May 11

Exam Season Series: 3 Principles for Writing a Great Essay

Writing an English essay paper as part of your GCSE or A level exams does not need to be a daunting experience. As I tell my students, there are 3 basic principles you need to apply to your writing in order to make that blank page become a great essay piece.

1. Planning, planning and more planning
Students often feel the pressure of time, especially when sitting exams. The reality is deadlines are a part of everyday life and the key is to be prepared.

Spending 10 minutes of your time planning your approach to writing the essay – whether for an English exam paper or any other subject – will definitely pay off. For one, you will avoid arriving at an ‘ideas dead end’ if you have thought about what you’re going to write, and made a brief and clear plan – after all, you would not go on a journey without knowing how you are going to get there.

As a guide for students sitting GCSEs, one trick is to aim to make very brief notes for about 5 paragraphs, irrespective of the essay format. Each paragraph should be mapped out as follows;

  • Paragraph 1 to open up the topic
  • Paragraphs 2, 3 and 4 to make the points with supporting evidence, examples or explanation
  • Paragraph 5 to conclude.

Remember, you don’t have to write everything out in full – just scribbles that you’ll understand to remind you of your ideas and what you want to write. A plan for your writing operates exactly like a map. Follow the map and you will not get lost – or off topic!

2. Keep the reader awake!
Clarity and variety are keys to good essay writing. Examiners will have between 300 and 1000 essay scripts to read in a very short space of time and you really do want them to stay awake when they get to yours!

In order to make a good impression and gain valuable marks in your exams;

  • Ensure your writing is easy to understand and interesting to read
  • Vary the words you use – you can achieve this by improving the scope of your vocabulary
  • Use clear punctuation and grammar
  • Use markers at the start of each point you are making.

One important point to remember is paragraphing your work. It does not matter how interesting your work is; if you forget to paragraph your work, your exam essays can never achieve those higher marks – not to mention the fact that a massive block of writing is very daunting to any reader!

3. Rest and re-read
Finally – and really importantly – give yourself time to check over your writing. It is surprising how many marks you can catch before they fall by checking that what you have written makes sense.

The best way to approach this is to finish writing and sit back for a couple of minutes. Just rest and do absolutely nothing. Then go back to the start and carefully read over the writing to check two things; firstly, spelling, punctuation and grammar, and secondly, that your writing would make sense to the reader.

It is really difficult to read your own work objectively but if you want the grades then it is what you need to do. Be critical. Do everything you can to find those little mistakes that could make the difference between a grade D/level 3 and a grade C/level 4.

Better yet, nipping those errors in the bud means you can reach for the very highest grades, those A/A* – levels 8/9.

Claudia Kelly is Fleet Tutors’ Education Programme Leader and educationalist whose extensive experience also spans teaching GSCE English.