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The critical essay paper
Understanding the question
Obviously, you don’t know in advance what the questions will be in this year’s paper, but they will follow the pattern of those in previous years. Understanding exactly what you are being asked to do is vital, and you can train yourself to look for guidance in the way the question is worded.
Each question has two parts:
- The first part will often begin with the word "choose" and will ask you to select a text related to a particular topic or theme
- The second part will often begin with a word like "show" or "explain" and will set the task you are being asked to perform. Often this will have more than one part, such as: “Show how ... and discuss how ...”
Let's take one typical past paper question:
The following step-by-step approach is advisable:
1. Select a text that is suitable. Shakespeare's Macbeth would be a good fit.
2. Identify the key words in the question that set the task. In the example above, you might highlight 'inner conflict' and 'conflict with one other character', 'character development' and/or 'dramatic impact'.
3. Refer to these words throughout your essay, particularly in the introductory paragraph and in topic sentences at the start of paragraphs.
Planning the essay
As you only have 45 minutes to write each essay in the exam, the temptation will be to start writing as soon as possible. However, it is worth setting aside at least five minutes for planning. You can use a list, bullet points, spider diagram, mind map etc. or any other method that suits you. You can use the Dot-Dash tool in Pinball to practice creating quick mind maps.
During the planning stage you should break down the task into its various elements that should be dealt with in turn. At this stage, try to ensure that you have considered the main aspects of the whole text and that you haven’t overlooked some key point. This will actually save time later: when you start writing you will have a clear idea of what you want to cover and the direction in which the essay is heading.
For example, for the question above, assuming you intended to answer on Macbeth, you might note down:
- Nature of the conflict before the murder: should he kill Duncan or not?
- Nature of the conflict after the murder
- feelings of guilt intensify
- ceases to listen to his conscience
- plans further murders
- loss of humanity as the play progresses, e.g relationship with Lady Macbeth/reaction to her death, etc.
- "Tomorrow and tomorrow" speech: loss of will to live
Conflict with another character
- Macduff does not attend the banquet; Macbeth has his family put to death; Macduff goes to England to help raise an army to overthrow Macbeth; fittingly, Macduff executes justice on Macbeth at the end of the play
Importance of the conflicts
- Character development: first three acts largely concern Macbeth’s inner conflict; decline from being a hero at the start to saying “for mine own good all causes shall give way” by the end of Act 3
- Dramatic impact: fight at the end is a fitting climax to the play; conflict becomes a personal confrontation between Macduff and Macbeth; Macbeth ends the play, as he began, as a fighter."