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How to structure a GCSE English Literature essay
26th July 2021
Learning how to improve your structure when writing essays can make a big difference to your grade. Your GCSE English essay structure will not only help your examiner read and understand your essay with ease, it can also help your flow of writing when taking the exam.
We’ve listed out our top writing tips to help you with the structure of essay writing in English Literature.
And if you need a bit more help, we’ve got you covered: sign up for a free trial of Your Favourite Teacher to access 16 English Language and 14 English Literature courses.
1. Understand the assessment objectives
Before you even get into the exam hall, it is crucial to understand what is expected of you for each English Lit essay. You might have already come across the AO’s (Assessment Objectives). These are universal across all exam boards, and they are used by examiners to mark your essay.
Below are all the Assessment Objectives that your essay will be marked against. It is important to note that you will not be expected to have an equal amount of each AO in your essay, however evidence of each must be present to avoid losing marks.
2. Spend 10-15 minutes highlighting, annotating and planning
Read the question carefully.
Now that you know what you’ll have to include in your essay, you can tackle the question and begin essay planning. The first thing you should do when faced with the question is to read it a few times to ensure you’ve fully understood it.
Highlight and annotate
A top tip is to highlight the important words in the question. You can then start to annotate your paper. You might have an extract or poem, and even if you know what quotes or points you will make, it is best to read it through and annotate. You’ll likely find that more ideas float into your head whilst doing so, and it will help you when you write out your plan.
Plan your essay structure and ideas
It might be tempting to jump straight into writing your essay. Whilst you may have a clear idea of what you’ll write, it is always a better idea to write out a plan. This will ensure your essay flows and has a clear structure, and will also prevent your mind from going blank halfway through your exam.
Every student has a different way of writing a plan; you might like to create tables, whilst others prefer mind maps. But every plan should have the following:
A brief outline of your introduction
3 main points/arguments
Quotes to back up your arguments (and a note of the technique the writer is using)
Relevant contextual points for each point
A brief outline of your conclusion
This might look like a lot, but a detailed plan will actually save you time in the exam. Imagine how much longer you would spend searching for quotes or trying to come up with ideas! You should spend around 10-15 minutes in total reading the question, highlighting, annotating and planning.
3. Start with the introd uction
Now that you know how to plan, what content should you actually write in each section of your essay? The best place to start with any essay is an introduction. This is a short summative paragraph that will let your examiner know what you will be writing about, also known as a thesis statement.
The first thing you’ll need to do is address the question. Think about your overriding point or argument, or the bigger picture of your essay. This doesn’t have to be an elaborate, complex idea, but as long as your examiner has a clear understanding of your overall argument, then you’re good to go!
Top tip : Why not weave some context into your introduction? If you can think of a relevant point to back up your overall argument, it will really show off your understanding of the text.
4. Write the main body
While every essay will look different, you should generally aim to include three main points in the main body. You can structure this however you please, but keep in mind that you should use body paragraphs correctly.
Each paragraph should explain how the writer makes his or her point. For example, “Shakespeare uses metaphors to depict Macbeth’s deterioration into an obsessive tyrant”. Then, you should give evidence to support your point in the form of a quote.
After giving your evidence, you are free to analyse the quote. For top marks, you’ll really want to pick apart the quote, but your analysis should always be relevant to the point you have made. You might also explore alternative interpretations to really elevate your point, as it shows you have a wider understanding of the text.
By now, you will have included AO1, AO2 and AO4. Context (AO3) should be weaved in wherever relevant to your argument. However, wherever you decide to add context, always ensure it is relevant to your point. It is better to include fewer contextual points that actually back up your argument, than trying to add too much random context.
Top tip : If you struggle with structuring the main body of your essay, use the PETAL paragraphs:
5. Finish with the conclusion
The conclusion is the least important part of your essay, but you still need to always include one. It is a great way to summarise your points and explain your overall stance on the question. If you don’t have time to make it the best that you can, don’t worry.
The best way to do this is by writing a summative sentence for each of your main points. It is great if you can weave in some context too, but again, make sure it is relevant to what you’re writing.
You should also include a concluding sentence that might explore a wider social question or a wider point. To put it simply, you should try and make a point about the writer’s overarching intention, and perhaps how it might have impacted society.
To put these tips into practice, download our GCSE English Literature essay plan worksheet.
Study For GCSE English Literature with Your Favourite Teacher
Now that you’re a pro at structuring your English Literature essays, you can learn and revise your novels, poems and plays!
At Your Favourite Teacher, we have 14 English Literature courses that cover everything you’ll need to know to ace your GCSE English Literature essay. Each course is made up of multiple lessons that cover everything from context to character analysis and key themes. And each lesson comes with videos, quizzes, worksheets and more to make sure you’re fully prepared.
Summary: How to Structure a GCSE English Literature Essay
- Understand the assessment objectives
- Spend 10-15 minutes highlighting, annotating and planning
- Start with the introduction
- Write the main body
- Finish with the conclusion
What are you waiting for? Sign up for a free trial to start learning today.
How to Write an English Literature Essay?
In A-Level , GCSE by Think Student Editor August 26, 2022 Leave 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!
Table of Contents
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
How should I structure a GCSE style English Literature essay?
As with any essay, you should start with an introduction that directly addresses and answers the given question, and outlines in brief the points your essay will explore. A little background knowledge here wityh regard to the wider debate surrounding the question is also useful. When you come to writing your conclusion at the end of the essay, this should mirror your introduction, summerising what the essay has said and directly and concisely answering its question. Introductions and conclusions should be kept to only four or five lines each, with perhaps slightly more leant to the introuction.
As for the bulk of the essay, this should be made up for two or three paragraphs making in full the points that your have outlined in your introduction. Ideally these points will express two sides of an argument, addressing each others' weaknesses and countering their proposals. This cross referencing of your points is vital to a top-band essay. The points themselves are generally most easily structured in PEEL style: 'Point, Evidence, Explain, Link'. The start of the paragraph should make a point, then some evidence should be found for it in the text you are studying, which you should then explain and analyse as fully as you can (this is where the most marks are picked up) as to how it helps answer the question. The end of the paragraph should link directy back to the question, as well as the point that was made at its beginning.
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Understanding how to structure an essay can be difficult so we asked Hannah one of our English Literature Tutors to guide you through the process.
- Use the opening paragraph to frame the project, i.e. what you intend to prove/analyse in this essay to show your individual and original perspective on the text.
- Introduce the text as a construct making comments about why the text has been written and the context in which it has been produced.
- Include, in a succinct manner, the following: names of text and author and dates of publication/performance, some brief explanation of text’s reception and its context and a concise consideration of the relevant themes of the text.
- The key to a successful introduction is brevity , establishing the basic facts of the text whilst employing a clear critical voice: this will immediately establish an academic register in your writing.
- In this section you outline your argument in response to the title question, clearly sign posting to the reader what you intend to do in the essay.
- Acknowledge the terms of the question to discuss what the implications of the question are in terms of how you are going to write your response.
- Use this section to introduce your own interpretation of the question, adopting an individual critical voice to show your engagement with the text by expressing yourself imaginatively and creatively in your writing.
- As with the introduction, the thesis should be brief and succinct , giving the reader a general but engaging summary of what you intend to argue throughout your essay.
3. Main Body Paragraphs
- This will make up the majority of your essay and is where you explore each point of your argument. You want to ensure that each paragraph has one significant point which is supported with evidence from the text which you then unpack, explain and explore in relation to your thesis . Ensure that the point you make in each paragraph is relevant to the argument in your thesis and sustainable through textual evidence.
- The following outline is a useful guideline for structuring each body paragraph: (a) Point – opening the paragraph by stating the point you intend to make. This needs to be one of the ideas that is contributing to your overall thesis . (b) Evidence from text – this can either be an embedded quotation that enhances or examples the point you are making about the text OR a brief description of something from the text that supports your idea. Your evidence should be carefully chosen to clearly and efficiently back up the point that you are trying to prove. (c) Exploration of evidence and idea – this element of the paragraph is crucial as you are trying to prove an argument by bringing your point and textual evidence together to explore your idea. Explain how your chosen quotation demonstrates your idea and comment on the quotation in its context, e.g. relevant remarks about how the language used by the writer shows how they are trying to achieve a particular effect. Justify the credibility of your argument through a convincing exploration of your ideas. (d) Refer back to the thesis – having acknowledged the terms of the question and established what your argument will be in the thesis section, you need to show how what you have written in the body paragraph is relevant to your argument. A couple of sentences on this is effective for showing how the analysis you have just made is proving the argument of your essay.
- This section is where you lay out your argument, moving from observation to analysis to write an intelligent and convincing response to the question. Be efficient in your choice of quotations and textual evidence; using only what you need shows a succinct and thought-out response. Within these paragraphs always signpost where you are going with your argument to guide the reader through your ideas for a clear and concise writing style.
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- The conclusion of an essay is an opportunity for you to give a final, original perspective on the text. It should not be a re-iteration of the introduction or a repetition of the points of your argument. Instead, you should briefly summarise how the ideas you have written about overall agree or disagree with the title question and provide your own definitive response to the title question.
- The conclusion is where you can demonstrate your engagement with the text on a personal, as well as intellectual, level; it is an opportunity to be creative and inventive in your writing by offering the reader a final insight that they might not have thought about. You should ensure that what you say about the text in the conclusion is something that you haven’t had the opportunity to write about in the rest of the essay. However, keep the conclusion in proportion and avoid tangents that might obscure the positive points you have made previously: be original, yet concise.
- Some ways that you can conclude an essay might be: (a) Commenting on your personal reaction to the text. (b) Commenting on how the text still holds relevance for readers in the present day. (c) Commenting on why the text is successful as a work of literature in terms of its characters, themes or structure.
Overall, excellent essay-writing must be logical, persuasive and creative, teaming your personal engagement with the text with the ability to observe, analyse and argue a series of coherent and concise points. A well-written essay demonstrates a thorough understanding of the text as well as a unique perspective on a range of ideas presented in the text. Logical argument, close knowledge of the text and an individual response will make your essay stand out from the crowd.
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There are many key writing techniques required to achieve the best grades.
The video and text below look at some of the best technigues to help you achieve top marks
What are these techniques?
- Remain focused on the question
- Clear conclusion
- Organisation/ paragraphing
Good essay practice should include:-
- Make sure you write a brief plan for your answer. In your plan you should identify very clearly around six distinct points you intend to make and the specific parts of the text that you intend to examine in some detail.
- Spend about 5 or 10 minutes planning as this will help you make sure you have chosen the right question (because then you know you have lots of material to cover).
- This should be brief; you could include what your main view is and what other ideas you have.
- Don't list the poems or ideas you are going to include in the rest of your essay as you will be repeating yourself.
- Don't begin with ‘In this essay I am going to ...' and then list ideas.
- Try to begin by addressing the question straight away.
- Make sure you use them as it makes your writing clearer for you and the examiner.
- When writing your essay you should devote one or two paragraphs to each idea from your plan. Try to make smooth links between paragraphs.
- When you make a point - you must give evidence to prove it. When you make a point, refer to the text and give an example to back up what you say. The best way to do this is to use a quotation from the text.
- Remember to include quotations, but not too many and don't make them too long. A good quotation can be a line or two long or just a few words from a line.
- Do not copy out whole long sections from texts as this is wasting time.
- Don't retell the plot of the story. The important thing is to be selective in the way you use the text. Only refer to those parts of the book/poem that help you to answer the question.
Answer the question
- It sounds obvious, but it's so easy to forget the question and write the essay you did in the mock. When you have finished a paragraph read it through and ask yourself. "Am I still answering the question?" If you think you are not then you need to change it, so that you are still focussed.
- At the end, try to draw all the strands of your various points together. This should be the part of your essay that answers the question most directly and forcefully. Keep checking the question.
- Keep it formal. Try to avoid making it chatty, so avoid using abbreviations e.g. ‘don't', ‘won't' and do not call writers by their surnames so for William Golding you should call him Golding rather than William, which is too informal.
- Remember you do not have to agree with other people's points of view about literature. If your ideas are original or different, so long as you develop them clearly, use evidence intelligently and argue persuasively, your point of view will be respected. We want literature to touch you personally and it will often affect different people in different ways. Be creative.
- There is no one correct answer to questions on English Literature, just well explored and explained ones.
CHECKLIST AFTER WRITING YOUR ESSAY
- Written a plan and stuck to it?
- Written in clear paragraphs?
- Produced evidence to prove all your points?
- Used quotations from your chosen text(s)?
- Answered the question?
Generally speaking to get good marks you have to do the following:
To get a grade 9 or A* you need to be insightful, sensitive, convincing and evaluative.
For a grade 7/8 or A you need to be analytical and exploratory.
For a 6 or B you need to sustain your answer linking details to what the writer is trying to say and thoughtfully consider the meanings of the texts.
For a 4/5 or C you need to structure your answer to the question, use details effectively to back up your ideas and make some appropriate comment on the meaning of the texts.
For a 3 or D you need to answer the question and explain your ideas with some supporting quotations from the text.
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Plan your essay structure and ideas · A brief outline of your introduction · 3 main points/arguments · Quotes to back up your arguments (and a note
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It's better to cover a few ideas in depth than try to discuss too much. Spend one to two paragraphs on each of your key ideas or themes. Begin by explaining its
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Make sure you write a brief plan for your answer. In your plan you should identify very clearly around six distinct points you intend to make and the specific