How to succeed at English Literature by a self-proclaimed English Nerd

Ok so a few people have been asking me for tips on approaching English Literature ever since they found out I received offers from all five of my universities (all Russell Groups) and being offered scholarships and reduced offers by Exeter, Sheffield and Southampton. In no way am I try to brag about my achievements, but after achieving an A at AS Level English (100% in both coursework pieces) and receiving 100% in my A2 English Coursework (70/70), I feel I can safely assure people that you simply do not just wake up and bash out a perfect 10/10 essay. It requires effort. However, for me, the extra work I put into my Literature studies simply does not feel like work – as crazy as it sounds, I enjoy writing essays. I enjoy analysing poetry. I enjoy discussing certain texts with my English teachers and reading critical work on such pieces after I have finished reading them. Ultimately, I adore literature. Not only that, but I live, breath and treasure it.

It is therefore because of this passion and due to the various people who have messaged me asking for advice on how to succeed in English Literature that I have compiled this list – How to succeed at English Literature by a self-proclaimed English Nerd.

1). Make notes as you go along: Firstly, if you know you’re going to be studying a text for English, make notes about the book as you go along. This makes life about 2837823681 times easier once you’ve finished the book and completely forgotten what’s happened by the end of it. And when I say this, I don’t mean write the next Wikipedia page for the novel. All I simply mean is write a brief summary of twenty words or so of each chapter after you finish it. Write down some key quotes as you go along and also write a line of the first impressions you get of each character. This may sound like ‘urg yeah but, EFFORT’ I can guarantee you it will make trying to find minute little quotes which will seem like the most important things in the world when you’re trying to cram an essay at 2 o’clock in the morning.

2). Never read without a pencil: Of course if you’re simply reading for pleasure then that’s a different story. But remember: English Literature is not simply about pleasure. It is about discussing in a formal manner about what historical issues a text raises; what the book teaches us about humanity; what the author’s feelings towards certain topics were and what mind-bolglingly genius arguments the text raises. Having a pencil at the ready means you can underline key quotes, annotate certain pages or, as I tend to write in the margins: ‘WTF ARE YOU DOING YOU STUPID PSYCHO BITCH?!!!!’ every time a character pisses me off. Enough said.

3). JUST READ THE WHOLE BOOK FOR CRYING OUT LOUD IF YOU DON’T WANNA READ BOOKS WTF DID YOU PICK LITERATURE: To all the boys in my English class who think you can get away with doing well at English by merely using the SparkNotes ‘Key Quotes’ section – STOP. You can only determine your true opinions on a text by reading the whole text. And not only reading it, but reading it again. And again. And again. No, this does not mean you have to read Joyce’s Ulysses ten times in one night and therefore be on the brink of suicide, but reread the parts that are RELEVANT to what you’re investigating. For example, I did my A2 English coursework on how corwardness is presented in Othello (Shakespeare), The Kite Runner (Hosseini) and Atonement (McEwan). As I had already made brief chapter summaries *(listen to my advice hint hint)*, I had a clear reference as to what chapters would be relevant to my essay and hence there were chapters within The Kite Runner that I probably read over ten times. You’ll find you become quicker and quicker at reading the same passages the more you read them and you’ll be purposely looking for specific things as you read them.

4). What are you analysing? Building on from that point, always read within intent. If you know what you’re looking for you’ll find it about 28781 times easier to focus your reading and develop your ideas on certain debates. If you’re writing an essay on love, you can be pretty sure that you can safely skip any passages that are about rabbits and fairies.

5). Colour, colour and more colour: This is possibly one of the best pieces of advice I could give you: if you plan on using certain quotations in an essay, write them out largely on a piece of paper. Then, squeeze the quote or any language analysis in red, structural points in blue and form analysis in purple. This not only gets you thinking about all three aspects of literature, but also makes your work look hella-cute. (one of those multiple colour-clicky pen things is always useful for English).

6). And urm, more colour: when editing an essay, do the same thing as the previous point and go through your work and highlight all your language analysis in red; structural analysis in blue; form analysis in purple; historical context in green and critical interpretations yellow (and, if it’s a comparison essay, make sure to also highlight any direct comparison between the texts). This helps your brain see exactly what your essay is lacking because ultimately, the more you read your own work, the less able you will become at spotting where your weaknesses lie. In doing this, you will be directly able to go ‘oh look, there’s not many things highlighted in purple in this essay, looks like I’m going to have to include more form analysis’ and so forth.

7). As for any subject, know your mark scheme: make sure you know exactly it is your examiners are looking for or else you will never be able to gain high marks.

8). FOR GOD’S SAKE PLAN YOUR BLOODY ESSAYS AND STAY FOCUSSED: I. am. So. Done. With. Looking. Through. Other. People’s. Essays. Only. To. Find. They’ve. Gone. Off. On. A. Rant. About. Medieval. Pottery. When. Their. Essay. Is. On. The. Presentation. Of. Twenty. First. Centaury. Patriarchy. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! . If it’s not relevant DON’T INCLUDE IT. If you plan out your essays substantially beforehand (and you actually STICK to your plan) then you should avoid going off on a random tangent that literally no one gives a toss about. Yeah ok you might have come up with a life-changing reading of a book cool whatever, but if it’s not relevant to the question, then sorry but it is only losing you marks.

9). Don’t just read books: read critical work of others. If you struggle with exactly how to write an essay, reading other people’s essays on websites like E-Magazine, for example. This will improve your writing style immensely. You will be able to see exactly what works and you it will make you more alert to faults in your own writing.

10). Remember what it is your analysing:

Language points could include:

  • The use of metaphors;
  • Similes
  • Personification
  • Imagery
  • Pathetic Fallacy
  • Use of superlatives/imperative verbs/interesting nouns

Structural points could include:

  • Character Development
  • Plot development
  • Sentence structure (short sentences/declarative sentences/exclamatory sentences/compound sentences/complex sentences/simple sentences/ ithinkthisisenoughlistingofdifferenttypesofsentencesalready)
  • Use of grammar (or is there any grammar missing? In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale there is a lack of speech marks whenever the protagonists speaks, symbolising her – and the female – struggle in society)

Form points could include:

(Prose)

  • Is it a first person narration or an omnipresent third person narrator?
  • Stream of consciousness
  • Tone

(Poetry)

  • Enjambment
  • Rhyme/half rhyme/eye rhyme
  • Rhyme scheme
  • Tone
  • Metre

(Drama)

  • Stage directions
  • Staging
  • Lighting
  • Costume
  • Actors (are all the actors female for example to highlight a reversal in social power? What historical/political issues is it raising if a Shakespearian play – where all the characters would have originally been played by men – are played by women?)
  • Performance of the lines
  • Remember plays are meant to be performed!!!!!!!!!!!!

11). Question Everything: as you’re told as a child to never trust a stranger, never trust your narrator, too. You never know what the author is hiding from you (*looking at you Ian McEwan*).

12). Write yourself! This may not be something that interests you, but the more you write the better your writing style will become. Whether it’s a diary entry; a short story; a music review; a blog entry; an essay or a poem, you will begin to have a greater of appreciation of how authors ‘craft’ their work – everything is done with intent!

13). Finally, enjoy Literature! While yes, authors do write novels with intent and are written to express some kind of underlying hatred at the world, Literature is ultimately meant to be enjoyed. If you hate 18th century Literature, then don’t read it! There are endless amounts of novels and poems and plays in the world and you have a whole world of literature if you want it. By reading books you enjoy, you are engaging and developing a passion for Literature. You will find that the more you read the more you naturally begin to see nuances in how authors craft characters to portray their ideas and you will also begin to more thoroughly question texts. English becomes a hell of a lot easier if you’re studying it because you want to study it. After you’ve finished each book, seen a play or read a poem make sure to have a think through of what happened. Were there any characters you didn’t like? If so, why? What issues did you feel were raised? How did the author raise them? Writing essays can be a fulfilling experience and can help you discover your own thoughts and feelings about not only a text, but also about political, moral and historical issues too. Literature is a powerful tool, and it’s up to you how you use it.

Holy shit htf did I end up just writing a piece longer than one of my AS coursework pieces on how to do well in English Lit jhddkjhkqh helP

Words by Juliette Rowsell

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