How to write a text essay
English teachers want you to write confidently, logically and passionately about literature and films. From time to time, you may be asked to write a text essay. Your focus could be a novel, poem, short story or even a film. In each of these cases, you will be given a topic that invites you to write more about the text.
Here are some examples of text essay topics:
- By the end of Animal Farm, there is little difference between the tyranny of Napoleon and Farmer Jones. Do you agree?
- To Kill a Mockingbird demonstrates how this harsh and unforgiving world erodes the naivety and innocence of childhood. Discuss.
- Romeo and Juliet find themselves torn between their feelings and their loyalty to family. What role does loyalty play in Romeo and Juliet?
In each of these topics, you’re presented with an idea that you need to respond to with a thoughtful, informed and focused piece of writing.
Start by underlining the key phrases in the essay topic. A successful text essay is one that focuses on these ideas and has a clear understanding of key terms.
By the end of Animal Farm, there is little difference between the tyranny of Napoleon and Farmer Jones. Do you agree?
In this essay topic on Animal Farm, for example, it’s worthwhile precisely defining the word ‘tyranny’ and focusing your response on these characters.
Romeo and Juliet find themselves torn between their feelings and their loyalty to family. What role does loyalty play in Romeo and Juliet?
In this essay topic on Romeo and Juliet, you not only need to define the term loyalty but also think about its meaning within the context of the play. Should Romeo and Juliet be loyal to each other? Their families? Their friends? What happens when these loyalties are challenged?
Once you’ve unpacked the topic, it’s time to start taking a close look at the text. These essays are an invitation to express a sophisticated reading of the text so it pays to go through the text and jot down characters, scenes and quotes relevant to the topic. Taking time to think about the topic and find examples will help you write a more sophisticated text essay. Remember, your English teacher wants to see insight and knowledge.
Now that you’ve thought about the topic in detail and planned out your response, it’s time to get writing. Remember that text essays are written in a formal style. Avoid writing in the first person, e.g. I think or I believe. Remember to write in the ‘literary present’. This is the practice of using present tense when writing about books and films.
Rather than write: Juliet was overcome with grief and killed herself.
You would write: Juliet is overcome with grief and kills herself.
In terms of structure, a text essay must have an introduction, body paragraphs and a conclusion.
The introduction to a text essay should clearly state your contention on the topic. There should be no confusion about your take on the essay prompt. Do you agree? Disagree? Or partially agree?
An introduction also provides an overview of the main points that will appear in the body of your essay. Try to avoid listing your arguments. Instead, give a sense of how they relate to the topic.
When you’re writing an introduction, show that you understand the topic by expressing it in your own words. Avoid simply restating the topic. Try to find appropriate synonyms for these key terms that both express your understanding of the topic and show how expressive you are.
Here’s an introduction to the following essay topic on Of Mice and Men: Hopes and dreams help people to survive even if they never become reality. How true is this for the characters in Of Mice and Men?
Of Mice and Men, written by John Steinbeck and set during the 1930s, captures the poverty and suffering of the Great Depression. Throughout the novella, Steinbeck explores how hopes and dreams sustain characters during difficult times. George’s simple dream of owning a small farm provides comfort for both him and Lennie. Candy and Crooks also take solace in this dream, yearning for a life free from solitude and discrirmination. Even when they are little more than unattainable delusions, these dreams tend to provide consolation: Curley’s wife entertains unlikely dreams of becoming an actress which provide relief from the isolation of the farm and her dissatisfying marriage.
Also note that you can use a short quotation from the novel in your introduction as long as it is integral to the essay topic. Remember, you introduction will: state your contention; outline the key points that will appear in the body of your essay.
Use TEEL structure to ensure that your body paragraphs are logical and focused. Begin with a topic sentence that explains the idea you’re about to discuss and how it relates to the topic. Go on to explain the ideas, supporting your discussion with close reference to characters, scenes, and language features—such as metaphors or language choices—in the text. Support your discussion by using short quotations from novel in sentences of your own. End with another topic sentence that ties these ideas back to the essay prompt.
Here is an example of a body paragraph on the following topic for Animal Farm: By the end of Animal Farm, there is little difference between the tyranny of Napoleon and Farmer Jones. Do you agree?
There is no question that Farmer Jones is a cruel and neglectful master who tyrannises over the animals on Manor Farm. At the beginning of the novel, Orwell reveals that Jones was “too drunk” to remember to shut the pop holes which allows the animals to congregate and listen to Old Major’s speech. During the speech, Old Major describes how their lives are “miserable, laborious and short.” The animals are forced to work to the “last atom of their strength” and know nothing except “misery and slavery”. It is clear that Farmer Jones is cruel. Old Major describes how the young pigs will “scream their lives out” at the block. The dogs, when they outlive their usefulness, will be drowned in the “nearest pond”. This callous and unfair treatment, however, doesn’t seem to be motivated by malice or selfishness. It is the simple pragmatism of a farmer. Inspired by the centuries of oppression by the Tsarist regime in Russia, Farmer Jones is unquestionably a cruel and heartless master. His tyranny, however, pales in comparison to the cunning, selfishness and manipulation of the pigs.
Effective body paragraphs make frequent use of relevant quotations to support the discussion. The best way to do this is by incorporating short, direct quotations from the text into your own sentences, e.g. Old Major believed that anything that went upon “two legs is an enemy.” You can introduce longer quotes using a colon, e.g. Old Major believed that all men were enemies: “Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.” But try to avoid quoting large slabs from the text. Your teacher is much more interested in reading your discussion of the novel. The above paragraph is effective because the quotes are short and integrated seamlessly into sentences.
When you’re explaining ideas, you will often find yourself using the word ‘shows’ or ‘demonstrates’. Here are some common synonyms you can use for these words.
- Highlights, reveals, illustrates, demonstrates, underscores, emphasis, draws attention to, exemplifies, epitomises, shows, typifies, embodies.
Remember that each of these words has a slightly different meaning and always check if it’s right for what you are trying to say.
When you’re writing an essay, here are some useful words you can use to link ideas:
- In: By, during, throughout, towards the beginning, towards the end.
- And: Additionally, also, furthermore, moreover, similarly.
- But: Although, despite this, even so, however, in spite of this, nevertheless, nonetheless, notwithstanding, still, though.
- Contrast: As opposed to, in contrast, nevertheless, nonetheless, on the other hand, whereas.
- Similarity: By the same token, similarly.
- Therefore: Accordingly, as a consequence, as a result, consequently, hence, inevitably, thus.
- Concluding: certainly, definitely, indeed, of course, undoubtedly, unquestionably, without, doubt, without question.
Remember that a body paragraph will:
- begin with a topic sentence that explains the idea you’re about to discuss and how it relates to the topic
- explain your ideas clearly, where appropriate commenting on:
- language features, such as metaphors, symbols and avoid simply retelling the story.
- use short quotations from the text in sentences of your own to support your discussion
- finish with a link sentence to tie your ideas back to the topic.
The conclusion of your essay should briefly recap that ideas you’ve discussed and tie up your argument. A good conclusion should leave your reader with the impression that you have convincingly answered the essay topic. Try to avoid repeating yourself. You may use short quotations in the conclusion if it’s relevant. Ensure you don’t introduce any new points.
Here’s a sample conclusion on this essay topic for To Kill a Mockingbird:To Kill a Mockingbird demonstrates how this harsh and unforgiving world erodes the naivety and innocence of childhood. Discuss.
Ultimately, Harper Lee demonstrates how a harsh and unforgiving world inevitably erodes the naivety and innocence of childhood. At the beginning of the story, Scout views the world through the eyes of a child, albeit tainted by the prejudice of Maycomb. Through new experiences—particularly the trial of Robinson—Scout’s views and opinions change and, by novel’s conclusion, she has blossomed into a more understanding person. Lee uses the character of Scout to show the nuance of losing one’s innocence, how understanding is ultimately gained at the expense of innocence.
This conclusion is effective because it:
- restates the contention
- recaps key points in the essay
- brings the discussion to a close
Remember, when writing a text essay:
- Develop a clear contention
- Plan your essay thoroughly
- Ensure you text essay has a clear introduction, body and conclusion
- Use TEEL structures
- Make use of short, relevant quotations to support your discussion