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Critical Essays: Unpicking the question

Watch this to learn how to unpick the complex questions found in Higher English (…grasshopper, anyone?)

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Would you eat live insects?

Apparently, the legendary director, Werner Herzog, made an actor eat live insects on the filmset of ‘Rescue Dawn’ just to make sure it all looked authentic. Many film directors are considered to be notoriously obsessive and demanding about the details.

But then their job is difficult. They have to take a script – a really detailed set of instructions and dialogue – and make it appear real. If they mis read it, or misinterpret it, the meaning is gone.

Well, in some ways, you have to do the same in English (though hopefully without the insects).

Let me show you what I mean...

This is thinkfour

Reading and choosing the question in an English exam might seem like the easiest part of the critical essay writing process, and it can be easy, but you should never rush this step. It is absolutely crucial. The work you do in choosing and unpicking the question is laying the foundations for the essay you are about to write.

If you choose poorly or don’t fully unpick exactly what the question is asking you to do, you will find it very difficult to write a well-structured and relevant essay.

To begin with, let’s have a look at a past paper together. We are going to look at the Drama section.

It is important at this point not to just scan the questions and pick a question that looks familiar from your revision.

Let’s have a look at the first part of question 1. Highlighters at the ready!
Choose a play in which a central character is in conflict with or rejects another character.

So I would be highlighting the words:
Central character
Conflict with another character
Rejects another character

The OR is crucial. You are being given a choice: you can write about a central character who is in conflict with another character OR a central character that rejects another character.

No let’s look at the second part of the question:
Briefly explain the circumstances of the conflict or rejection and go on to discuss the consequences of this conflict or rejection for the play as a whole.

So, I would highlight:
circumstances of the conflict OR rejection
consequences of this conflict OR rejection
Play as a whole

That is giving us some clear direction for how to structure our essay. We would start with the conflict or rejection, and then look at the consequences or what happens as a result of this, in the rest of the play.

At this point you may well have some ideas for this question. Even if you think this will be the question you go for in the end, don’t stop reading the other options.

Let’s have a very brief look at the question 2. I will highlight as I go, just like you would in the exam.

Question 2
Choose a play in which the historical and/or geographical and/or social setting is important to your understanding of the play.
Explain how the dramatist presents the setting and discuss why it is important to your understanding of the play as a whole.

Again you have options within the question but this time it is AND/OR. In theory, you could address all three options (but I think that might be a bit much).

Like with question 1, the second part of the question gives us some detail on how we should structure the essay. We would explain the presentation of the setting and then discuss why this is important to the play as a whole.

I would then use the same approach as I have modeled above, and have a look at question 3.
Only now, once we have read and thought about ALL the options, can we pick the most suitable question.

You need to consider which essay question best suits your text and knowledge. Just make sure it is an informed choice, based on full readings of the questions.

Once you have picked your question, you need to look at it again.

I am going to go for question 1. I now need to make some choices, and double check this question really works for me.

I am going to look at a central character who is in conflict with another character. I know which characters I will write about, what the conflict is and that the conflict is central to the play. Great. This is definitely the question for me.
Outro: 30-40seconds [approx]

Remember Werner Herzog’s extreme attention to detail? That creepy-crawly snack is a reminder of the lengths some film directors go to, to make sure the detail is right.

Without being quite so extreme, take the detail seriously when you unpick the question – it is essential time, well spent, and it is needed to get the best outcome for your essay.

All the attention to detail...without the creepy crawlies. Good luck.

This was thinkfour, thanks for watching.