English is tough. Whether it be memorising quotes or writing under timed conditions, everybody has something that they need to work on — some missing link that may make the difference between grades.
The fun yet exasperating part of English is that there’s always some way to improve. Even the best of the best can struggle with differentiating themselves from the pack, irrespective of how many quotes they know or how well they understand the subject matter. Often, students can feel shackled by the formulaic “topic sentence plus explanation plus evidence plus analysis plus concluding statement”, leaving great ideas in the mud as they scramble to fit their essay into restrictive boxes.
Sometimes, the conventional structure of an English essay can weigh a student down, which is why bending those rules is a skill that, eventually, can prove the key to truly going above and beyond.
Walk before you run
Before you move past your structure, though, you’ve got to know it.
Every essay paragraph needs to hit on a few key points: a main argument, evidence, and analysis of that evidence relating back to the prompt. For example…
In Station Eleven, forgetting is more important than remembering. Do you agree?
Planning is crucial irrespective of your writing style. The texts you study are meant to be thought-provoking, so thought needs to go into what you’re going to say even before you start saying it. My more flexible, relaxed essays always resulted in plans that looked identical to more conventional responses, as seen below.
- Forgetting is important as a coping mechanism to the post-modern world -> older people who “lost more” e.g. Jeevan, Dieter, Clark’s demands to “[not] think about it”
- Nevertheless, remembering is important in forging paths to the future -> the Travelling Symphony
- When they are both embraced, both forgetting and remembering can create the new and honour the old -> the Museum of Civilisation and the electric town
Once you have this understanding of structure, you can begin to move past it.
What exactly does an essay “beyond structure” mean? The way English is currently taught results in a lot of essays more or less looking the same, with a topic sentence dutifully followed by explanation of that point, and evidence not being introduced until about halfway through the paragraph.
Essays beyond structure don’t ignore those points, but rather, they shuffle them around a little. Evidence can be introduced right after the topic sentence, for example.
The shock of the Georgia Flu is catastrophic, entirely subverting the technological interconnectedness of the 21st century… The “divide between a before and an after” that the Georgia Flu marks is so devastating and uncompromising that it is little wonder, then, that forgetting should become such a crucial tool for reconciling oneself with the radical new world order.
Growing out of "crutch" phrases
In structured essays, transitions between points are obvious. When we want to introduce a quote, we say something like “In Mandel’s Station Eleven…”, and when we want to analyse that quote we say “Here, the author…”.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with using phrases like these! They can be very helpful in showing your assessor where you are addressing the task and the text. But addressing “crutch” phrases in your writing, which are often overused and underdeveloped, is a fairly straightforward way of forcing yourself to write differently.
Some “crutches” that I always used include:
- This exemplifies… – introduction to analysis
- Indeed… – transition to another point
- Ultimately/In conclusion… – concluding
It is important not to mistake signposting for these crutch phrases, such as “Furthermore” or “Conversely”. Signposting helps assessors determine when you are building on or deviating from previous points, which is highly useful when they’ve read a hundred essays on the same prompt as yours. Crutch phrases, on the other hand, make you feel better about your essay, when in actuality they contribute very little and could be rewritten to be something of greater value.
The following statement follows the typical English pattern of evidence to analysis.
In Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Dieter “longs for the sound of an electric guitar”. This exemplifies the wider loss of technology, and even identity, suffered by humanity after the Georgia Flu, and indeed is further highlighted by the “incomplete list” of Chapter 6.
There’s nothing wrong with the analysis above, and it makes a good point about the text. But removing “This exemplifies” forces a writer to try something daring and new…
Dieter, an otherwise well-adjusted member of the Travelling Symphony, “longs for the sound of an electric guitar” – his desire echoes Chapter 6’s list, and the omnipresent lack of electricity to a species once defined by it.
Shorter quotes are your friend
A great way to keep up the momentum of such an essay is to let points bleed into each other. There is no rule in English that says the first two sentences of your paragraph can’t include evidence, nor any regulations stipulating that the end of a paragraph has to be a rewritten version of the topic sentence.
Evidence, I have found, is the best way to bridge gaps between discrete points of structure. Not only does using evidence show understanding of the text, but it doesn’t have to be an entire sentence all on its own. Sometimes, two or three words are enough to marry two points – and, at the end of the day, shorter quotes are easier to memorise!
Mandel’s narrator mourns fundamental modern aspects of survival, such as “pharmaceuticals” and “fire departments… police”, in the same space that she pays homage to “concert stages” and “social media”. The resulting impression is not one of traditional cutthroat dystopia… Rather, Mandel’s quiet remembrance of the … modern innovations of technology that brought the 21st century together … highlights the emotional consequences of such ease of communication being lost.
Reading is fundamental
If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed about moving beyond structure, don’t worry – there’s something quick and easy that you can do right now to help push your writing, and it doesn’t even involve any writing of your own.
If you get the opportunity to, I would encourage you to read other people’s essays. Obviously, higher-grade essays are always valuable, but they can also be intimidating, even demoralising. I’ve found that reading essays at my grade level, or even lower, have been fantastic for learning new phrases and picking up different bits of evidence.
The best thing about English, in my opinion, is the same thing that brings it the most criticism – that there is no right answer. It can never hurt your understanding of a text (or your potential grade) if your discussion is informed about more perspectives.
Practice makes... progress!
At the end of the day, any and all good English essays have their roots in the fundamentals. Even as you play around with structure and move past formula, it is always crucial to remember the basics, and to return to them if you feel like you’re getting lost.
Always remember to link back to the prompt! It’s something so basic and obvious that students of all grades overlook. The prompt is the backbone of your essay – make sure that you keep it centre stage.
Get feedback as often as you can, whether it be from teachers, tutors or other students that you trust. English is a game of constant tweaking and refinement, and the more feedback you get the better your essays will be for it.
Finally, practice. Writing, like any skill, can only be honed and improved if one puts effort into honing and improving it. Writing beyond structure often comes as a massive learning curve, and it is diligence and a willingness to learn – not natural talent – that will allow you to become better and better at it.
English is tough, and because almost everybody does it, it can be hard to stand out from the masses. Being different takes courage, and in VCE it certainly takes a lot of work, but I have found that writing beyond structure has the potential to elevate not only your understanding of a text or your performance in SACs and the exam, but your enjoyment of writing for English as a whole.