How to avoid “retelling the story”

Many students receive feedback from teachers to ‘avoid retelling the story’ along with red scribbles across their essay that state, ‘paragraph needs further development’ or ‘develop your contention further’. It’s a common issue across the VCE cohort and fixing it does take some time and practice. However, keep in mind that it is definitely possible, you just have to understand what exactly what ‘retelling the story’ means!

So, ‘retelling the story’ – it’s pretty much stated right there the phrase – it’s when you are re-describing or repeating the plot based on whichever text you’re writing on. The reason why it is so cringe-worthy is because: 1. you should assume that your teacher or examiner has already read the book before so they don’t need a summary of the events occurring in the text, and 2. you are wasting time by writing something probably a year 8 student could when instead, you should focus your time on providing a comprehensive analysis of the text when responding to your essay topic.

Here is an example of a student who ‘retells the story’ (using Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men - “Twelve Angry Men explores the importance of moral responsibility. Discuss.”):

“The importance of moral responsibility is shown through those who fail to possess any sense of decency or righteousness. The 3rd juror has had an estranged relationship with his son for 2 years. He does not get along with his son since the son is disrespectful to his father. This is unlike the 3rd juror, who used to show respect to his elders by calling his father ‘sir’ going up. He is ashamed of his son since his son once ran away from a fight which made the 3rd juror ‘almost thr[o]w up’. As a result of his personal problems with his child, he sees the defendant as another young kid that needs punishment for his wrongdoings. He believes that ‘we’d be better off if we took these tough kids and slapped ‘em down before they make trouble, you know?’. Since he is blinded by his own experience, he lacks the moral responsibility required to be a juror on the trial.”

As you can see, the student above has provided a lengthy explanation of the plot, rather than focusing on the keywords. ‘moral responsibility’, ‘decency’ and ‘righteousness’. The student could easily have cut down on the plot details and used the essential events in the play to act as the basis of his/her analysis. So what are the things you can do in order to provide an insightful passage without falling into the trap of this major English student faux pas? Let’s have a look.

  • Remember that an essay is based on your interpretation of the prompt – that is, whether or not you agree or disagree with the essay topic. Since you are putting forth a contention, it is important that you try to convince the reader of your own point of view. Unfortunately, this is not possible through merely summarising the plot. Try to break down themes, characters, views and values and language construction when elaborating on your contention. By using your own words to explain an idea, you can then successfully use the book as support for your reasoning. Remember that repeating the plot is not the same as analysing a plot.
  • Some students rely heavily on quotes, but this in itself can become a repetition of what occurs in the novel. Never simply rely on quotes to tell the reader what you want to say; quotes are there again for support and so, use quotes as a basis of intepreting your own opinions and views.
  • Keep this in mind, don’t tell me what I already know, tell me something I’d like to learn. This will force you to write about your own ideas, rather than repeating the author’s words.
  • Concentrate on a specific section of a plot, or a small passage in the novel. Avoid talking about too much at once. If you are able to achieve this, it will prevent you from falling into the path of wanting to write about an overall event of the book, which is inevitably summarising the plot.
  • If you believe that it is absolutely necessary to write about some of the plot in your essay body paragraphs, try to keep it to a minimum. Practice expressing the vital plot points in one phrase, rather than using 2 or 3 sentences to explain what occurs in the book.

Now let’s have a look at the example below. The discussion is based on the same topic sentence as that above however this time, the student has focused on developing their ideas into an insightful exploration:

“The importance of moral responsibility is shown through those who fail to possess any sense of decency or righteousness. The 3rd juror is shown to be someone who is arrogant and narrow-minded as a direct result of a troubled relationship with his own son. Although he is personally unacquainted with the defendant, he draws a parallel between the youngster with his own young son, stating that ‘we’d be better off if we took these tough kids and slapped ‘em down before they make trouble, you know?’. It is ironic when he asserts that ‘everybody deserves a fair trial’ since he is the juror that adopts the most prejudice towards the case, thus demonstrating his failure to possess righteousness. His shortcomings are further highlighted through the stage directions whereby he ‘shouts’ and ‘leap(s) into the breach’, displaying his lack of interest in other jurors’ opinions as he is adamant that his view that the defendant is guilty is indeed, correct. Therefore, it is clear through his narrow-mindedness that he has little sense of moral responsibility.”

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This blog was written by Lisa Tran, the creator and writer for VCE Study Guides. She is currently accepting bookings for permanent VCE Year 12 English tutoring for 2014. If you are interested, please feel free to contact her at lisa.tran@live.com.au !!!

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“The ‘best’ essay style for my Context piece”

With less than a month away, many of you may still be debating which Context style of writing you should use in the English exam. As you know, there are three essay styles you can choose from: expository, creative or persuasive pieces. Below is a compiled a list of advantages and disadvantages for each of the three pieces. While the list is non-exhaustive, be aware that just because some people think a particular style is ‘the best’, this doesn’t mean that it is going to be the most suitable for you. Your decision should involve identifying which style is most familiar/comfortable for you, which enables you to distinguish yourself from other students, and gives you the ability to discuss any kind of prompt thrown at you etc.

Expository

Advantages: Text Response essays are written in expository form so you should be very familiar with its structure and format. You have been writing expository essays since the beginning of high school, meaning that you have had more practice in this style, and therefore don’t need to spend the extra time learning and developing as with the other two styles. Furthermore, incorporating examples into your discussion is relatively straightforward. In creative and persuasive, how you choose to use examples may require extra attention as they are less ‘structured’.

Disadvantages: The majority of students write expository pieces in the Context section. If you want to write a unique piece that will stand out, you must work hard at it. You will need to think of interesting approaches to the topic as well as unique examples to support your contention.

Creative

Advantages: There are different forms of creative pieces – diary, chapter of a novel, blog post, article etc. You can also choose how you want to represent your studied text example – recreation of an event, an additional chapter, a different ending etc. Thus the creativity options are endless, enabling you to ensure that your piece will be different to others. This style also encourages you to insert your own personal writing style – from your preferred writing tones to syntax, grammar, prose etc. Being able to write without strict boundaries comes easily for some students.

Disadvantages: You need to ensure that your contention is clear to the examiner. In expository pieces, it is relatively easy to deliver your ideas by using topic sentences. However, this may be harder to implement in creative pieces, meaning that the characters, action, setting, vocabulary you use is vital in conveying your ideas. If the examiner can’t see what you’re getting at, then this can be detrimental to your score. Furthermore, many students feel that with creative pieces they can ‘pre-write’ a piece that they can alter when they’re in the exam in order to fit the prompt. This can be risky if your piece isn’t able to altered to suit the prompt at all, and you may be thrown off by having to write a new one on the spot. Of course, some people don’t believe this to be a disadvantage but quite the opposite, since they’ll be ‘prepared’ prior to the exam. Remember that this is a risk taken at your own discretion.

Persuasive

Advantages: Since persuasive pieces require use of language techniques, this means you can use your skills from Language Analysis in Context pieces. You have the option of a few different formats: editorial, article, letter to the editor, speech etc. After some practice, you will know which tones, headlines and bylines you prefer.

Disadvantages: In addition to clearly demonstrating your perspective on the prompt, you will need to ensure that you use language techniques. Without language techniques your piece won’t be particularly persuasive, and therefore, much of your attention will need be placed on what and how many language techniques you will include.

If you’re still unsure which essay style suits you best, go ahead and try writing essays for each of the three. You should be able to easily kick out one of the three options, leaving two left. While you may ultimately decide on one essay style that you wish to the use in the exam, having the option of two styles isn’t such a bad idea since it will give you more room to tackle different/difficult prompts!

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This blog was written by Lisa Tran, the creator and writer for VCE Study Guides. She is completely booked for permanent tutoring positions for 2014. However, due to popular demand she is offering a 3 hour intensive tutoring session for those interested – feel free to contact her at lisachentran@gmail.com .

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Show, don’t tell

This month's blog post will be short but it contains one extremely valuable point you should take away – especially if you'll be writing imaginary pieces in the next few months. Creative essays are great because they offer interesting and unique stories; however, there is one common downfall that occurs in writing. Some students create pieces that are too straightforward. Rather than using vocabulary, imagery and symbolism to express a point, they simply write down a statement that sums up what they wish to say. Your aim is to invite the reader to experience the story through your words. This can be done through the character's thoughts, feelings, actions etc. Thus the well-known phrase among writers, 'Show, don't tell'. Keeping this idea in mind turn you into a much more successful writer – and you'll see the difference!

Example 1

Tell: Katie was very happy.

Show: Katie's face lifted. Little wrinkles appeared around her bright eyes, her dimples made an appearance that dug into her cheeks as a big grin emerged to show her perfect teeth. 

Example 2

Tell: She felt horrible for the weeping children.

Show: Guilt throbbed inside her as she stared at the weeping children. Her heart pounded against her chest, her hands trembling beside her still body, her brain screaming at her to do something.

Example 3

Tell: I was scared.

Show: I hear my breathing; heavy, and rapid. I shut my eyes tightly. I can feel goosebumps running up my arms and down my back.

To test whether or not you are 'telling' instead of 'showing', think about whether or not your sentence leaves room for questions. In Example 1, 'Katie was very happy' would leave the reader thinking – what thought or action showed that she was happy? Whereas 'show' demonstrated that she was happy without directly stating it.

The key is to go into the finer details of your story!

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4 ways to transform your Context introduction from bland to captivating

Everyone knows that it's boring to start an expository essay with a sentence paraphrasing the prompt. This should be easy to change….right? The goal is simple, but when trying to transform our introduction into something that will immediately catch the examiner's attention, the task can become difficult, and even frustrating for some.

The key to unique, interesting and captivating introductions is to be creative. The essay structure for an expository Context piece is not as rigid as that for Text Response, so you do have room to make some changes. In fact, examiners urge you to avoid 'too formulaic' responses (VCAA examiner's report 2010). Below are four methods you can adopt to add a little spice to your introduction. I have decided to focus on one prompt to show you the different ways you can tackle this problem:

'Conflict inevitably changes us

1. Personal anecdote

Beginning with a anecdote (a personal short story) can demonstrate that you have first-hand experience with something related to the prompt and therefore provide some interesting and credible points about it.

Although few know of him, his name is Pol Pot – the ruthless Cambodian dictator from 1975 to 1979. In those four years, over a quarter of the Cambodian population died under his leadership. Most of the deaths were merciless executions imposed by the leader against his own people. My parents suffered under the terror of Pol Pot. They have told me stories of how under impossible situations they escaped near death, not once – but innumerable times. When individuals encounter conflict, many find themselves in unfamiliar situations where they must face new challenges and struggles. It is in these moments that we can experience a change, for we may come to a sudden realisation, understanding or insight of ourselves.

2. Real life example

Sometimes another's experience may be more suitable for the topic. Use examples from history, literature and current media to demonstrate your understanding of the prompt.

When we think of 'The Stolen Generation,' we think of the extensive pain, grief and suffering inflicted upon the Indigenous people by the Australian Government. Since this devastating conflict began slightly over a century ago which, in some aspects continues now, Australians' attitude has changed signficiantly as they have realised the considerable damage they caused to Indigenous people's families and friends. When individuals encounter conflict, many find themselves in unfamiliar situations where they must face new challenges and struggles. It is in these moments that we can experience a change, for we may come to a sudden realisation, understanding or insight of ourselves.

3. Quote

Quotes from key people in particular field such as philosophers or even an insightful message spoken by your grandparent can help answer your prompt effectively.

"Conflict builds character. Crisis defines it.' Those were the words of Steven V. Thulon, which demonstrates how conflict can change us. When individuals encounter conflict, many find themselves in unfamiliar situations where they must face new challenges and struggles. It is in these moments that we can experience a change, for we may come to a sudden realisation, understanding or insight of ourselves.

4. Rhetorical question

Rhetorical questions urge the reader to be involved with your ideas and think about the unique points you present. 

What propels us to continuously change our identity, beliefs and morals? What is it that urges us to grow, understand and become wiser as we age? When individuals encounter conflict, many find themselves in unfamiliar situations where they must face new challenges and struggles. It is in these moments that we can experience a change, for we may come to a sudden realisation, understanding or insight of ourselves.

There are many other ways you can begin a Context expository essay. Figure out which one you think stands out best and apply it!

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Written Explanation – explained

Written Explanations (also known as Statement of Intention and various other names throughout different schools), are short introductory pieces to your Writing in Context essay. These Written Explanations are intended to provide your assessor an indication of what they should expect from your piece. Essentially, written explanations are a discussion of your own work. In this case, you are writing to inform the assessor of 5 elements of your essay, commonly known as FLAPC:

Form, Language, Audience, Purpose, Context

Most assessors are quite lenient with how you want to approach the Written Explanation – there is no rigid structure that you need to abide by. As we will discuss below, this allows you to consider what aspects of form, language, audience, purpose and context you wish to include. Each of the points should establish why you have chosen a particular form, or audience etc. Written Explanations are only required for two SACs, both Writing in Context. They are considered as part of your SAC and thus, are marked accordingly. They are however, not examinable during the English exam.

Form

There are traditionally three forms of writing accepted in assessments: expository, creative or persuasive essay. Recently, hybrids of the three are also accepted for example, expository essay with a touch of creative writing. Whichever form of writing you select, you need to explain the reason behind your choice. 

'I chose to write in an expository style, employing conventions of format and style of a traditional essay. This allows me to express my ideas in a logical order while adopting a sophisticated tone.'

Language

When writing, you choose particular words and phrases to illustrate your ideas. Think about what type of language have you used and why. Perhaps your piece is formal or informal, sophisticated or simple, or, first- or third- person perspective. All these factors are important in shaping your Context piece. Also consider language techniques you may have incorporated such as repetition, rhetorical questions, metaphors, symbolism and more.

'I have chosen formal language in an attempt to demonstrate a comprehensive and thoughtful piece. Inclusive words such as 'we' and 'us' have been incorporated to allow me to connect with the audience. Furthermore, my use of first-person perspective aims to add credibility to my argument.'

Audience

You must select a targeted audience for your essay. Your choice can be VCE students to young children, or even to your future self. Make sure your target audience is suitable for your essay – select a group that would realistically be interested in your work.

'My piece is to be published in an anthology for VCE students familiar with the subject matter and texts. As they have familiarity with the concepts I discuss, I intend for readers to depart with a greater understanding and appreciation of the ideas in my written piece.'  

Purpose

The purpose section is where you discuss the message you would like to send to your audience. Here you discuss your contention or arguments, whether you completely agree, disagree or a bit of both in regards to your prompt. 

'The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate that there can be different outcomes from encountering conflict: firstly, that conflicts can change many people through growth in understanding or a sense of self-development and secondly, that there are times when people remain unaffected by conflict and thus, unchanged.'

Context

Since your essay is based on your Context prompt, you should provide a brief discussion of the basic ideas behind the Context. You can do this prior to your Purpose section since it is a good lead-in.

'In this essay, I explored the idea that 'Conflict inevitably changes people'. Every person encounters conflict. It drives individuals to challenge themselves, and deal with new experiences.'

Different schools will set different word limits for Written Explanations. These can range from 150 – 350 words. With such a small word limit, be succinct and choose what you will discuss wisely in order to score maximum marks allocated to Written Explanations.

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1 Simple change to boost your context essay score

Imagine this. You're an examiner with 100 context essays to correct your deadline and then, once you're done you'll collect another stack of essays to cross-examine before the next deadline. Seems pretty overwhelming doesn't it? Nevertheless, this isn't what you need to worry about. Your concern should lie in the fact that during the short period your essay is marked, your essay needs to stand out. So what are you going to do to score a better mark than the 40,000 other essays? The answer is simple (or perhaps the question), which examples do you use?

In Writing in Context essays, students are required to back up their contentions with all sorts of examples, from the text you study to historical events, people and personal experiences. This post will focus on historical events, but keep in mind that what I say next applies to any examples you incorporate into your essay.

Year after year, students use the same old examples in their essays. For example, we'll take a look at Encountering Conflict (if this isn't your chosen topic, read on – you'll still get something out of this!). Undoubtedly in class, you would have discussed major conflict events such as World War I and II, The Holocaust, Russian Revolution, French Revolution, and the list goes on. Of course these conflicts have great significance in developing your understanding of the context. They are also fantastic examples for many prompts you will encounter. Here comes the problem: if you're writing about World War I – won't thousands of other VCE students be doing the same? While these examples are great, they are often the most obvious and most common answers used. And because of this, you risk your essay being embedded within thousands of other essays.

So what can you do to counteract this? While an obvious conflict may prove your contention quite effectively, think about other less discussed examples that still support your contention. If your focus is war, instead of using World War I, why not use the Korean War? Instead of Hitler, why not discuss Khmer Rouge? If you were a marker and you came across something that was unique – wouldn't that immediately stir your interest? You want them reading your essay not because they have to, but because they want to.

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What unique examples do you use? Do you agree that you should use less obvious examples? Share your ideas in the comment section below! 

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