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Plans are one of the most ignored (and underestimated) steps in the essay writing process. Some people don’t do them simply because they don’t want to, some sacrifice them because they think they’ll run out of time, and some do ‘plans’, but in reality, they’re only a rough mental outline. Each of these situations place too many students time and time again in sticky situations come an English SAC or exam.
Why plans are essential for any good essay
They ensure that you can’t mind blank — it’s all on the paper in front of you!
They ensure that you always stay on topic.
Mental plans or not having a plan at all mean that you don’t have a true direction in which your essay is going. If you’re not sure where you’re going, well, how are you going to get anywhere?
They save you time in writing time.
Instead of wasting reading time, you’ve done most of your thinking right at the beginning of the SAC or exam, positioning you to do really well in your essay because you can focus on constructing some really juicy, coherent analysis in your body paragraphs, rather than remembering your basic points and/or making sure your essay is actually answering the question.
Let’s have a look at an essay topic that I’ve tackled in the past. This one is based on Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant, a current VCE Year 12 English text. To learn more about themes, quotes, characters about this text, and to have a look at an essay topic breakdown, check out this blog post written by outstanding LSG tutor, Angelina!
“But a man could not travel along two different paths.” How does Grenville explore Rooke’s conflict of conscience in The Lieutenant?
Step 1: Highlight key words
Now, it may seem like I've just highlighted the whole prompt, and I understand why you might think that! However, each of the words highlighted convey something meaningful within the prompt. If you're ever unsure about what could be considered a key word, consider whether the prompt would have the same meaning without the word in question.
Step 2: Define key words
In this topic, the main phrase that needs defining is ‘conflict of conscience’. For me, this signals that we must consider morality and the weighing up of right and wrong, especially when tough decisions have to be made.
I’d also take a moment to analyse the quote. This essay prompt is quote-based, so it’s imperative that we discuss the quote and consider the meaning of the quote throughout our essay. For some more detailed info on how to tackle different types of essay prompts, check out this blog post.
Step 3: Start essay plan
Next, I’d start tackling the plan itself. Although it seems like the above steps would take a while, my real-life planning process only takes about 5 minutes. You certainly don’t have to write everything down and you certainly don’t have to make it make sense to anyone but yourself.
Personally, I like to format my plans in dot-point form. I write 1, 2, 3 for each of my body paragraphs and I leave a space underneath each so I can plan each paragraph.
First, I’ll just write rough topic sentences under each, so I can really step back and consider whether my plan of action for the essay’s body paragraphs will do a good job at answering the prompt itself. Again, these are only rough topic sentences — fancying them up will come during the essay writing phase.
Step 4: Important things to include in each paragraph
Once I’ve decided on what each of my body paragraphs will be about, I can them go into a bit more depth for each of them individually.
These are the elements that I include for each:
Essentially, the points that I’ll argue and the reasoning behind the paragraph
The evidence that I’ll be using to reinforce my point(s).
In Year 12, I made a conscious effort to include one literary device or metalanguage example per body paragraph in all of my English essays. This really set me apart from the rest of the state because, in reality, not enough students really focused on the language of their texts, which can really impress examiners.
Strategy: Colour-coded plans
For me, using different colours in my plans helped me organise my thoughts, distinguish between them, and ensure that I had covered everything that I wanted to cover.
Obviously, you can come up with a colour system that works for you, but this is what I came up with:
Green = metalanguage
Red = quotes
Black/blue = everything else!
And that’s it — my four-step but five minute essay planning process. Don’t be afraid to modify this to make it work for you and your needs. However, definitely DO be afraid of not planning — it’s absolutely essential for any good essay.
Hey guys. I've been doing a load of essay topic breakdowns for you guys, and we've been looking at plans for them, so I thought I would actually show you how I actually do a real life plan, one that I would do on paper if I was preparing for a SAC or an exam, as opposed to the ones that I do on YouTube because the ones that I do on YouTube are slightly different. I definitely go into more detail than I normally would. But at the same time I still do use the same concepts as I would when I do read the steps on YouTube. So I'm going to go and show you that today. And before I actually do that, I just want to preface this and tell you guys why doing a plan is so important.
So I know that a plan is something that one, a lot of people just don't do, or two, they tend to sacrifice it if they feel like they don't have enough time, or three, they do a plan in their head, but they don't actually write it down on paper. Now, all of these things are pretty detrimental for you, especially because when you write a plan, it actually helps to secure you and ensure that one, you're not going to mind blank throughout your essay or let me rephrase that, if you do mind blank throughout your essay, you will still have a piece of paper in front of you telling you, "This is what you were thinking Lisa, just go and follow this method or what you've written down here." So that way you don't just get stuck in the middle of your essay and start having a freak out because you've forgotten what you were supposed to write.
Second thing is that it ensures that you don't go off topic. This is something that happens quite frequently. If you don't have a plan, then you have this idea of, "Oh, I'll write this and this", and then somehow halfway through an essay, halfway through a paragraph, you realize, "Holy crap, I have completely veered off the topic or this has gone completely in the other direction from what I intended. This is not what I wanted." So in order to prevent that from happening, just do a plan, please! You will find that it ends up saving you so much time and it just gives you that reassurance that you need in situations where there are so many unpredictable factors, like what prompts you're actually going to get. And your focus and attention should be more about developing those ideas, rather than having a mind blank in the middle of your essay and then having a little bit of a freakout as a result.
So I'm going to base this video on a previous essay topic breakdown in the past, and that is on Kate Grenville's The Lieutenant. I was going to say Lieutenant, because I always accidentally say that, but no, it is Lieutenant. Now, if you are not doing as text as always, don't stress about it because what I want you to take away from this video is how you actually do plans, the thinking that goes behind it and the formatting around it. So let's just get started.
The essay topic that we're doing today is, "But a man could not travel along two different paths." How does Grenville explore Rooke's conflict of conscience in The Lieutenant. So as always, my first step is I will highlight the keywords that I see inside the prompt. Keywords are different for everyone, but these are the ones that I think are most important.
Firstly, the actual quote itself, how Grenville, conflict of conscience. Pretty much in this case I could probably just highlight the entire thing, but for the sake of just defining some keywords, this is what I would do. So the next step is to define key words. I think the only big key word that I need to define here is conflict of conscience. And so to me, the conflict of conscience suggests internal conflict, which implies that we'll need to consider morality and the concepts of right and wrong, especially when a difficult decision must be made and sides need to be taken. So as you can see, I've written these words down next to the keyword and that will just help me ensure that I stay on topic or I stay in tune with what the keyword is about and I don't suddenly change my mind halfway through the essay.
Then what I'll do is, I will analyze the quote itself. So this is unique because this particular essay prompt has a quote inside it, but I'll have to think about, okay, where did I see this quote? Who might've said it and what might it mean? And I'll draw it down a few notes for that. Then I'll pretty much just go straight into my plan. Now, my plans I've written within five minutes, most of the thinking is actually done during reading time. So personally, I've always found that just writing dot points is completely fine. I don't need to go more beyond that. And I'll show you a few examples now of real life year essay plans that I did during that time. And as you can see, they are pretty much just scribbles and if anybody else was to look at my essay plans, they would have no idea what I'm talking about. But you know what, for me it makes complete sense and that's all that matters. You're not graded on your plan, so just go ahead and do it your way. You do you.
So what I'll do is I'll quickly dot down one, two, three, and these represent my body paragraphs. Then I'll just write down very quickly what the topic sentences will be. I don't actually write the full topic sentence itself, but I guess the essence of it, so the key things that I will mention in the topic sentence. By writing down the three topic sentences, this allows me to take a step back and look at the essay holistically and ensure that I am answering it the way that I want to. Then what I'll do is I'll move into each individual body paragraph and write down some things that I think are important for me to remember when I go ahead and write it. So I might write down a couple of ideas that I think are important. I will write down quotes that I think are essential to my discussion. And then what I'll do is I will throw in at least one literary device or a metalanguage that I think is important to discuss.
So in this case, in this first body paragraph, it's limited omniscient third person perspective. By throwing this in, I will ensure that I can show my examiner or show my teacher that I can go on that deeper level. I'll repeat this method with both paragraph two and three. Of course for you, you might need to write down more dot points. You can write fewer dot points, it's really just dependent on every individual. If you are somebody who needs to write down the quotes more, then go ahead and do that. But for me, a lot of the quotes will stick in my head. I just need one point just to bounce off, and then from there, I'm able to pull in all of the other quotes that are necessary.
You also notice that I do things in different colors. Now, I think this is a strategy that I implemented in order to make things a lot clearer for myself before jumping into an essay. So for example, for anything that's a metalanguage based, I'll write it in green. The whole purpose for that is to ensure that in every single body paragraph, I do cover some form of a literary device because that was always really important for me. I thought that it was one of the key things that helped me differentiate myself from other students. So if I took a step back from the plan and I looked at it overall, I could see, okay, there's a green color in every single body paragraph, done. I have ticked off that criteria.
I also used to write quotes in red as well. So red just helped me do the same thing. It helps me take a step back and go, "Yep, there's a bit of red in every single body paragraph. I'm definitely including quotes," which might sound pretty stupid, but it's just that little bit of reassurance that I think really makes that difference when it comes to a stressful situation.
That's pretty much it. It's just five minutes of your time, so we probably don't need to go into it in too much more detail than that. But as you can see from my essay plans, I'm quite minimal. I just keep things as short as possible because that's all I really need because a lot of the information is here, but I just need to reinforce it and ensure that it is concrete when it is on paper.
So for yourself, I would recommend that you start practicing your plans. You can try my method and see if that works for you, but over time, I'm sure that you'll come to find your own way of writing plans that work for you.
Next week I'm going to have another essay topic breakdown for you. Can you guess what it might be? If you want to take a stab, put it in the comment section below, but that's it for me in this week guys. I hope that was helpful for you, and don't forget plans are crucial to an amazing essay.
If you needed any extra help, then my mailing list is always available for you guys. I send out emails every single week just giving you new advice and tips for your studies, so I'll put that in the description box below for you to sign up. Other than that, I will talk to you guys next week. Bye!
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Writing an Analysing Argument (or Language Analysis) essay can be difficult, and sometimes selecting language that won’t sound repetitive is the tricky part. If you’re looking for ways to overcome that hurdle and make your writing sound more formal, then this is the blog for you.
In these tables are simple sentence starters you can use to formalise and clarify your ideas in a non-repetitive way. This blog takes into account the most important elements of a Language Analysis, such as analysing visuals and connecting a technique back to the author’s intention (that is, what they want the audience to think/feel/do).
Within these tables, I’ve included a sentence example for each phrase. The examples are in response to a fictional article by Samantha Pearson, What’s wrong with using online lingo in everyday life?. The article is about Gen Z's use of online lingo and argues that the concern surrounding its potential implications is unfounded. If you’d like to see the entire original article and an A+ essay written in response (along with a number of other sample articles and high-scoring essays), you’ll find all of this and more in How To Write A Killer Language Analysis.
If you’d like to see a detailed guide on Language Analysis, including what you're expected to cover, how to prepare for your SAC and Exam and more, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Language Analysis.
Extinction by Hannie Rayson is usually studied in the Australian curriculum Area of Study 1 - Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.
[Modifed Video Transcription]
This is the prompt that I have decided to approach for this video and blog post:
Heather Dixon-Brown and Piper Ross’s dynamic is fuelled by competitiveness unique to the female experience in contemporary times.
Let’s break it down!
Different Interpretations of Extinction
Today I’ll be talking about different interpretations of texts, specifically the feminist lens, which is a critical lens for you to know if you’re wanting to get those top marks. Even if you’re not there yet, and you want to amp up your essay, this is it. So keep watching (or reading)!
I won’t be talking about the feminist lens in detail in this video/blog, but know that this is one of the must-know VCAA criteria points I discuss in my How To Write A Killer Text Response ebook. It is particularly relevant to Extinction because by viewing your text through a feminist lens, you’ll be able to get so much more out of your discussion. Think about it this way, you can wear all sorts of ‘glasses’ (i.e. lenses) when you’re reading a text: a feminist lens, a pro-sustainability lens, an ecocritical lens. If you were to put these lenses on, how would it change your interpretation of the text? By adopting this advanced way of approaching a text, you’ll undoubtedly wow examiners because you’re able to discuss your texts on a level that the majority of students aren’t even aware of! I touch more on feminist and ecocritical lenses at the end of the video above :)
This prompt specifies two characters – Dixon-Brown and Piper – and therefore mandates an in-depth discussion of them within your essay. However, it is important to be careful of focusing exclusively on the explicitly mentioned characters when given a character prompt. After all, while Dixon-Brown and Piper are both very important to Extinction, they are not the only relevant characters! In order to ensure that your discussion covers enough of the text, make sure your brainstorming stage includes the ideas and themes exemplified by the unmentioned characters, and how they relate to the ones that are specified.
Step 2: Brainstorm
Agree to the prompt, but not entirely – Dixon-Brown and Piper do experience competitiveness between themselves, as two women in the twenty-first century, but it is not the only factor impacting their relationship dynamic
Female competitiveness in relationships and desirability – e.g. having sex with Harry without the other knowing (make sure to use DB’s quotes about competition!)
Make this more specific – competition in terms of sex, sexuality and whether or not one is desired (can link this well to the young/old dichotomy)
Young/old – related to female competitiveness, but more specific – tension between what is wanted and considered attractive versus what is no longer given value
Idealism/pragmatism – separate from the sphere of gender; has more of its roots in politics and contrasting schools of thought
Adopt traits from a feminist lens – focusing on women, power, relationships with men, when they can speak versus when they can’t, etc.
Step 3: Create a Plan
Body Paragraph 1: Contemporary demands for female competitiveness undoubtedly underlie the dynamics between Dixon-Brown and Piper Ross.
Under the modern-day patriarchy, women are encouraged to compete over social resources – reputation, desirability, and, crucially to Extinction, one’s sex and sexuality against the context of men. Both women are attracted to Harry, and eventually, both engage in 'covert sexual relationship[s]' that 'compromise the integrity' of the tiger quoll project. Beneath the veneer of assertiveness, Dixon-Brown’s underlying insecurities expose her treatment of Piper as a rival.
Although she openly denounces Harry’s assumption that 'You thought I wanted to compete for your affections', she nevertheless demands to know if Harry is 'quite smitten with Piper'. Dixon-Brown tries to distance herself from such romantic bindings, insisting that she 'do[esn’t] need a relationship' and thus subconsciously pitting herself as Piper’s opposite – in other words, a competitor for the different instances of Harry’s affection.
Rayson is quick to highlight and consequentially reject this modern female infighting, arguing that the insecurities as birthed from the patriarchy directly and unnecessarily demean the relationships between women.
Body Paragraph 2: The primary source of female conflict between Dixon-Brown and Piper is that of their incongruent ages; Rayson maintains that the tension between ‘younger’ and ‘older’ individuals contributes massively to the wider tenseness in their dynamic.
Patriarchal values dictate that the value of a woman decreases with age: Dixon-Brown claims that Harry 'would prefer a younger woman', implying that her desirability has decreased with the increase of age.
The professor’s obsession with appearances and reputation as a woman is almost completely absent in Rayson’s consideration of Piper, who is actively pursued by both Andy and Harry throughout the play. She is 'adore[d]' by the former, and the latter is enthusiastic at the prospect of 'mak[ing] love like that…again' during Act Two, Scene One. Rayson attacks the systems of patriarchal value that have driven both women to resist and distrust each other in the first place.
Body Paragraph 3: Conversely, while the spheres of politics certainly overlap occasionally within feminism and the question of female competition, they nevertheless form a largely distinct motivation behind the conflict between Piper and Dixon-Brown.
Piper and Dixon-Brown’s dynamic is perhaps most aptly summarised in Act One, Scene Two, with the introduction of the Dixon-Brown Index. Dixon-Brown claims that 'five thousand' is the 'latest magic number' with which to determine what animal populations are most feasible to make conservation efforts towards. Piper criticises the index immediately, pointing out the ridiculousness of having it 'apply to every mammal on earth', regardless of any other relevant factors. To Piper, every animal life is 'worth saving', whether they be 'killer whales or teeny potoroos' – Dixon-Brown, by contrast, must 'liv[e] in the real world' and exists at the mercy of funding, of which there is 'only so much… to go around'. The tension within their dynamic thus bears this underlying current of idealism versus pragmatism, and persists even after the primary establishment of the tiger quoll project.
If you're studying Extinction yourself, then LSG's A Killer Text Guide: Extinction study guide is for you! In it, we teach you to think like a 50 study scorer through advanced discussions on things like structural feature analysis, views and values, different interpretations and critical readings. Included are character breakdowns, a play summary, 5 A+ fully annotated essays and so much more!
Over the years I have seen many exceptional essays. What has really surprised me in the past is when I compare high-scoring essays. In one instance, I read one English student's essay (raw study score of 50) after another student's (raw study score of 46). What do you think contrasts between a student who achieves 50 and a student who achieves 46 (bearing in mind of course, that these two scores are already amazing!)? For me, I had assumed that a major contributor to the perfect score of 50 must be better vocabulary. You would think so too right?
NO! In fact, the student of 46 had embedded heaps of complex and amazing-sounding words in her essay - much more than those used by the student who obtained a 50. Oddly, the perfect scorer had hardly any complex vocabulary in her piece. But this ironically, was the strength of her essay. Because she wasted little time on trying to throw in lots of fancy vocabulary, she was able to focus on exploring complex ideas in her essay instead. This is what examiners are after. So if you're struggling with vocabulary, don't worry - not all hope is lost!
One of the biggest struggles is to 'improve vocabulary' in VCE. So many students are caught up trying to improve their vocabulary or using 'big words' that they don't realise the worst thing yet: using bigger words can actually hurt your essay. Yes, you read it right. Even research has actually found that using complex or big words in an essay can backfire for the student!
Reasons why using big words can worsen your essay:
1. Obstructs clarity of ideas.
Readability is the ease with which a written text can be understood by the reader. In other words, how easy it is to read an essay and how enjoyable that read is. I'm sure you've read a novel in the past that was quite difficult to read because of its extensive vocabulary. On the other hand, you will find a book much more enjoyable to read when you're not struggling your whole way through deciphering words. The same applies to essays. Examiners focus heavily on your exploration and interpretation of ideas. If you have great ideas, only to overload with vocabulary just look to make yourself look smarter, it's only going to make it harder for your examiner. Just like if you had simplistic ideas and filled your essay with fancy vocabulary, it's not going to make the idea seem any more insightful. See the example below:
Student 1: 'In a plethora of elements gender inequalities prevail over the women of Nigeria.'
Student 2: 'Gender inequalities prevail over women's lives in Nigeria.'
The 'plethora of elements' is just another way of saying 'several aspects'. By trying to use nice vocabulary, this student actually reduced the meaning of their sentence, making it harder for the teacher to understand the student's idea. Remember to keep your essays straightforward, don't drown them with vocabulary that's unnecessary.
2. You seem dumber.
No offence. Writing with bigger words doesn't mean you're smarter. It is very easy to pick up when a student is simply using a thesaurus to find synonyms - because your sentence will look like this: basic basic basic COMPLEX basic basic COMPLEX basic basic. There is a clear discrepancy! Don't use 'utilise' when you can just write 'use'. You seem pompous (no offence, again!). Write clearly and simply if you can, and you’ll be more likely to be thought of as intelligent! This meme below sums up the point very well:
3. You're using it wrong.
Using a similar word is not always the RIGHT word. Let's take the word 'persuade' as an example. We're always trying to find new synonyms for 'persuade' in Language Analysis (and I do have a list for you here). The word 'entice' is by no means similar to the word 'coerce' because of the different connotations they are both associated to. To entice is to persuade through attraction or tempting the reader by offering an advantage, whereas to coerce is to persuade (an unwilling person) to do something by using force or threats. Be wise when you choose synonyms, because they do not carry the exact same meaning as the original word you intended to use!
KEY TIP: Do not use big words, do not use small words, use the RIGHT words.
So, how do you find the right word bank for you?
The conditions of your vocabulary bank should be suited to your specific needs. A focus on a need or theme enables more visible connections within the vocabulary bank. Having those connections will make it easier to 'memorise' new terms. Instead of compiling a dense 20-page glossary, try breaking your vocabulary bank up into smaller, specific sections like 'new verbs'.
Now, let's find new verbs instead of the typical bolded words below to express the author's intention:
The author argues
The author shows
The author criticises
The author supports
- Branch off 'argue' (Fervent tone): contends, asserts, posits, proffers…
- Branch off 'criticises' (Negative tone): condemns, denigrates, lampoons, parodies…
- Branch off 'supports' (Positive tone): praises, endorses, exalts, lauds…
Next, take your new vocabulary from storage to use:
After clarifying their definitions, try using some of your new words in a sentence or a paragraph, relating to either your texts or analysing argument. You can also extend your vocabulary bank by adapting the words to different sentence structures:
Original sentence: The author criticises the superficiality of our consumerist culture.
Substitution:Theauthor condemns the superficiality of our consumerist culture.
Adaptation: In a condemnatory tone, the author delineates the ostentation of our consumerist culture.
Original sentence: The author argues that gender is an arbitrary concept.
Substitution: The author asserts that gender is an arbitrary concept.
Adaptation: Asserting that gender is an arbitrary concept, the author explicates the categorist nature of human understanding.
Using convoluted expressions can be fun or exasperating! Whilst demonstrating extensive vocabulary may raise your mark, the key is to ensure harmony between your words and your understanding.
Remember: Do not use big words, do not use small words, use the RIGHT words.
The second half of this blog post was written by Joyce Ling.
Planning is an essential part of any successful text response essay. It helps you ensure that you’re answering the prompt, utilising enough quotes and writing the most unique and perceptive analysis possible! The hard part of this is that you only have about FIVE MINUTES to plan each essay in the Year 12 English exam… (more info on the best way to tackle that challenge in this video!)
So, I developed the FIVE TYPES of essay prompts to help students streamline their planning process and maximise every minute of their SACs and exams.
By identifying the type of prompt you’re being challenged with immediately, a number of parameters or guidelines are already set in place. For a specific type of prompt, you have specific criteria to meet – for example, in a metalanguage-based prompt, you immediately know that any evidence you brainstorm in your planning stage should be based around the literary techniques used in your given text.
‘Ambition in the play Macbeth leads to success.’ Discuss. (Macbeth)
When you’re presented with a theme-based prompt, you can automatically shift your brainstorming and planning towards the themes mentioned in the prompt along with any others that you can link to the core theme in some way.
In regard to this Macbeth prompt, for example, you could explore the different ways the theme of ambition is presented in the text. Additionally, the themes of guilt and power are intimately related to ambition in the text, so you can use those other ideas to aid your brainstorming and get you a step ahead of the rest of the state come exam day.
2. Character-Based Prompt
‘Frankenstein’s hubris is what punishes him.’ Discuss. (Frankenstein)
These prompts are pretty easy to spot – if you see a character’s name in the prompt, there you have it; you have a character-based prompt on your hands.
Once you know this, you can assume that each example you brainstorm has to be relevant to the specific character named in the prompt in some way. Also, you can explore how the actions of characters don’t occur in isolation – they’re almost always interrelated. Remember, however, that the actions of characters are always connected to the themes and ideas the author is trying to convey.
This type of prompt also grants you some freedoms that other types don’t give. For example, unlike a Theme-based prompt, a character-based prompt means that it’s perfectly fine to write about characters in the topic sentences of your body paragraphs.
3. How-Based Prompt
‘How does Grenville showcase Rooke’s inner conflict in The Lieutenant?’ (The Lieutenant)
Unlike other prompts, the ‘How’ positions you to focus more on the author’s writing intentions. This can be achieved by discussing metalanguage – language that describes language (read my blog post about it here). These prompts tell you immediately that you need to be thinking about the literary techniques explored in the text and explain how they affect the narrative.
Rather than using specific techniques to frame your specific arguments, it’s best to use them as evidence to support arguments that attack the main themes/ideas mentioned in the prompt.
4. Metalanguage or Film-Technique-Based Prompt
‘Hitchcock’s use of film techniques offers an unnerving viewing experience’. Discuss. (Rear Window)
This type of prompt is very similar to How-based prompts, specifically in the fact that the discussion of literary techniques is essential.
For this type of prompt specifically, however, the actual techniques used can form more of a basis for your arguments, unlike in How-based prompts.
5. Quote-Based Prompt
“Out, damned spot!” How does Shakespeare explore the burden of a guilty conscience in Macbeth? (Macbeth)
Countless students ask me every year, “What do I do when there’s a quote in the prompt?!” My reply to these questions is actually fairly straightforward!
There are two main things that you should do when presented with this type of prompt. Firstly, contextualise the quote in your essay and try to use it in your analysis in some way. Secondly, interpret the themes and issues addressed in the quote and implement these into your discussion. The best place to do both of these is in a body paragraph – it weaves in seamlessly and allows for a good amount of analysis, among other reasons!
When faced with unknown prompts in a SAC or your exam, it's reassuring to have a formulaic breakdown of the prompt so that your brain immediately starts categorising the prompt - which of the 5 types of prompts does this one in front of me fall into? To learn more about brainstorming, planning, essay structures for Text Response, read our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.
The big trap students doing both English and Literature fall into is the habit of writing Close Readings like a Language Analysis essay. In essence, the two of these essays must tick the same boxes. But, here’s why analysing texts in Literature is a whole different ball game – in English, you want to be focusing on the methods that the author utilises to get their message across, whereas Literature is all about finding your own message in the writing.
In a Language Analysis essay, the chances are that most students will interpret the contention of the writer in a similar fashion and that will usually be stated in the introduction of the essay. Whereas in Literature, it is the formulation of your interpretation of the author’s message that is what really counts. In a typical Language Analysis essay, the introduction is almost like a summary of what’s going to be talked about in the next few paragraphs whereas in a close reading, it is the fresh ideas beyond the introduction that the markers are interested in.
For this reason, every Close Reading that you do in Literature will be unique. The overarching themes of the text you are writing from may be recurring, but for every passage from the text that you are given, what you derive from that will be specific to it.
From my experience, this is what stumps a lot of students because of the tendency is to pick up on the first few poetic techniques used in the passages and create the basis for the essay from that. This usually means that the student will pick up on alliteration (or another technique that they find easy to identify) used by the author and then try and match it to an idea that they have discussed in class. Whilst this can be an effective way to structure paragraphs, many students aren’t consciously utilising this approach and instead are doing it ‘by accident’ under time pressure, or a lack of understanding of other ways to get a point across.
In general, there are two main approaches that can be followed for body paragraphs in a literature close reading analysis:
1. Start wide and narrow down.
What does this mean? So, as I mentioned before, each of your close readings should be very specific to the passages in front of you and not rehearsed. However, it’s inevitable that you are going to find some ideas coming back more often. So, after reading through the passage, you will usually get a general understanding of the tone that the author has utilised. This will indicate whether the author is criticising or commending a certain character or social idea. Using this general overview to start your paragraph, you can then move closer and closer into the passage until you have developed your general statement into a very unique and clear opinion of the author’s message (with the support of textual evidence of course).
This is the essay approach that is generally preferred by students but is often used poorly, as without practice and under the pressure of writing essays in exam conditions, many students revert back to the old technique of finding a literary device that they are comfortable with and pushing forth with that.
The good thing about this approach is that when you understand the general themes that the author covers, you will become better and better at using that lens to identify the most impactful parts of the passage to unpack as you scrutinise the subtle nuances of the writer’s tone.
2. Start narrow and go wide.
You guessed it - it’s basically the opposite of the approach above. However, this is a more refined way of setting out your exploration of the author’s message as opposed to what was discussed earlier (finding random literary devices and trying to go from there). Using this approach does not mean that you have no direction of where your paragraph might end, it just means that you think the subtle ideas of the author can be used in culmination to prove their wider opinion. For example, if you get a passage where the author describes a character in great detail (Charlotte Brontë students, you might be familiar!) and you think there is a lot of underlying hints that the author is getting at through such an intricate use of words, then you might want to begin your paragraphs with these examples and then move wider to state how this affects the total persona built around this character and then maybe even a step further to describe how the writer’s attitude towards this character is actually a representation of how they feel towards the social ideas that the character represents.
The benefit of this approach is that if you are a student that finds that when you try and specify on a couple of key points within a large theme, you end up getting muddled up with the potential number of avenues you could be writing about, this style gives a bit of direction to your writing. This approach is also helpful when you are trying to link your broader themes together.
The main thing to remember in the structure of your body paragraphs – the link between your examples and the broader themes that you bring up should be very much evident to the marker. They should not have to work to find the link between the examples you are bringing up and the points that you are making. Remember, a Close Reading is all about the passage that is right in front of you and its relation in the context of the whole text and the writer’s message. Be clear about your opinion, it matters!
From year 7-10 the traditional essays we have written have had an introduction, three body paragraphs and a conclusion. In these essays we write about characters, plot points and themes. Hence, it is understandable that upon entering English Language in year 11 or 12, it can be difficult to grasp a hold on how to write an essay without characters, plots or themes. To be precise, the requirement in an English Language essay is to ‘use key linguistic concepts and metalanguage appropriately to discuss/analyse/investigate…in an objective and systematic way” (English Language Study Design).
What does this mean?
Essentially, in section C of the exam, you are required to present a discussion of a given idea. The word ‘discussion’ is defined as ‘a conversation or debate about a specific topic.’ In this sense, your essay is effectively a written conversation which needs to display an understanding of both sides of the topic.
In saying that, it is still important to form a contention, such as ‘indeed non-standard varieties are more acceptable in speaking than in writing in the Australian context’ however in arguing this contention, you must to explore both sides to show the examiner your understanding of language in Australian society.
The overarching idea of the essay is presented to you in the form of a prompt. For example, in the 2016 VCAA exam, a possible essay prompt given was: “In Australia today, variations from the standard tends to be more acceptable in speaking than in writing.”
In this prompt, the idea to be discussed is standard vs. non-standard Australian English. The main idea or topic forms an umbrella under which the essay is formed. This is the foundation of your essay. Each main argument will relate to this topic. In this example, standard vs non-standard Australian English is a topic from which an array of sub-topics can be extracted, the choice of which is to your discretion.
The sub-topics you choose to delve into will depend on your preferences and strengths. You may choose to discuss online-speak, ethnolects or Australian slang in relation to non-standard English, or legal and political jargon in relation to standard English.
Regardless of the choice of sub-topic, each body paragraph must explicitly link to three things; the prompt, the topic sentence and the contention. This is the criteria for your discussion. Ensuring clear links to these three will assure the examiner that you have confidence in the material you are discussing.
Your body paragraphs should be used to show the examiner how the ideas you have chosen to talk about relate to the prompt provided. Here it is necessary to use a combination of contemporary media examples, personal examples and linguist quotes as a means to prove the link between your chosen paragraph idea, your contention and the prompt. Try to find the most relevant examples which clearly demonstrate your line of thinking to the examiner. You don’t want to give them a reason to question the arguments you choose to present.
It is also important to be wary of this so that your essay flows in an orderly, sequential manner. Each idea presented within a paragraph and across the essay itself should follow a pathway, one leading into another. Use the ending of each body paragraph to come back to your essay prompt and reiterate your contention. This ensures you stay on topic and the examiner can clearly visualize your understanding of your topic.
In the end, your job in your essay is to present a discussion of a given prompt; an understanding of both sides. Use examples and explanations to show your examiner that you comprehend how the prompt can be debated.
Writing the very first sentence of your essay can be difficult. Sometimes, to get yourself into the flow of writing, it can be helpful to integrate a linguistic quote into your first sentence. This also helps solidify your contention. For example:
“One’s idiolect, particularly lexical choices and accent can be strongly indicative of their unique identity and the social groups to which they belong; it is the most natural badge of symbol of public and private identity (David Crystal)”
Your topic sentence for each paragraph should contain a link to the essay prompt, to the topic of your paragraph and to your contention. A link to all three elements should be identifiable. Below is an example of a topic sentence for the given essay prompt. “The language we use is the best indicator of who we are, individually, socially and culturally. Discuss.”
Ethnolects are a quintessential indicator of cultural identity as they are strongly identifiable by their unique phonological characteristics.
This topic sentence shows a clear identification of the topic of the paragraph (ethnolects), a connection with the prompt, (cultural belonging) and a contention, (ethnolects are indeed indicative of cultural identity)
Rather than introducing linguist quotes with expressions such as “in the words of…” or “as said by…” using linguist quotes discretely where they are integrated as part of the sentence will improve the flow of your essay. Consider this example.
“The use of the interjectory ‘reh’ expresses the cultural identity individuals associate themselves with and is part of the language they use as ‘a means to an end of understanding who [they] are and what society is like (David Crystal).”
Not all your contemporary essay examples need to come from news articles or social media. Students can often get caught up doing aimless research trying to find examples through research which really isn’t all that necessary. You should try to find examples of language use in every-day life. Perhaps consider other school subjects you study and the jargon you used within these subjects. You can quite easily discuss this use of language in your essays. Here is an example of a student using the metalanguage from VCE Accounting as an example for their essay.
Jargon and taboo language are often used to express social identity as they are demonstrative of social groups one wishes to belong to. Jargon terms such as, ‘equity,’ ‘profit margin’, ‘cash flow statement,’ ‘debt ratio’ and ‘accrued’ belong to the financial and accounting semantic field. Their use suggests the individual is knowledgeable in business and finance and further suggests they are likely to be working in the business sector. The use of jargon in one’s vernacular can therefore provide hints of the individual’s social identity and is significant to their individual identity.
Link to David Crystal interviews to pick out quotes and ideas for your essays:
Link to Kate Burridge on TED Talk talking about Euphemisms; a good source for examples of euphemisms and how they are used in society. This can be used as foundation for a paragraph in your essays:
Maxine Beneba Clarke’s seminal novel, The Hate Race, follows the childhood and adolescence of its author, who is the main protagonist. The book is a memoir, meaning that it is based around a recollection of her life and filtered through her psyche and experiences.
The book begins with Clarke’s family, British citizens of Afro-Carribean descent, moving to Sydney, New South Wales. They settle in the town of Kellyville, which is known as a ‘white picket’ community. Although these communities largely don't exist anymore, what they once described was suburban environments where only Anglo-Australians lived. As you can probably imagine, this immediately caused problems for Clarke’s family, with suspicion from neighbours and racist interactions with other kids in the neighbourhood.
Clarke initially focuses on her experiences in kindergarten, revealing how prejudice and discrimination can be inculcated (meaning, ‘taught to’) in children even from such a tender age. Clarke meets her first tormenter - Carlita Allen. Carlita makes every effort to exclude Clarke from participation in usual preschool activities, hurling insults across playgrounds and calling her ‘dirty’. Literally, of course, Carlita is referring to Clarke’s black skin colour, but, metaphorically, it reflects the deeply hateful implication that anyone with a dark complexion is inherently inferior and lesser than white Australians.
The bullying doesn’t stop by the time Clarke reaches primary school. In fact, it intensifies, aided and abetted by teachers who consistently turn a blind eye to the constant, gut-wrenching racial abuse. One of the most salient (meaning, ‘important’) scenes arises when Clarke is asked by a teacher what her parents do for a living. Upon informing the teacher that her mother is an actor, and her father is a Mathematics Professor - the first British citizen of Afro-Carribean descent to attend a British university - she is met with the patronising assumption that she must be lying. Surely black people wouldn’t have the emotional and intellectual intelligence to perform such high-powered jobs? Clarke also develops eczema during her primary school years, leaving patches of lighter-coloured skin covering her face, and a newfound hope that, bit by bit, God is answering her prayers and making her white.
In high school, the racist rot sets in even further. Clarke develops a new habit for scratching her skin at night to the point of bleeding and bruising. Looking back at this experience, Clarke theorises that this was her body’s way of expressing her extreme discomfort with being black. It gives us a picture of how horrific racism can truly be, and the ways in which it forces minorities into believing that there’s something wrong with them, instead of there being something wrong with the people hurling abuse in the first instance!
It is this stage of her life when Clarke deals with one of the most difficult parts of being a minority in a majority white country. Through her interactions with teachers, friends and boyfriends alike, she becomes deeply angry at those people who abhor racism themselves, but seem unable to step in when racist events are actually occurring. Clarke also deals with more nuanced experiences of racism - people who don’t intend to be racist, but end up making insensitive comments anyway. Whether intentional or not, these comments still hurt, and are still part of the challenges of growing up black in a white country.
Nonetheless, Clarke continues to rise above the odds, becoming a prolific high school debater, maintaining her position at the top of the academic cohort, and forming a small but tight-knit group of friends whom she can trust.
Clarke’s recollection of her childhood ends on a relatively abrupt note, with Clarke returning home to realise that her father has left the family for another woman. In a note to the family, he provides no explanation other than that he had a secret affair for many years. Suddenly, Clarke, her brothers, sisters and mother are left to pick up the pieces.
In the epilogue, Clarke is now an adult with a child of her own. Walking down Melbourne’s North Road, she reflects on the challenges and opportunities to which her child will be witness. Clarke portrays it as the dual sadness and happiness of knowing that, in Australia, her children will surely have access to more opportunity than in most parts of the world - but it will come at a cost. Namely, they will also have to contend with the remaining undercurrent of racism that, even now, still seeps through Australian society.
The unsatisfying end to the novel reflects the nature of racism and the experience of a minority growing up in a white country itself: there is no happy ending. Rather, life becomes a series of painful incidents interspersed with minor victories; those who stand up against racism, those who fail to do so and the hundreds of thousands of Australians who will forever grapple with a society that sees them as ‘lesser than’ due to the colour of their skin.
Summary - Charlie’s Country
Charlie’s Country, an Australian movie directed by Dutch-Australian Rolf De Heer, follows the story of Charlie, a First Nations man living in late-2000s Australia.
The movie is set in the wake of the 2007 Northern Territory Intervention. As a bit of quick context, this was an action taken by the Commonwealth Government under Coalition Prime Minister John Howard to send Australian Defence Force troops into the Northern Territory. It came in response to the ‘Little Children are Sacred’ report, which raised allegations of child sexual abuse and neglect of children in Aboriginal communities. The intervention also involved restricting alcohol consumption, quarantining a portion of welfare payments to Indigenous residents (with the justification that this would prevent it being spent on alcohol, pornography, cigarettes, etc.) and hefty fines as well as jail sentences for those forced to comply.
It is important to note that, throughout the whole intervention, not a single person was prosecuted for child sexual abuse or any related offence. Nonetheless, this intervention had real world, drastic consequences - and that’s exactly what Charlie’s Country explores.
At the time of de Heer’s film, Charlie lives in a remote Indigenous community. Signs of the intervention are all around - alcohol is banned from most communities, many individuals face personal bans on procuring alcohol, police officers dot the streets and citizens live under constant watch. Charlie, on a surface level, is a fairly happy-go-lucky individual; he exchanges jokes with police, is friendly with other elders and people in his community and doesn’t seem to do much else.
As always with a movie like this - there’s a bigger story behind this all! Rolf de Heer takes us through an increasingly concerning image of Aboriginal communities in the wake of the intervention. Charlie visits his local housing officer and is unable to obtain a house. Here, we see that Charlie is willing to work and wants stable accommodation, but the government is unwilling to provide.
Going on a hunting trip with his friend, ‘Black Pete’, the two are stopped by police and have their guns, as well as the water buffalo they killed, confiscated. Yet again, two Indigenous men try to provide for themselves - but are stopped by a legal system more concerned with rules and procedure than listening to First Nations communities themselves. Charlie decides he’s had enough of having his every move and action monitored, and takes a stolen police car into the bush.
Abandoning the car, he tries to live amongst nature for an unidentified amount of time. Cooking fish, performing traditional First Nations dances, painting on the bark and looking for shelter, Charlie finally appears to be home. Yet, as usual, it’s too good to be true - the extreme cold makes Charlie incredibly sick, and, before we know it, he wakes up in a Darwin hospital.
After refusing further treatment from the white doctors who fail to understand Charlie’s situation and why he is so angry at what’s happened to him, the predictable cycle begins again: Charlie returns to his community, they all share alcohol as a way of coping with their current situation and flee when the police come running to confiscate the liquor.
Charlie isn’t civil with the police this time. In a fit of anger - an outburst of emotion after decades upon decades of control and being denied access to any opportunity - he picks up a bat and smashes the police officer’s car window. Brutally beaten into submission, Charlie is imprisoned as the police officer remarks that he should never have 'gone soft on a blackfella’.
Dragged before the courts, Charlie is imprisoned for assault. When the judge asks him to make a comment, he gives a lengthy speech in his native language. For de Heer, this acts as a symbolic assertion of the First Nations’ rights to their own culture, and a proud statement against the many governments that have continually placed barriers in the way of Indigenous Australians having the same opportunities as any one of us.
Eventually, Charlie is released on parole. He expresses a deep desire to go home - but also a sense of defeat. He resolves, in the end, to believe that even if he will always live under the watchful eyes of the Australian Government, he can at least fight back and contribute by doing his bit to maintain the many cultures of our First Nations Peoples. Charlie teaches young Indigenous boys traditional dances, speaking proudly of when he performed a dancing ceremony for Queen Elizabeth in 1973 at the Sydney Opera House.
The movie ends with Charlie staring mournfully into the camera, almost looking at the audience themselves. There seems to be no happiness in his eyes - nothing left but a sense of sadness and resignation. I know that, upon approaching the end of the film, I started to feel the same sadness that Charlie so evidently shows us. It’s a different type of emotion; one centered around the pain of knowing that we live in a country that still has not made peace with its past, and refuses to listen to the First Nations Peoples who know it best.
Charlie’s Country exposes to us that Australia isa country where, even today, our First Nations citizens are not treated as equals. As such, de Heer’s film is a stark reminder that this state of affairs is not good enough - and that the responsibility for change doesn’t just lie with politicians and decision-makers. It’s our job too:and failure is not an option.
2. Themes, Motifs and Key Ideas
Through discussing Themes, Motifs and Key Ideas, we’ll gain a clearer understanding of some super important ideas to include in your essays. Remember that, when it comes to themes, there’s a whole host of ways you can express your ideas, but this is what I’d suggest as the most impressive method to blow away the VCAA examiners. We’ll be adhering to the CONVERGENTand DIVERGENTstrategy. While we don’t go into detail into how to use LSG’s CONVERGENT and DIVERGENT strategy in this guide, I’d highly recommend you get familiar with it by reading How To Write A Killer Comparative.
Connection to Culture (CONVERGENT)
Both de Heer and Clarke offer a unified idea around culture: that being connected to one’s culture is inherently good and positive, and should be encouraged. Let’s break this down.
The Hate Race and Charlie’s Country are both works that explore the challenges of individuals maintaining their culture in surroundings which would otherwise see them revert to the ‘standard’. In this case, because we’re talking about Australia, de Heer and Clarke take us through the same story of an overarching, implicit acceptance that the Christian, Anglo way of life is the norm. This standard has deep roots in the colonisation of Australia, and the resulting claim of sovereignty by the Crown. Even as this country has evolved into a multicultural land, it still bears the marks of a ‘European’ country; whether that be our British legal system, Anglo-American democracy or any of the other institutions we have taken from the Western world.
It is in this context that de Heer and Clarke go to special lengths to explain why people should be empowered to connect to their culture. To our author and director, culture is an essential element of who you are, and it is this identity which carries people through life. For Maxine, the shock of realising that she may be the descendant of African slaves, and had lived so many years without having any idea this may be the case, is drawn from the fact that she, as a child, feels incredibly disconnected to who she is. Clarke’s memoir thus reminds us that ‘growing up black in a white country’ is an experience that often results in minority children not truly learning about who they are. Travelling through life, Maxine is continually disconnected from her culture, to the point where performing ‘African tribal dances’ to the school is nothing more than a joke. Even in her own estimation, Maxine has internalised (meaning, she’s adopted it herself) the view that her culture is irrelevant, and there’s no real reason for her to properly engage with all its complexity and beauty.
If we consider Charlie’s perspective, his involuntary burst of tears at the hospital stems from a recognition that his people have been denied the free opportunity to embrace the world’s longest-surviving culture; the First Nations traditions that date back 40,000 years. With his friend slowly dying of lung cancer, at that moment, the old man is more connected to the cigarettes that slowly sapped his life away than he is to the First Nations way of living. Unable to hunt, gather as a community, work the lands as the First Nations traditionally would or embark on any other activity that would keep them connected to their culture, this country’s first inhabitants are instead told to abandon ‘the old ways’ and embrace Anglocentric standards of life.
It is a shocking reminder that, without culture, people are left like driftwood swimming through a vast ocean. By that, I mean that people are left without an anchor through which they can independently experience the world. Instead, their understanding of themselves, their sense of self and their actions in life are all filtered through the preferences of the dominant majority.
Intergenerational Disadvantage (DIVERGENT)
Whilst Charlie’s Country and The Hate Race share many similarities in terms of the negative impacts of racism and prejudice, the texts carry different connotations when it comes to the notion of intergenerational disadvantage.
To explain this idea, let’s first define and unpack ‘intergenerational disadvantage’. We could spend days talking about this, but, simply, intergenerational disadvantage refers to cycles of poverty and criminality that pass from generation to generation, worsening with time. Think of it this way: assume you’re a teenager - or at least still financially reliant on your parents. If your parents were to lose everything they owned today in a massive financial crisis, you’d be in big trouble too, right? Suddenly, that part-time job you had that was helping you save money might be the only income for the entire family. You might even have to drop out of school, TAFE or university to care for everyone, denying you a higher paying job in the future.
You’ll have to work your tail off for years on end. Since you’re supporting an entire family, say goodbye to saving up for a house or to pay for your kid’s education in future. Your kids now have to start from square one with less opportunity than the people around them, meaning it’ll be harder for them to succeed in life.
When we apply this to Charlie’s Country, the analogy becomes quite clear. Charlie lives in a community where there is no opportunity. Because there are no jobs - and no real way to gain steady, meaningful employment - people fall into alcoholism, marijuana and anything else that’ll help them cope. Lung cancer and alcoholism shorten lifespans for people like the old man with failing kidneys, while no employer is going to waste a chance on those still living. There is simply no ability to ‘succeed’ here, because the local residents don’t see that there’s anything worth working towards. Hopeless, unheard and disillusioned, it becomes easier for Charlie’s community to just accept their sorry lot in life than futilely work towards changing it.
We aren’t made witness to this same cycle in The Hate Race. Instead, Bordeaux Clarke is the epitome of someone who has broken the cycle of intergenerational disadvantage; becoming the first individual in his community to attend a British university. Marrying a high-powered Guyanese actress in Cleopatra, the married couple represent success and a defiance of racist stereotypes, not the grinding poverty and disadvantage we see in Charlie’s Country. Although Maxine experiences terrible discrimination and prejudice as a child, there is always a sense that she will academically remain on top. Maxine uses the prejudice with which she’s faced as a motivator, giving her the impetus to consistently emerge successful; whether that be in her schooling, cross-country running, as a debater or any other academic endeavour. Sure, she faces racism that inhibits her from always succeeding - the Lions Club competition is a great example of such - but this isn’t so much about intergenerational disadvantage as it is about racism, plain and simple.
Ultimately, the difference between the two is a matter of emphasis. It’s not that intergenerational disadvantage doesn’t exist in The Hate Race, but more so that Clarke is choosing to focus on how even the most successful individuals can suffer from prejudice and racism. This in turn helps us to understand that racism impacts everyone, and we should never pretend it isn’t a massive problem. Conversely, Charlie’s Country is all about social disadvantage, and explores how prejudice can prevent oppressed individuals from becoming successful in the first place.
3. LSG’s Bubble Tea (BBT) Strategy for Unique Strategies
Why Is an Interpretation Important?
Your interpretation is what English is all about; it’s about getting you to think critically about the essay topic at hand, to formulate a contention (agree, disagree, or sit on the fence) and argue each of your points with the best pieces of evidence you can find - and it’s something you might already be starting to do naturally.
In this section, we aim to help you develop your own interpretation of the text, rather than relying on your teacher, tutor or even a study guide (including this one) author’s interpretation. By developing your own interpretation, you become a better English student by:
Writing with meaning. For a text to be interpreted, you need a text and an interpreter (i.e. you!). Whenever we read a new text, our interpretation of a text is shaped by our pre-existing beliefs, knowledge and expectations. This should be reassuring because it means that you can leverage your own life experiences in developing a unique interpretation of the text! We’ll show you how this works in the next point.
Remembering evidence (quotes or literary devices) more easily. If you know you admire a character for example (which is in itself an interpretation 😉), you can probably remember why you admire them. Perhaps the character’s selflessness reminds you of your Dad (see how you’re using real life experiences mentioned in Point 1 to develop an interpretation of the text?). You will then more easily recall something the character said or did in the text (i.e. evidence) that made you admire them.
Having an analysis ready to use alongside the evidence. As a result of Point 2, you’ll be able to write a few sentences based on your own interpretation. Rather than memorising entire essays (we’ve talked about this before) and regurgitating information from teachers, tutors, study guides and other resources - which can be labour intensive and actually detract from the originality of your essay - you’re approaching the essay with your own thoughts and opinions (which you can reuse over and over again across different essay topics).
Let’s look on the flip side. What happens when you don’t have your own interpretation?
When you don’t take the time to actively think for yourself - i.e. to think through your own interpretations (we’ve talked about the importance of THINK in the THINK and EXECUTE strategy here) - when it finally comes to writing an essay, you may find it difficult:
a) to get started - formulating a contention in response to the essay topic is challenging because you have no strong opinion about the text,
b) complete the essay - writing up arguments and using evidence in paragraphs becomes challenging because you have no strong opinion about the text,
c) to score higher marks - ultimately, you end up regurgitating other people’s ideas (your teacher’s, tutor’s or from study guides) because you have (you guessed it) no strong opinion on the text.
Having your own interpretation means that you’ll eliminate issues a, b and c from above. Overall, you’ll have opinions (and therefore contentions) ready for any prompt when you go into your SACs or exams, which means it’ll be easier not only to write a full essay, but an original and insightful one as well.
To overcome the issues above, you need to be confident with your own interpretation of the text. This doesn’t come naturally to a lot of students, and it makes sense why. After all, so many subjects reward specific answers (2 + 2 = 4), whereas English is tricky because there’s so much more flexibility in what constitutes a ‘correct answer’. It’s scary treading the sea of different possible interpretations because you’ll ask yourself questions like:
How do I know if my interpretation is correct?
How do I know if my evidence actually backs up what I’m arguing?
What if I disagree with my teacher, and they mark me down for a differing opinion?
Or worse - I’m not smart enough to come up with my own interpretation!
Let me say that you are absolutely smart enough to develop your own interpretation, and I’ll show you how to do so in A Killer Comparative Guide: The Hate Race & Charlie’s Country with LSG’s unique strategy - the BUBBLE TEA (BBT) strategy. By following our step-by-step framework, you can be confident that your interpretation is valid, that it backs up your argument, and that most importantly, you won’t lose marks for it!
4. Structural Features Analysis
In How To Write A Killer Text Response, we cover Metalanguage. A Structural Features Analysis and Comparison goes over a lot of the same material, and will help elevate your essays to the next level. Knowing quotes and themes is essential, but being able to pair that with analysis of the title, setting, narrator and overall structure - we'll cover title here - shows the examiner that you really know exactly what you’re talking about. This section will be especially crucial for metalanguage topics that are all about how Charlie’s Country and The Hate Race are structured, so, enjoy!
The title of a text is always significant - and this text pairing is no different. First, of course, please do keep in mind that there is no universally accurate interpretation of what a title means. I’m giving you my assessment, but the author and director could very well disagree themselves! That’s okay, because as long as we back it up properly, your interpretation is as valid as any. As always, that’s the beauty of English.
Let’s first unpack The Hate Race. What this title signifies is that, for minorities in Australia, life is constantly akin to a race. There is no rest, no comfort and no sense of home when your mind is preoccupied with all the ways you don’t belong. Australia, as a colonial outpost representing the Crown in a region that is overwhelmingly non-white, was once proud of its discriminatory stances; holding itself as the 'White Man’s Paradise'. It is in this context that racism, for Clarke, is not just a reality that lurks beneath the surface, but rather, a guiding tenet of Australia since 1788. With this overarching narrative, it is also important to acknowledge that the mere experience of racism is immensely emotionally, physically and mentally taxing for Clarke, and all people of colour. Being denied a firm sense of self, and constantly being forced to justify one’s own existence isn’t easy, and becomes a ‘race against time’ to see who can cope and rise above, and who will be swept away along with the tide. This sorrowful reality is what engenders the never ending race against being consumed by such hatred, because, for non-white Australians, there simply is no other choice. If they stop running, they run the risk of being consumed by the hatred themselves and becoming so cynical and disillusioned that they forget their culture and accede to the Anglocentric, white majority.
Moving to de Heer’s film, Charlie’s Country, the title reflects a simple reality: this is Charlie’s country. However, when de Heer speaks of ‘country’, he is really talking about ‘Country’; the Indigenous notion of connection to and respect for one’s traditional lands. Nurturing this connection is a sacred responsibility, and the film reminds us that, despite Charlie’s many trials and tribulations, the land on which he lives is truly his own. Throughout the film, Charlie maintains a keen awareness that what is happening to him is unjust, and, unlike Maxine, he doesn’t need someone to convince him that he belongs. Whatever Anglo Australia does, it cannot change the continuing legacy of his people and their sovereignty. To Charlie, it is laughable to think that his Country - which the First Nations have nurtured and kept in common use for 40,000 years - could suddenly become someone else’s property in less than 200 years. He may not have any legal authority under the Crown, and his people may be dispossessed of their sovereignty and authority, but this cannot and will not change the remaining truth of First Nations sovereignty. De Heer’s film title thus challenges us to confront our own perceptions of Australia and remember that we all live on stolen land.
Essay Topic Breakdown
As with all our essay topic breakdowns, we'll follow LSG's THINK and EXECUTE strategy, as taught in our How To Write A Killer Text Response study guide. The LSG's THINK and EXECUTE strategy follows three steps in the THINK phase - Analyse, Brainstorm, and Create a Plan. Learn more about this technique in this video:
'I’m free now!' (Charlie’s Country) 'My children are the descendants of the unbroken.' (The Hate Race) Compare the characters’ understanding of freedom in the two texts.
Step 1: Analyse
Let’s break down the prompt. This is a quote-based prompt, meaning the quote must feature somewhere in your essay. Ensure that you have a good understanding of the place from which the quote is drawn. In this case, Charlie’s exclamation of joy features when he escapes to the wilderness and is able to cook, dance and provide for himself. The quote from The Hate Race is the last line of the memoir, with Clarke expressing the sentiment that her children belong in Australia and will be as strong as their parents.
Step 2: Brainstorm
The next part is to establish the link between the quote and the topic. The essay topic at hand asks us how 'freedom' is understood, so we need to actually understand freedom itself in relation to the quotes provided.
For de Heer and Clarke, freedom isn’t an abstract concept relating to rights, liberties and responsibilities. Rather, freedom is found when people have the ability to be themselves, own their culture and live their truth. For Charlie, that mainly relates to his right to live in his country and maintain the traditional ways of the First Nations Peoples. Clarke, however, is more focused on the balancing act of finding freedom through a multicultural society that includes all, and in doing so celebrates the contribution that all cultures make into the melting pot that is Australia.
Step 3: Create a Plan
There’s no one correct way to structure your paragraphs for Charlie’s Country and The Hate Race. However, I find it consistently helpful to follow a chronological structure. This refers to going through events of the memoir and film in the order they actually occur, and finding unique points of analysis based around these chronological groupings.
We also need to think of examples and points of comparison. Base these around the themes we’ve gone through, so you can easily identify DIVERGENT and CONVERGENT points of comparison. I’ll walk you through my thinking.
Paragraph 1 – unable to experience freedom because systems exist to stop individuals from embracing their own culture
Kellyville and Alice Springs are immediately established as communities where rules and standards of association are both made and enforced by white authorities. The types of authorities and the prevalence of this overarching system of control differs between The Hate Race and Charlie’s Country, but are not any less harmful.
Paragraph 2 – attempts at pushback are rebuffed, resulting in further punishment for the simple crime of failing to conform
Anglo Australia maintains its dominance through an assumption that minority Australians and First Nations Peoples will not question their place. Thus, when there is even the smallest semblance of resistance, punishment is the only solution.
The difference here is that while Charlie wages an active resistance against white authorities, Maxine is moreso placed into submission by the repeated failure of her pleas to be heard by anyone in a position to change what is occurring. At the centre of both situations, though, is a desire to break free of white Australia’s chains.
Paragraph 3 – finding cultural freedom is a slow process of change, but one that begins with self acceptance
There is no happy ending to either The Hate Race or Charlie’s Country. Freedom does not suddenly spring forth. Instead, our author and director elucidate that cultivating freedom is a slow process. For Charlie, that begins with embracing his culture again and seeking to keep it alive. On Maxine’s part, it is about refusing to be broken by her past, and instead using her trauma as a motivator to build a better future.
As non-native speakers living and studying in Australia, we would want nothing more than to improve our English skills both for the comfort of living in an English-speaking country and our career prospects. This blog aims to change the belief that only the naturally talented language learners can do well in the EAL exams and helps ESL speakers better their writing skills.
Contents of this study guide:
Knowing Your Sentence Structure
Expand Your vocabulary
Build Your Own 'Essay Formulas'
1. Knowing Your Sentence Structure
I cannot stress how important it really is to really know your sentence structure and grammar because, without a solid understanding of how it is supposed to be structured, grammatical errors can easily be made which will preclude you from articulating your ideas in the clearest manner possible.
Simplest form: Subject + Verb + Object
Example: Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible (S) is (V) an allegory for the McCarthyism trials (O).
While not all sentences have objects, it is not a sentence without a subject and a verb that goes with that subject. Sometimes you can have more than one subject or more than one objects:
- In addition (C), Brooks (S) also demonstrates (V) the ways in which individuals can start questioning their ideology in time of crisis (O).
- Set in a patriarchal society (C), Women of Troy (S) warns (V) the audience of the detrimental consequences of wars and the ways in which innocent bystanders are affected by them (O).
- As the story unveils (C), it (S) becomes (V) more difficult for the audience to sympathise with the titular character (O) due to his many flaws (C).
Examples of linking words:
EMPHASIS: Undoubtedly, Particularly, In particular, Specifically, Especially, Obviously, Clearly
ADDITION: Additionally, In addition, Furthermore, Also, Plus, Moreover, Besides
CONTRAST: Unlike, Nevertheless, On the other had, Conversely, Despite, In spite of, Whereas
It never hurts to have some sentence structured memorized if you are not yet fluent. For instance, have a few sentence formulas for each essay type that will be in the exams.
- In particular, the protagonist (verb) (object), which enables the audience to (verb).
- This thereby (verb) the audience to (verb).
- While the character (verb) (object), the audience still (verb) as (pronoun) (verb).
- From the outset of the (text type), the writer presents (character’s name) as (adjective), (verb +ing) the audience to (verb).
- This is epitomized/ exemplified through the way in which the writer (EVIDENCE), seeking to (EFFECTS ON READERS) through (TECHNIQUE)
- By (TECHNIQUE + EVIDENCE), the writer (ARGUMENT e.g. fortify the notion that technology is more beneficial than detrimental), thereby (EFFECTS ON THE AUDIENCE)
- So as to (ARGUMENT e.g. amplify the cataclysmic effects of such behaviours on the society), the write (TECHNIQUE) This in turn/ thereby/ therefore (EFFECTS ON READERS) as EVIDENCE e.g. the writer posits _______).
- Compounding this notion with (TECHNIQUE) the writer ARGUMENT) in order to (EFFECTS ON THE AUDIENCE) as the (EVIDENCE e.g. term “slaughter” invokes connotations of brutality and destruction).
- This notion is bolstered/ fortified/ augmented/ amplified/ accentuated/ magnified through (TECHNIQUE/EVIDENCE).
2. Expand Your Vocabulary
While it is sometimes helpful to memorise words from glossaries found on the Internet, it is not the most the effective way to thoroughly improve your vocabulary. In fact, learning words from a glossary or dictionary by heart can often lead to students misusing the words due to their misinterpretation of the new words.
From what I’ve seen from my and other students’ experience, the best way to upgrade your word bank for your essays is to slowly word up from what you already know. Start off with a simple paragraph and you will see your writing get better after every time you edit or rewrite your paragraphs.
Avoid generic verbs
Words like “make” or “create” should be avoided at all cost because there are often words with connotation that can replace generic terms. For instance, instead of saying “the writer makes the audience sympathise with the characters, you can say “the writer compels the audience to sympathise with the characters”. Replacing words like “make” with words like “compel” improves your writing because unlike the first sentence which only mentions how the audience feel, the second sentence also focuses on the writer’s intention as the writer is using force or pressure to ensure the audience feels obliged to sympathise with the characters. It is always better to expand your vocab from what you already know rather than learning completely new words with new meanings you have never seen before.
Know the word’s connotations
Most English words have really clear connotation. An example of this would be how the term “slaughter” invokes connotation of brutality and destruction while the term “kill” does not evoke as many feelings within the reader.
Use strong adjectives
This is a way to avoid using generic adverbs such as “very” and “extremely”. “Exquisite” is a much more poetic sounding term than “very pretty” and “daunting” is better than “hard”. Having descriptive and expressive words at the back of your head will enable you to write paragraphs that will resonate within the readers, and by extension, boost your EAL results. I would highly recommend you build your own personal word bank for each of the writing section and re-use those words as many times as possible so those words stay engrained in your mind, making it much easier for you to look for words to write under exam condition.
It is also important to note that there is no fast-track way to improve your writing because memorizing a deck of vocabulary flashcards or a Quizlet topic will not get you what you want regardless of how good your memory is. Out of all the ‘fancy’ words that you learn from a glossary like that, you will probably only remember and use 1 or 2 of them. Vocabulary exercises will help you much more! You need to spend time practice using the words for them to be deeply engrained in your knowledge, which will in turn enable you to instinctively come up with better words to use.
If you’ve got a bit of extra time every week to work in your vocabulary, I recommend using the following books:
- Cambridge English Vocabulary in Use (Elementary or Intermediate): This book is suitable for students whose English is not yet fluent and proficient. Each of the topic only has a small group of words and there are short exercises that allow you to better remember the words.
- Cambridge English Collocation in Use (Intermediate): This book is suitable for mostly everyone because collocations not only will help you show off your English but will also improve your flow and coherence. For instance, “commit a murder” is a collocation, a group of words that go well together. It is not ideal to replace “commit” with anything else because “make a murder” just does not sound right.
- Sadlier Vocabulary Workshop (Level D to Level H): This series of books are not for ESL learners. They aim to strengthen native speakers’ writing skills and vocabulary, which thereby means that they are much more difficult. If you are already fluent and proficient, I highly recommend these books because they have a range of reading comprehension exercises that focus on a group of words and offer you heaps of exercises to practice that particularly group of words in different context as well! (Kill two birds with one stone because this will definitely help you nail that Section C short answer task!)
However, I do understand if you do not have the luxury of time, year 12 is hectic and is never a breeze. If that is the case though, try doing the following steps after finishing every of your essay.
1. Write that one “perfect” essay – doesn’t matter if you take days to finish it
2. Have it marked by your teacher/ tutor and read their feedback
3. Edit your essay/ rewrite them where you take into account people’s feedback – look at sample essays while you work on that one essay
4. Get feedback again!
5. Look at your newly improved essay and highlight all the points and vocabs that your teacher considered as good
6. Write your second essay while trying to use those good points and vocab that you had from your previous essay, you will find that you will not take you way too much time. You can also re-use the structure of your introduction to save time coming up with a new one. Just be careful with your coherence and relevance
7. Repeat the process again!
Well, that’s how I did it do keep in mind that it is merely a suggestion, but everyone is different in away so please do find what works best for you.
English grammar is often seen as one of the more challenging one due to it having so many tenses and irregular cases. However, if you know how to break it down, it is not that scary because there are actually only 13 tenses and future, past and present tenses. Plus, in our EAL exams, we rarely need to use any other tenses aside from the present tenses anyway.
Also, it is important to pay attention to your subject verb agreement. While it is not a common error for EAL students, many students make careless errors such as this under time pressure. You would be surprised how rusty your writing can get when you are trying to write 700+ words within an hour! If your subject is singular, your verb must also be singular. Compare the following sentences:
WRONG: Hecuba and Helen is both responsible for the Fall of Troy.
CORRECT: Hecuba and Helen are both responsible for the Fall of Troy.
The main takeaway message is that if grammar is not your thing, you should definitely not try to overcomplicate things and because fluency and simplicity are much better than errors and verbosity.
4. Build Your Own ‘Essay Formulas’
In other words, you can try ‘rote-learning’. It saves time and it can ensure that the quality of your writing under exam conditions match up to your actual ability. It worked really well for me as a safe guard because I have a history of freaking out and underperforming in exams. Having pieces of analysis and paragraphs structure at the back of my head definitely saved me whenever I felt sick or overly stressed in SACs and exams.
WARNING: While it saves you so much time and guarantees better outcomes for some people, you should be extra cautious if you decide to use this as a way to tackle the essay sections in the EAL exams because you can also easily fall into the trap of writing essays that sound memorised. This is merely a suggestion different people learn differently – this is what I and some of my peers did and it worked well for us but it does not mean that it will guarantee you an A+.
For each Area of Study, I have a revision document that contains the following:
Super extensive word bank (my own thesaurus)
Practice essays and sample essays
For example, prior to my text response SAC on Euripides’ play Medea, I prepared a writing formula that can be applied to all of my Medea essays that look something like this:
Introduction: Set in a patriarchal society, Euripides’ tragedy Medea expounds the intricate concepts of (theme) through the (characterization of the protagonist/ depiction the norms that pervade the Hellenic society/ vilification of Jason/ victimization of Medea/ portrayal of Medea as the archetypal woman). In particular, he _________________________ , which enables the audience to _____________ . While (argument 1) and (argument 2), (challenge the prompt). Ultimately, Euripides presents an acerbic critique on _________ .
For each of the section, I also have a mini thesaurus of words that I often use. This is just an example. I recommend creating one by yourself that has around 5-10 words in each row if that is possible!
As the VCE English exam creeps up on us, many of you will be testing your writing skills under timed conditions (if not, then you better!!!). But, have you sat down under timed conditions for 15 minutes of Reading Time? Have you thought about how to maximise reading time? Many of you may have already figured out how you will approach Reading Time in your exam. Some of you will have a rough idea, while some will pay attention to detail – knowing how to spend each and every minute in that 15 minutes of silence. During Year 12, I was somewhere in between. I knew I didn’t want to waste precious time like others – those who would simply open the exam booklet, check out the three sections, then sit there staring blankly at the clock to tick over to 9:15am (you will definitely see some classmates doing this :’)) Below is a 5x5x5 guideline which, in my opinion, is the most strategic way to maximise every single minute in Reading and Writing Time. Keep reading afterwards for more details!
First 5 minutes: Plan Text Response and Reading and Comparing
The best tip I’ve received from a VCAA examiner is: ‘Don’t automatically select the prompt that looks easiest.’
Why? While a prompt may look ‘easier’, it may not necessarily enable you to delve into the text to the best of your ability. It is worth spending a few extra seconds contemplating how you would break down your other available prompts. This is worth doing because sometimes, you actually realise that the prompt which looked ‘harder’ to deal with initially (probably because of some scary-looking keywords), is more suited to you and your ability to respond.
In case you’re wondering, a ‘mental plan’ is my way of saying ‘do a plan in your head’. You should always plan (don’t even get me started if you don’t!). You will most definitely reassure yourself and calm your nerves once you’ve organised your contention(s) in your mind and the examples you want to use. Don’t wait until Writing Time to do this, because you can knuckle out hurdles straight away (especially if it takes you time to come up with ideas and evidence!).
Second 5 minutes: Read Language Analysis article (1st read)
Don’t jump straight into analysing techniques straight away. Reason: This may obscure your interpretation of the contention. The contention is the first thing you need to get right. So sit back, read the article for what it is, and absorb as much of the argument presented to you.
Last 5 minutes: Read Language Analysis article (2nd read)
Your second reading should firstly, reinforce your interpretation of the author’s contention, and secondly, involve you identifying language techniques! This should take you right up to the end of Reading Time but even if you still have spare time left, it doesn’t hurt to read the article(s) a third time! The more times you read something, the better your mind will consolidate the cold material in front of you!
Feel free to take on board this guideline or to create your own – at the end of the day, if you have a plan for Reading Time, you’re set!
First 10 minutes: Writing plans
You've done all that hard work thinking up 'mental plans' during Reading Time, let's put them to paper. Don't skip this step, because you would otherwise have wasted your precious 15 minutes getting ahead. Moreover, it's highly likely you'll forget the points you want to write about if you just store it in your brain. Remember that you are in an adrenaline-driven situation, where nerves can get the better of you. Avoid any mind blanks by guaranteeing yourself success and write the damn plan down!
Next 3 x 55 minutes: Writing essays
55 minutes is a good goal because it forces you to get your act together. Aiming for an essay in 60 minutes can often turn into 65 minutes, or even longer. At the very least if you do go over time with a '55 minute per essay' rule, you will put yourself in a position where you can afford to go slightly overtime, and yet still have enough time for other essays.
Final 5 minutes: Proof-reading
This is a step that many people skip, but if you're reading this blog - you won't be joining them. A quick review of your work can help you edit errors you didn't notice while writing. As you practise in the lead up to exams, take note of what errors you tend to make when writing. Is it expression, punctuation, or spelling errors? Keep an eye on your most common mistakes when proof-reading to be more a more effective editor. It is these small incremental changes you can make in your essays which add up to make a powerful impact on the final product.
Share this post with your friends and best of luck for your VCE English exam!
Hey guys, welcome to another week of Lisa's Study Guides. Thank you so much to everyone who came to the VCE expo that happened last Thursday through to Sunday. It was so great meeting so many of you - I really did not expect this many of you to rock up and say hi, but I'm so grateful that you did. So, thank you again so much! It just reinforces that what I'm doing is being really helpful to you guys, and I'm so glad! I'm going to keep going with this. I'm going to keep making sure that I offer you guys amazing English tips on this channel. So, hit that subscribe button below (check out our YouTube channel here), if you do support, and make sure you tell your friends about it as well, because the more love we can share, the more we help each other out.
Today we're going to be talking about tones. You might be interested in looking at tones because you are analyzing articles, but sometimes we're also looking at tones when it comes to the author's writing style when it comes to texts.
So, What Is a Tone and Why Is It Important?
A tone is essentially the attitude that an author takes towards their piece. What is really important is that you realise that there's a difference between tone and mood.
Mood has to do more so with the reader's response to an article, whereas tone is the approach that the author has towards the piece.
It's definitely tricky trying to identify tones, but there are a few things that you can ask yourself to help steer yourself in the right direction.
First thing is: does the author have a positive or negative attitude towards a certain idea? For example, if the author says, 'I can't wait to go to this party' (said in an enthusiastic tone), as opposed to saying, 'I can't wait to go to this party' (said in a sarcastic tone), who do you think is more excited about the party? Probably the first one. In this case, it's been a little bit easier because you see visually how I approached it, but if you just listen to what I've said, the first tone is immersed with a lot more enthusiasm, whereas the second one is sarcasm. Just remember that even though I said it was enthusiasm and sarcasm, if you yourself interpreted it differently than that is okay.
Remember with English, as always, there's not always that one perfect answer. Everyone interprets things differently. It's just a matter of you being able to back it up with your own evidence and your own explanation of why you've come to this certain tone.
So, any form of human emotion can ultimately be translated into a tone. So, whether that is being nostalgic, honoured, sentimental, condescending - these are all tones. And, there are actually so many tones that I've linked a link down below that goes to my blog (if you’re reading this you’re already on our blog!) that includes 195 tones you can choose from. I've also separated these turns into positive, neutral and negative tones and divided them yet again, depending on the type of emotion in order to help steer you in the right direction in picking out a tone amongst all the many, many tones that are available out there.
One more additional tip is that authors can also change their tone. So these can be called tonal shifts, or shifts in tone. An author might not start a book with the same tone and finish it with that same tone - so much has happened throughout the entire book or the event, or maybe even if it's just an article, depending on what they're talking about, they can change their tones. Don't get tripped up by that, acknowledge that sometimes throughout a piece there will be modifications. And, if you're able to pick that up, then that goes a really long way when showing off your efforts to your teachers or examiners.
So, just as a heads up, these tips that I've spoken about are all in our ebook How To Write A Killer Language Analysis. If you're keen to find out more about tones, then go ahead and check it out. There's more there, more examples to help test you, to see whether you're on the right track, more questions that you need to ask yourself to find the right tone and what you can do with tonal changes.
I'm also going to do something a little bit different today, I'll write down three different sentences and I want you guys to interpret them your own way and tell me what tones do you think they are? I think this will be a fun exercise to bring our community together. And I'd just love to see what you guys have to say. I'll check in with you guys next time!
Alright, let's see what different tones you identify from these sentences:
1. Check out my new shoes, I just got them yesterday!
2. It was long since I had returned to this place; the memories washed over me wave after wave.
3. It is imperative that we initiate fair laws for all workers!
List of Tones for Language Analysis
We've all struggled with identifying tones for language analysis. So, I've compiled an assortment of tones you can choose from, categorised into their 'intensities'! For a detailed guide on Language Analysis including how to prepare for your SAC and exam, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Language Analysis.
Welcome to 2014! As many of you will already be in your second or third week of schooling, it’s likely that you’re getting plenty of workload from across your subjects. Some of you may very well be preparing for your oral presentation SAC that’s coming up very soon! If that is the case, I’ve collated a list of some popular topics that have cropped up in the Australian media since September last year. The list is intended to help you brainstorm different issues you may wish to debate in your speech, with the contention left for you to decide once you have researched enough on the topic! Check it out below:
Treatment of asylum seekers
Processing of asylum seekers
‘One punch law’
Should mathematics be compulsory in schools?
Shark culling in South Australia
The end of car manufacturing in Australia
Sex education and homosexuality
Needle vending machines
Cory Bernadi’s book – The Conservative Revolution (Abortion)
Whether you’re studying english, literature or even language it’s hard to avoid Shakespeare. So, we’re going to take a broad look at: Shakespeare’s historical context, his language, and of course, what this means for interpreting his plays. Since Shakespeare has so many plays chances are your text will be excluded. Instead I’m going to use Othello as a case study.
Othello follows the Moorish general Othello and his relationship with his wife, Desdemona. The antagonist Iago is jealous that Cassio was made Lieutenant instead of him, and seeks vengeance on Othello. Iago attempts to destroy Othello’s reputation, and uses the rich but foolish Roderigo to fund his revenge plot. Through careful manipulation of his Wife Emilia, Roderigo, Cassio, and Othello, Iago convinces Othello that Desdemona is unfaithful, sending him into an obsessive jealousy. When Emilia steals Desdemona’s handkerchief, a token of Othello’s love, and Desdemona cannot produce it, Othello believes he has all the information necessary to condemn Desdemona. He smothers her to death, before Emilia reveals Iago’s involvement. Othello, struck by regret, stabs himself, declaring that he “loved not wisely but too well”
So who is this Shakespeare guy? And more importantly, what kind of a world did he live in?
Shakespeare was born in England in 1564, in the middle of the Renaissance Period. This period of “rebirth” was categorised by the increasing reliance on ancient classical authors for information about the world. This is why Shakespeare plots are famously reinterpretations of Ancient histories and Roman plays. Changes in education resulted in the Elizabethan moral and social customs being questioned. This included the Divine Right of Kings, and notions of gender and identity.
Religion is also significant in this period, and the Protestant Reformation is a subject often alluded to by Shakespeare. It is necessary to contextualise Shakespeare within the Renaissance period, because as you will see, themes, words, and references that make very little sense to us were common knowledge in Shakespeare’s time, and understanding them boosts our appreciation of his work.
Now that we understand when Shakespeare was writing, let’s look at how.
Starting as broadly as possible, Shakespeare’s difficult-to-read language is actually Early-Modern English, and so many words Shakespeare used are either lost or unused in modern English. Any good copy of Shakespeare will have definitions of these words in the margin or opposite page.
Moving in closer, we have the two types of plays, Tragedy and Comedy.
Comedy is tonally more light-hearted, and has an apparently happy-ending. These are Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, or As You Like It among others. Despite being made to entertain, they are rarely unsophisticated, and the genre may mask something more sinister. For example, the character of Malvolio in Twelfth Night is entertaining and presented as self-obsessed, but could be used as an example of Shakespeare critiquing masculinity in Elizabethan society, as Malvolio feels entitled to Olivia’s affections.
Tragedies cannot be defined by their tone, however. They are defined by a tragic hero, who has a fatal flaw or Hamartia that results in their downfall. This may be Othello’s Jealousy, Macbeth’s ambition, or Brutus’ naivety in Julius Caesar. These traits all cause the tragic heroes’ demise, as their hamartia leads them to make bad decisions or fail to address the real evil. Tragedies will usually end in the unnecessary loss of lives and an unhappy ending for all involved. Most of Shakespeare’s plays fit into tragedy, including most of those based on historical figures. An analysis considering the conventions of Tragedy--like hamartia and tragic heroes--is a great way to stand out when discussing Shakespeare, and so when interpreting a tragedy you should consider what about it is tragic. For example, is Othello a tragedy because Iago is able to manipulate Othello, or is Othello’s jealousy and mistrust ever-present? Either of these options reveals Othello to be a tragedy, however they both say different things about the characters and plot. If Iago manipulates Othello, the tragedy is because a fundamental good person is corrupted. However if Othello was always mistrusting, the play becomes tragic as the audience must watch an unloving marriage slowly dissolve.
Next, we have the two ways Shakespeare formats his dialogue. Students will often focus on what the characters say without considering how it is said. Knowing the difference between Verse and Prose and how they are used is an easy way to stand out in an essay.
Verse is essentially poetry, where one line follows another. It can rhyme, but often doesn’t. What Shakespeare verse will ALWAYS do, however, is follow the Iambic Pentameter. This is a line of poetry with 10 syllables where every second syllable is stressed. This creates a kind of bounce or flow like a heartbeat. The easiest way to recognise this is to count the syllables in each line: thus / do / i / ev / er / make / my / fool / my / purse. Pay attention to when it is not followed, or when characters are interrupted during the pentameter. When the pentameter is interrupted by another character, look at who is interrupting it. It is likely to reveal a power dynamic between the two characters. Alternatively, a character finishing the pentameter, literally finishing their sentence, could be a symbol of love or affection between them. Using linguistic devices like the iambic pentameter as evidence shows an understanding of the text beyond the words spoken
The alternative format is prose. It’s used quite sparingly so look out for it. Is the way we speak normally in conversation, or how a normal novel is written. You can tell a character is speaking in prose as it’s usually just a big chunk of text. Shakespeare’s prose can reveal different things, so it depends on the context and the character using it. In act 1 scene 3 of Othello, Iago speaks to Roderigo in prose and then transitions to verse once Roderigo leaves. This displays Iago’s ability to code-switch and manipulate those around him with words. Prose is considered more simplistic, so in order to control Roderigo, who is presented as quite dumb, Iago relies on simple language, bringing himself to Roderigo’s level. This is directly contrasted with Iago’s use of the complex verse form, which he uses at all other times.
We’ve now covered Shakespeare’s historical context, his play styles, and his dialogue, but what should we look for when reading Shakespeare that allows us to use this information in a text response or close passage analysis. I’ve already given some examples of how Shakespeare’s language is relevant to his themes, but I’m going to give a rough guide of what themes are common in Shakespeare’s plays, and how they are shown in the language.
Fate versus free-will
This is a theme that can lead to a long discussion and gives you the opportunity to express your own opinion. Are the characters acting with free-will, or is some other force impacting their fate? This isn’t really in Othello, so let’s look quickly at Macbeth; if we consider fate versus free-will with the characteristics of a tragedy in mind, then the tragic hero must act freely even though his ‘fatal flaw’ will lead to his demise. However, the inclusion of the witches in Macbeth subverts the tragic structure and implies Macbeth is being toyed with. Even though Macbeth believes he is in control his fate is met, so is it a coincidence that his decisions fulfill his fate, or was the Witches’ prophecy real?
Appearance versus reality
The different uses of verse and prose are a good way to show when characters are genuine or performing for others. I have already mentioned how Iago ‘code-switches’ by using prose to speak to Roderigo, appearing simple and ‘laid-back,’ but his revelatory soliloquy in verse displays his true nature, both in the content of the speech, and the way it is presented.
Order and disorder
In Othello, disorder could be represented by Iago, destabilising the lives of those around him through his use of rhetoric and manipulation. Order is then returned when Iago is revealed and Othello takes his life, recognising himself as tragically misused. Analysing the theme of order and disorder would support the interpretation that Othello is a good man controlled and abused by disorder and manipulation.
So, hopefully this very brief introduction helps you get into Shakespeare! Even if I didn’t cover your text, the use of tragic heroes, prose, verse, and iambic pentameter are things evident in all Shakespeare plays, so you just have to make it relevant to your text. And remember that in order to read Shakespeare, one must first read Shakespeare. It may take several readings or viewings to grasp what is happening in the play, only after that can you start to analyse in the way I have today.
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