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Critical Essays: Writing the main body of an essay

Watch this to learn how to build the perfect essay structure in Higher English (would you like mayo with that?)

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If you’ve ever been to New York you will know that there are some sights you have to see and some delicacies you have to taste. I think there is no New York food that’s as iconic as the sandwich. There are hundreds, if not thousands of delis, claiming to create the greatest sandwich in New York and one of the things that makes these sandwiches so special is the huge amount of filling. The best sandwiches are so big you can barely pick them up!

But it’s not just the size, it’s also how they are layered so precisely with the order of each ingredient carefully considered that’s essential to the overall execution.

We need to think of your English critical essay as a sandwich, with the introduction and conclusion as the two slices of bread, and the main body of your essay as the filling. Your essay should be the equivalent of the finest New York Deli-style sandwich, beautifully constructed and bursting with filling and flavour.

Let’s eat.

This is thinkfour

Once you have come up with your argument and topic sentences, you have the basic structure for your essay.

Now you need to build on this, adding in your textual evidence or quotations, and your analysis of these. This is how you show your knowledge and understanding of the text.

When planning your essay, you need to think of the quotations you would like to use to illustrate your argument. Your quotations and analysis are aiming to back this up.

Let’s look at Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ to demonstrate:

If my topic sentence is arguing that Macbeth is conflicted about killing King Duncan, I need to provide two quotations that prove that: one that suggests he doesn’t want to kill King Duncan, and one that suggests he does.

You need to have a wide-ranging knowledge of your text and know a number of quotations off by heart in order to show the examiner that you have picked your quotations perceptively. What I mean, is that you’ve picked the most apt quotation to prove your point, not just shoehorned in a vaguely relevant quotation because it’s all you can remember.
Once you have planned your topic sentences and what quotations you will use, you need to start writing.

You quotations and analysis make up the main body of your essay. A good way to structure this is using PCEE paragraphs. Point Context Evidence Explanation. There are lots of variations of this and they all create similar results.

So, once you have written your topic sentence, which is quite general, in this case suggesting Macbeth is conflicted, you need to narrow your focus. You do this by making a point.

My first point might be that: Macbeth considers a variety of arguments against killing Duncan, including his loyalty to and relationship with Duncan.

This adds more detail to the topic sentence, and is more specific.

Then we need to add context for the quotation you will use. This is in order to show your examiner that you have a detailed knowledge of the play, and to help provide some background information around the quotation.

For example: In his Act 1, scene 7 soliloquy, Macbeth battles with his conscience and he finds compelling reasons not to kill Duncan.

This tells us when in the play the quotation appears, who says it and
what he is thinking about. This should not just be a long narrative retelling of the plot – that will waste your precious time.

Now, we add our evidence or quotation.
Mine would be a short quote, no more than a line or two. Any longer, and it will suggest to the examiner that you cannot pick out the most important parts of a quote to illustrate your point.

Finally, we need to think about our explanation. This is the most complex part of the paragraph and it isn’t as simple as explaining what the quotation means.

You need to explain how that quotation proves your point, analyse the language that has been used and link back to the theme and question.

By picking out key words from the quotation and commenting on the effect the writer has created, you are demonstrating that you can analyse the effect of the writer’s language.
By linking back to the question, you are also ensuring a tight focus on the demands of the question and, by linking to the theme, you are showing a wider appreciation of the text as a whole.

I suggest that you use two PCEE paragraphs for each of the four sections of your essay, with eight PCEE paragraphs overall. This may seem like a lot and you will certainly need to work quickly, but with timed practice, you should find you are able to manage it.

So, remember POINT, CONTEXT, EVIDENCE, EXPLANATION - PCEE. Learn it and make sure you use it.

You will spend the vast majority of your 45 minutes in an exam writing the main body of your essay and this is really where you show the examiner what you can do. So make sure that your sandwich is bursting with delicious filling, worthy of any great New York deli.

This was thinkfour, thanks for watching.

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