freaking out this time next year you can look back and think, “yes, I am improving.”

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Step Two: Write

The only way to get better at writing is to write. Preparatory writing for HSC English falls into four main categories: notes, personal responses, analytical responses, creative responses.

a. Notes. This includes annotations and notes on your texts (this should, ideally, be done during the second reading), summaries of chapters, poems, acts and brief records of class discussions and teacher talk. Notes can be in any form that works for you. Try lists, flow charts, mind maps, colour coding, illustrations etc.

b. Personal responses. Before you take detailed notes on the techniques in your texts or attempt an analytical response you need to clear up in your own mind what you think about the text. A personal responses is just that: personal. Try to compose personal responses in full sentences as I have often found some gems in my own personal responses which I have then been able to use in an analytical or creative response. If you’re having trouble getting started with a personal response consider the following prompts:

did you like the text? do you think you were the intended audience?

did anything in the text connect with your own life or experience?

were there any phrases or words that you found clever, funny, jarring…?

did you understand what the composer was trying to achieve?

c. Analytical responses. Practice questions abound and are easy to find online. Your teacher will no doubt also be plying you with questions to work on. If you do get stuck, google your module focus and quotes. eg. Belonging Quotes. The results can be used as inspiration for writing your own questions, theses and creative responses. They can also help you to clarify your own ideas about the focus of the module. Writing a practice analytical response doesn’t always mean sitting down and banging out a handwritten essay in a strictly timed forty minutes, although you should certainly do this as often as possible before the Trial HSC. Other useful exercises are:

write five thesis statements addressing five different questions in ten minutes.

write the introduction, making sure you attack the question explicitly, clearly state your thesis and introduce your texts in a meaningful way.

write a page in ten minutes.

write one body paragraph, attacking the question through one of your texts. Give yourself five to ten minutes to do this.

d. Creative responses. These don’t just have to be about Belonging. Composing a creative response for a module can help you to approach it from a different angle. For example, an exercise where you write a dialogue between Roy Batty from Blade Runner and Frankenstein’s Creature can help you to delve more deeply into the characters and develop empathy for them.

Some other ideas to try

put a quote about belonging (or history and memory, or conflicting perspectives) into the mouth of a character as a starting point.

recount an experience of your own that relates to one of the themes or scenes in your text.

use your shared knowledge of texts to engage the reader. eg. “No one would look at me, I felt just like Frankenstein’s creature.”

write a piece of fanfiction for one of your texts.

In the HSC your creative response needs a thesis so practice making a point in your creative writing. The best works make the reader think and reconsider their views.

When you have finished a piece of writing, creative or analytical, ask your teacher to look at it and give you some feedback, either written or during a short chat. If your teacher is swamped, ask a parent, older sibling or friend to read it. Then–now this is the hard part–take in the criticism and have another go. Your writing and your marks will love you for it.

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Students of HSC 2011. You’ve already tackled one of the modules and probably completed at least one internal assessment. Not really happy with your result? I’m here with good news: don’t panic, it’s not too late to start transforming yourself into a top band English student.

How did you spend the Summer break? Did you read voraciously? Did you compose fifteen practice “belonging” essays under exam conditions using Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall as a related text? No? Not to worry, as I said, it’s not too late.

So what can you do now?

Step One: Read

Does that mean rush out, buy Wolf Hall and spend a week immersed in Tudor England? No. Wolf Hall is a great book but it’s over 600 pages long. Put it on the list to read after your exams are over. At this stage reading for English needs to fall into one of four categories:

a. Core text. Before you complete any assessment task you should have read/viewed your core text at least three times.

b. Additional readings. Your English teacher will probably give you a booklet or a brick of additional or suggested readings for each Module. Or, he or she may take the History teacher approach and throw sheafs of paper at you each lesson. Don’t let those hours at the photocopier go to waste, take the time to read the articles. Many of them will not only give you new perspectives and helpful contextual information but also show you good essay structure.

c. Related material (familiar). One good approach, when choosing related material for the Area of Study and Module C is to choose a text you already know well. Try to avoid texts you’ve studied in previous years, too many schools do the same texts and many set English novels from the junior years of high school are too simplistic for the HSC. However, if you have a favourite novel or film that you’ve read or viewed multiple times, try approaching it with new eyes. If you can make a list of techniques and how they convey a sense of belonging (or not belonging, or history and memory, or conflicting perspectives) then chances are it will work for you. Writing about a text you already like can also lead into exploring Belonging through textual engagement. I’m going to write about that more in a later post.

d. Related material (new). Any new related material–and by new I mean a text you have never read or viewed before–needs to be short. Good choices include: newspaper articles, speeches or monologues from plays (especially Shakespeare – great for techniques), short stories, essays (magazines The BRW and The Monthly are good places to look), graphic novels, advertisements (check out the ones that air during the Superbowl each year, they usually have a solid narrative, clear message and easy to spot film techniques) and websites. This list is not exhaustive, it’s just a little inspiration for students who don’t know where to start.

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