How to Write an English Literature Essay?

In A-Level, GCSE by Think Student EditorLeave a Comment

Writing an English literature essay can be very stressful, especially if you have never had to write an essay for this subject before. The many steps and parts can be hard to understand, making the whole process feel overwhelming before you even start. As an English literature student, I have written many essays before, and remember how hard it felt at the start. However, I can assure you that this gets far easier with practice, and it even becomes fun! In this article, I will give you tips and tricks to write the best essay you can. As well as a simple step-by-step guide to writing one that will simplify the process.

Writing an English literature essay has 3 main parts: planning, writing and editing. Planning is the most important, as it allows you to clearly structure your essay so that it makes logical sense. After you have planned, write the essay, including an introduction, 3-4 main points/paragraphs, and a conclusion. Then check through the spelling and grammar of your essay to ensure it is readable and has hit all of your assessment objectives.

While this short explanation of the process should have given you an idea of how to write your essay, for key tips and tricks specific to English literature please read on!

How to plan an English literature essay?

The most important thing in any English essay is the structure. The best way to get a logical and clear structure which flows throughout the essay is to plan before you start. A plan should include your thesis statement, 3-4 main paragraph points, key context and quotes to relate to.

A common way of structuring a plan is in the TIPE method. This involves planning each of your main points and sections on a few lines, in the structure of the main essay, making it easy to write out. Always highlight the key word in the question before you start planning, then also annotate any given extracts for ideas. If you have an extract, the main focus of your essay should be on that.

Planning should take around 10-15 minutes of your exam time for essay questions. This sounds like a lot, but it saves you time later on in writing, making it well worth the effort at the start of an exam.

Start each plan with a mind map of your key moments, quotes, context and ideas about the exam question theme, character, or statement. This helps you get all of your ideas down and figure out which are best. It also creates a bank to come back to later if you have extra time and want to write more.

Once you have created your mind map, find a thesis statement related to the question that you have 3-4 main points to support. It can be tempting to write lots of points, but remember, quality is always better than quantity in English Literature essays.

A useful method to help you plan is by creating a TIPE plan. With the following bullet points, you can now begin your own TIPE plan.

  • Thesis
  • Introduction
  • Points – you should have 3-4 key paragraphs in your essay, including relevant quotes with analysis (and techniques the author is using) and context for each point
  • Ending – conclusion

How to write an English literature essay introduction?

Depending on what level of literature essay you are writing, you will need different parts and depths of content. However, one thing that stays fairly consistent is the introduction. Introductions should hook the reader, literally “introducing” them to your essay and writing style, while also keeping them interested in reading on.

Some people find it difficult to write introductions, often because they have not already got into the feeling of the essay. For this, leaving space at the top of the page to write the introduction after you finish the rest of the essay is a great way to ensure your introduction is top quality. Writing essays out of order is ok, as long as you can still make them flow in a logical way.

The first line of any introduction should provide the focus for the whole essay. This is called a thesis statement and defines to the examiner exactly what you will “prove” throughout your essay, using quotes and other evidence. This thesis statement should always include the focus word from the question, linked to the view you will be arguing.

For example, “Throughout Macbeth, Power is presented by Shakespeare as a dangerously addictive quality.” This statement includes the play (or book/poem) title, the theme (or other element, such as the name of a character) stated in the question, and the focus (addiction to power). These qualities clearly show the examiner what to expect, as well as helping you structure your essay.

The rest of the introduction should include a brief note on some context related to the theme or character in question, as well as a very brief summary of your main paragraph points, of which there should be 3-4. This is unique to each essay and text and should be brief points that you elaborate on later.

How to structure an English literature essay?

As already discussed, the plan is the most important part of writing an English literature essay. However, once you start writing, the structure of your essay is key to a succinct and successful argument.

All essays should have an introduction with a thesis statement, 3-4 main points, and a conclusion.

The main part of your essay, and the most important, is the 3-4 main points you use to support your thesis. These should each form one paragraph, with an opening and a conclusion, almost like a mini essay within the main one. These paragraphs can be hard to structure, so many students choose to use the PETAL method.

PETAL paragraphs involve all of the key elements you need to get top marks in any English literature essay: Point, Evidence, Techniques, Analysis and Link.

The point should be the opening of the paragraph, stating what you are looking at within that section, related to your thesis, for example, “Shakespeare uses metaphors to show how the pursuit of power makes Macbeth obsessive and tyrannical”. Then, use a key moment in the play to illustrate the point, with a quote.

Choosing quotes is hard, but remember, quotes that are short and directly related to your thesis are best. Once you have chosen a quote, analyse it in relation to your point, then link to the question. You should also include some context and, at A-Level, different viewpoints or critics.

After these points, you should always include a conclusion. Restate your thesis, introduction and each point, but do not introduce new ideas. Explain and link these points by summarising them, then give your overall idea on the question.

If you have time, including a final sentence about wider social impacts or an overarching moral from the book is a good way to show a deep and relevant understanding of the text, impressing the examiner.

How to write an English literature essay for GCSE?

Marking for GCSE English Literature essays is done based on 4 assessment objectives. These are outlined in the table below. These are the same across all exam boards.

Assessment objective Requirements
AO1 Read, understand and respond to texts.

Students should be able to:

Maintain a critical style and develop an informed, personal response

Use textual references, including quotations, to support and illustrate interpretations

AO2 Analyse the language, form and structure used by a writer to create meanings and effects, using relevant subject terminology where appropriate.
AO3 Show understanding of the relationships between texts and the contexts in which they were written.
AO4 Use a range of vocabulary and sentence structures for clarity, purpose and effect, with accurate spelling and punctuation.

If you follow the structure outlined above, you should easily hit all of these AOs. The first two are the most important, and carry the most points in exams, however the others are what will bring your grade up to the best you can, so remember to include them too.

Context, or AO3, should be used whenever it is relevant to your argument. However, it is always better to include less context points on this than to try and add random bits everywhere, as this will break the flow of your essay, removing AO1 marks. For more information about the assessment objectives for GCSE English Literature, check out this governmental guide.

For more information on GCSEs, and whether you have to take English literature, please read this Think Student guide.

How do you write an English literature essay for A-Level?

Similarly, to GCSE, all A-Level papers are marked on a set of assessment objectives which are also set by Ofqual, so are the same for all exam boards. There are more than at GCSE, as A-Level essays must be in greater depth, and as such have more criteria to mark on. The table below shows the assessment objectives.

Assessment objective Requirements
AO1 Articulate informed, personal and creative responses to literary texts, using associated concepts and terminology, and coherent, accurate written expression.
AO2 Analyse ways in which meanings are shaped in literary texts.
AO3 Demonstrate understanding of the significance and influence of the contexts in which literary texts are written and received.
AO4 Explore connections across literary texts.
AO5 Explore literary texts informed by different interpretations.

AO1 and AO2 are very similar to GCSE, however the writing needed to achieve top marks in them is much harder to reach. It must be very detailed and have a clear, distinct style to reach high marks. These skills are developed through practice, so writing lots of essays over your course will help you to gain the highest marks you can here.

AO3 and AO4 often go together, as literary and historical contexts. AO3 is again similar to GCSE, but in more depth. However, AO4 is new, and involves wider reading around your texts. Links to texts from the same author, time period, or genre make good comparisons, and you only need to make one or two to get the marks in this section.

AO5 is also one of the harder sections, which involves considering interpretations of the text that may not have been your first thought, and that you may not agree with. This can elevate your essay to much higher marks if you can achieve them.

One of the best ways to get AO5 marks is to look at critics of the book you are studying. These are academic views, and to remember quotes from them to put in when they are relevant. For more information about the assessment objectives for A-Level English Literature, check out this guide by AQA.

Which GCSE and A-Level English Literature papers have essay questions?

All GCSE and A-Level English Literature papers will have at least one essay question. Essay questions are usually the longest answers in the paper. However, sometimes other questions may require an essay style format but shorter. The exact structure of the exam paper and where essay questions are will depend on which exam board your GCSE or A-Level qualification is with.

GCSE English Literature paper 1 usually requires 2 essays. Each question in this paper is an essay, and each has an extract to be based around, so focussing your analysis on that extract is the easiest way to get marks.

The marks for these essays vary depending on exam board. However, as they are assessed on the objectives above, you don’t need to think too much about the marks, as it does not work in the same way as other subjects with a mark per point made. Instead, essays are marked cumulatively based on the general level of discussion achieved.

GCSE English Literature paper 2 usually requires 3 essays, one in each section. Sections A and B are an essay each, without an extract, then section C involves a shorter essay on unseen poetry and a short answer question. This type of question is harder, as you have to really know the book you are studying in order to get a good mark and include enough quotes.

A-Level English Literature is based entirely on essay questions. The questions are based on poetry, novels and plays, some seen and some unseen. About half of the essays have an accompanying extract, however you are expected to have very good knowledge of your texts even for extract questions, so do not rely on extracts for quotes and marks.

The information above is mainly based of the AQA exam papers, which you can find the specifications to for GCSE and A-Level by clicking here and here respectively. While this is mainly based of AQA, the exam boards all have rather similar structures and so you will still be able to use this information to get a rough idea.

Top tips for writing the best essay you can in English literature

This section will provide you with some tips to help you with your English literature essay writing. I recommend you also check out this Think Student article on how to revise for English literature. Now without further hesitation, lets jump into them.

Focus on the structure of your English literature essay

A logical and clear structure is key to allowing your essay to stand out to an examiner. They read hundreds of essays, so a good structure will let your creative analysis shine in a way that makes sense and is clear, as well as not confusing them.

The arguments you make in the essay should be coherent, directly linked to the question, and to each other. The easiest way to do this is to ensure you properly plan before you start writing, and to use the acronyms above to make the process as easy as possible in the exam.

Always use examples and quotes in your English literature essay

For every paragraph you need to have at least 1, if not more quotes and references to sections of the text. Ensure that every example you use is directly relevant to your point and to the question. For example, if you have a question about a character in the play, you should use quotes from or about them, rather than quotes about other things.

These quotes should always be analysed in detail, however, so do not use more than you can really look at within the time limit. Always aim for quality over quantity.

Leave time to edit and re-read your English literature essay

After you are finished writing, go back and re-read your essay from start to finish as many times as you can within the exam time limit. Focus first on grammar and spelling mistakes, then on general flow and coherency. If you notice that you have gone off topic, remove the sentence if you can, or edit it to be relevant.

Remember, the most important thing in the exam is that your text makes sense to the reader, so use concise, subject specific terminology, but not unnecessarily. You do not need to memorise big technical words to get good marks, as long as you can say what you mean.

Read other people’s English literature essays

One of the least understood tips for getting good marks at GCSE, A-Level and beyond is to read other people’s essays. Some students feel like reading exemplar essays or essays their classmates have written is cheating, or that it would be stealing their ideas to read their essay. However, this is not the case.

Reading someone else’s essay is a great way to begin to evaluate your own writing. By marking essays or reading others and making mental notes about them, you can begin to apply the same principals to your own essays, as well as improving your writing overall.

Look at how they use quotes, their structure, their main points and their thesis, and compare them to how you write, and to the assessment objectives. Look at their analysis and whether their writing makes sense. This sort of analysis does not involve stealing ideas, but instead learning how best to structure your writing and create an individual style, learning from both good and bad essays.

You should also read widely around your texts in general. Read as much as you can, both texts related and unrelated to the ones you read in class, to gain a wide picture of literature. This will help you in unseen prose, but also widen your vocabulary overall, which in turn will improve your essays.

For more information on why reading is so important for students, please read this Think Student guide.

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