Text Response is seen, often, as ‘bipolar’: weeks of inactivity followed by sharp spikes of panic as you churn out 20,000 words in six days. If not, students fall for the “quantity=quality” trap, pumping out essay after essay as their one form of study.
Don’t get me wrong. Diligence is key. But here’s what many miss: Essays are the END PRODUCT, not the starting point. To begin, foundations are required:
Step 1: Deliberate Reading
Remember: the better and sooner you engage with your text, the easier to write on it. So. Even when first reading, have a pen in hand! At this stage, nothing fancy is needed ---annotate what you can. Circle, highlight and underline anything that catches your attention.
Afterwards, a helpful tip is the “21 words” exercise, which forces you to summarise the text’s messages as early prep for topic sentence construction.
“Macbeth, a dark, brooding tragedy, explores the corruptive effects of extreme ambition through the moral decay of a great man.” (21)
“Whilst seemingly about human flaw, Macbeth declares that all mortals are in fact vulnerable to supernatural forces beyond their control.” (21)
LESSON LEARNT: First impressions matter. The author ALWAYS seeks to make readers feel and think a certain way. Even before you write, you should be tapping into these currents as best you can. All early thinking, guaranteed, will turn into priceless essay ammunition because you’ve given time for your thoughts to develop and mature.
Step 2: Understanding Context
VCE English involves the study of some sophisticated literature. Authors/filmmaker have used the written word to comment on past and present society. For a high score, then, you too must understand these contexts.
---Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1950s film All About Eve: a satirical jab at the post-war ideal of a traditional nuclear family ---Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites: critiquing the patriarchy of 19th century Iceland
Step 3: Note taking
Now we’ve gained some understanding of the text, time for rigorous and more detailed analysis. There are three tiers involved.
1. Chapter summaries
Basically a timeline of significant moments: what happens and what is said. Note the STRUCTURE of the text: is it chronological or non-linear? Is it a circular narrative? Why is this structure employed, and what is its literary function for the broader story?
2. Event significance
This is where we begin to understand not only WHAT HAPPENS and WHAT IS SAID, but WHY. Go back to each chapter and write down the significance of each defining moment. What does it show about a character or theme? Does it reveal an author’s viewpoint on a certain idea?
Put these thoughts into “essay” sentences. This way, you are constantly practicing how to ANALYSE complex ideas. Come SAC or exam time, you will have already honed your written expression to a far more sophisticated level and what’s more, increased your familiarity with RELEVANT CONCEPTS. This approach is far more efficient than starting off by writing essays on random topic questions. Build up the knowledge base first!
Now, it’s time to elevate your analysis to the divine by understanding the text’s CONSTRUCTION: HOW significant events, significant people are portrayed, and what it all means. Go back to each chapter and look for compelling language/filmic devices, including its impact:
Metaphor Juxtaposition Imagery Sentence length Setting Word choices Intertextual references Symbolism/motifs Camera angles Diegetic/non-diegetic sound
Step 4: Themes and Characters
After close reading and closer analysis, we come to the last stage: bringing all the elements together by zooming BACK OUT FOR A BIG PICTURE VIEW OF THE TEXT: its themes and underlying ideas, its central characters, and the lasting messages conveyed as a result.
Notes on Themes
By now, a ‘theme’ no longer has to be a one word affair like in our younger years: “identity” “friendship”, “tragedy”, “ambition”, “evil” etc. Rather, a theme is closely linked to the text’s views and values: put simply, it can express opinion.
E.g. “The struggle for personal identity”
“The unbreakable bonds of childhood friendship”
“The vulnerability of all ordinary men to extraordinary tragedy”
“The harms of excessive ambition”
“The pervasiveness of evil”
Once you’ve identified the themes, use the notes you’ve made on context, plot, significant events and language, to help support your interpretation.
Notes on characters
Using the previous evidence you’ve gathered, you can now also make detailed and insightful character studies. Obviously, a focus on their defining traits, relationships and flaws is important.
However, in Year 12, what is more crucial is understanding what the character represents. After all, an author will never craft someone out of thin air. Just like a theme, a character is used as a vehicle to express opinions on the nature of society and humans in general.
Now you’ve finished the four steps. Using your understanding of 1) big ideas and 2) close evidence, you’re ready to start writing!
Of course, along the way, there are a few extra tricks one can deploy.
- Read academic/critical/high scoring essays
Exposing yourself to the widest possible range of academic literature---whether it be your friend’s 20/20 essay or a New York Times review on the text----is a sure fire way to juice up vocab.
- Keep reading the text
Whenever you’ve got spare time, open up the book or film you’re studying and refresh your memory! This way, you’ll really internalise what you’re studying. Quote learning will be easier, you’ll form a genuine attachment to the characters… overall, the insights will flow all the faster.