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A Students’ Guide to Writing an Effective A Level Essay

Steve Campsall | Friday January 12, 2018

Categories: Archived Resources, KS5 Archive, AQA A Level, AQA A Level Generic Skills, AQA A Level Skills Resources, EDEXCEL A Level, Edexcel A Level Generic Skills, Edexcel A Level Skills Resources, OCR A Level, OCR A Level Generic Skills, OCR A Level Skills Resources, WJEC A Level, WJEC A Level Generic Skills, WJEC A Level Skills Resources, Hot Entries, Writing, Analytical Writing, Essays


Teacher’s Note

What follows is a guide written for students that, I hope, will help them write more effective essays. Even an essay that gains a lowly grade will often be the result of a substantial amount of time and effort from the student; and the chances are that he or she felt all along that their writing was ‘going wrong’ somehow – but press on they must, on to what must at times seem like the bitter end. How frustrating and perhaps even belittling this process can be for the student – and how much, too, it likely reduces that student’s chances of enjoying this genuinely inspiring and wonderful subject. This essay writing guide results from many years of teaching essays in a way that I have found seems to make writing them far more enjoyable. The ideas initially came from experience of the way American teachers teach essay writing skills. The method enables students to start their essays in a way that suggests an individual response, creates authority and impact, and also allows the remaining body paragraphs to flow on logically. This helps the student to write essays that are clearly structured and much more interesting both to write and to read. Crucially, it takes away the energy-zapping frustration of wondering what to write about next.

The guide can be used ‘as is’ as a printed hand-out. It contains exemplification based on well-known texts that is intended to help students understand the technique by seeing it work in practice. Better still, the guide can be easily adapted to incorporate any suitable ‘focus’ and accompanying ‘PEE’ paragraphs based upon whatever text you are teaching in class. Alternatively, students can be set the task of creating their own essays openings using a variety of short texts and essay questions, writing just the first three paragraphs to practice the method before going on to write a full essay. I have found that by asking students to hand in or email just the opening three paragraphs of an essay my marking load is vastly reduced and the resulting essay proves the maxim, start well, end well. The focus below is on analysing texts for their ‘persuasiveness’. In the case of literature, the intention is not at all to ‘reduce’ the pre-eminent aesthetic value of the genre, but to provide students with something on which they can focus relatively easily and which they can apply to the majority of texts they will meet at A level. This focus is one from which an effective essay easily can be created.

In the case of non-fiction texts that are more unusual, such as transcripts of children’s language for Language Acquisition units of teaching, the key ideas given below remain valid and useful but will need adapting to suit these unusual text types. A child’s language, for example, as with all language, is a response to context, and in some ways is an attempt to ‘persuade’ their interlocutor to engage with them in conversation and perhaps even to think highly of them in some way (as Lancaster linguist Professor Norman Fairclough usefully recognised, all language is an attempt to create an ‘unequal encounter’ where power differentials are dominant. In the case of children using language, this drive will likely be evident but more subtle as they are learning this aspect of language, too). Englishedu has many separate guides to help with these more specialised units of teaching. Steve Campsall

As a part of the assessment objectives, your exam board will give higher marks when your essays are accurate, perceptive and coherent. The requirement for accuracy is clear enough; it means that you gain marks for taking care over spelling, punctuation and grammar (i.e. sentence construction and variety). Being perceptive means developing sophisticated and subtle and close insights into the effects the writer creates, the methods they use and the purposes for doing so.

But what about coherent? The word usually appears as part of a phrase, ‘coherent and unified’ and this is what all essays need to be. It means that all parts of an essay that have these qualities will be a) ‘logically linked’ and b) lead towards a clear conclusion, i.e. there will be a clear viewpoint, a clear structure with no ‘dead ends’ or ‘wrong turns’ and no ‘waffle’. This guide will help you write more coherent essays.

For your writing to be coherent, your essay needs to develop either a single theme, or a closely-linked set of themes. All professional writing, both non-fiction and literary has these qualities (including this guide, hopefully!). Thus, if you read a sports or news article, you’ll find it also is ‘unified and coherent’. This means that absolutely nothing is included in the writing that isn’t of ‘use’ to its writer’s underlying ideas and, more importantly, which the reader will feel is going to be useful.

In your essay and exam answers, it’s going to help, therefore, to follow the professionals: to achieve unity and coherence. How to do it? These two qualities exist in writing that explains, explores, develops and supports a single ‘controlling idea’ or ‘focus’. This is what your essays need to do.

The skill behind a successful essay is in the initial planning. Unity and coherence can only be achieved when you have formulated, in your mind, a ‘controlling idea’ that will flow through the whole of the essay. In American teaching, a ‘controlling idea’ is taught widely from early years, and is called a ‘thesis statement’. The ‘thesis’ or ‘controlling idea’ is what creates the centrally important argumentative aspect of an essay, meaning that the essay is your written argument (and support for) your essay’s ‘thesis’, one developed through the creation of a series of ‘mini-arguments’ or points that support it effectively.

There’s a little more, and it’s where thought for the reader comes in. For writing – including an essay – to succeed as a medium of communication, it needs to be given a style and structure that is not only unified and coherent but also clear, precise and lively in tone. Formal writing is the clearest of all styles; but formality and liveliness aren’t often the easiest of friends, and this makes writing that is both formal and lively more difficult to produce.

Give your essay a focus


Readers enjoy the feeling, once they start reading anything, that the time given over to reading is likely to be time well spent. A way to achieve this is to give your own writing a clear early focus – and one that is of interest to your reader. You might think that in the case of coursework or other essays and especially exam answers that the focus is automatically provided by the exam or essay question. But it isn’t. The focus that scores marks is the one provided by you – in your individual response to the essay question, that is, your answer.

‘Answer’, of course, is a poor word for what an English essay offers. Unlike maths, for example, English essays offer only well-supported views and opinions – not answers. It is your opinions that are at the heart of your exam answers and essays; and for this to become the focus of the essay, and to be used in a way that will interest your reader, it needs to be made clear right at the outset.

With this achieved, your reader is more likely to be brought to feel an immediate sense of interest and to develop a desire to find out more about your stated opinion and how the text caused it to arise. They’ll thus be more likely to read on in a positive mark-giving frame of mind! This is totally unimportant in an objective subject such as maths, but is extraordinarily important in discursive subjects such as English (the skills here also apply to any essay writing, whether for English, History, Psychology, Sociology, and so on).

  • The focus, stated at the beginning becomes the first link in a chain that flows through the remainder of the essay. It becomes the controlling idea ‘behind’ the essay.

Below are two examples of student’s A-level essay openings. The first is based on the question, ‘How does Matthew Arnold explore ideas of faith in his poem Dover Beach?’ and the second, ‘How does Ian McKewan develop a successful plot in his novel Atonement?’

It doesn’t matter whether you know the poem or the novel as the ideas remain constant. These essay titles and texts are typical A level style question and you’ll see below, how the writers start their essays in a way that provides an interesting and clear focus and thus provides the beginning of what will become a successful controlling idea and essay.

‘How does Matthew Arnold explore ideas of faith in his poem Dover Beach?’

Arnold wrote Dover Beach in 1867, a time of great scientific progress and controversy created, most especially perhaps, by the publication in 1859 of Darwin’s The Origin of the Species. This coupled with ever-developing scientific knowledge seems to have sparked a general crisis of religious faith, bringing into question once near universally accepted religious beliefs. In the poem, Arnold creates an inviting narrative voice that through reflections on the past and the present brings the reader to a seemingly inexorable conclusion: that what remains to bring us comfort and hope is the faith we have in those we hold dearest, that is through ‘love’ and honesty, ‘being true to one another’…

‘How does Ian McKewan engage the reader in his novel Atonement?’

McKewan relies a great deal on the creation of tension and suspense as key plot devices to engage the reader. This is evident in individual scenes of the novel beginning in its opening pages with the exposition, in much of the rising action of the narrative’s development and, not surprisingly, in the narrative’s climax. Through these he hopes to successfully absorb the reader into the fictional story-world he creates…

Think about the idea of a ‘focus statement’ for a moment. What is it exactly? It is a succinctly stated overview or ‘conclusion’ that the writer has reached having weighed up and reflected upon the evidence provided by the text itself, in the light of the essay question.

This kind of opening works to create an inviting and interesting introduction to the essay because it states, confidently and succinctly, the writer’s overall view (‘answer to’) of the essay question. Of course, to be able to come up with such a statement, it’s clear that the writer will have studied the text carefully, but no surprises there.

  • An important key to success is to get to know the text on which the essay is to be based well enough to be able to develop a suitably subtle and sophiosticated thesis statement as an ‘answer’ to the essay or exam question. Under exam conditions and, especially, with an ‘unseen’ text, this is a challenge and points to the reason why examiners each year tell teachers to advise you to spend sufficient time on your reading and analysis before putting pen to paper.

Ideally, the thesis statement, always stated clearly and confidently will cause your teacher or examiner to think, ‘Hmm, yes… that’s an interesting conclusion to have reached! Let’s find out how it was arrived at.’

The Overview

You can see from the above example how, as a useful way to lead up to the thesis statement, the writer has added into her overview some relevant extra detail. This detail about the text and the writer helps show you’ve understood the essay question, the text and the essentials of the writer’s context. Contextual essentials refers to those key elements of an author’s context that gave rise to a desire to write the text.


Context can be a tough concept to grasp; and yet it’s central to all English studies, whether for English Literature or English Language. This is because in one way or another, what stimulates writers to put pen to paper is their response to some aspect of their context. In novels, plays and poems as well as non-fiction writing (and speech), and especially where the themes are moral, social or political (as is so often the case in A level literary texts), the text can often effectively be analysed as an author’s attempt to convince a reader to become interested in certain...

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