The key to all good writing is shape; when to be broad and when to be narrow, when to charge ahead and when to circle back. In a previous post I described how a good essay introduction is like an upside triangle, or arrowhead pointing the reader to a strong argument. A successful essay must be launched by this ‘arrowhead’, then explore and circle around a range of ideas, while still sticking to a firm thread, or thesis. When I was an NQT, I developed the system below by drawing out the shape I wanted by hand. It has evolved into the resource you see below, and revolutionised the way I teach essay writing.
Essays are a difficult thing to teach, particularly at A Level, because they are so abstract. In an essay, you essentially take your reader by the hand and attempt to guide them through your ideas. For many 16-18 year olds, their ideas are still a little jumbled, and this can lead to confusion, repetition and a lack of solid coverage of requirements for the course.
I am a total essay geek – I love everything to do with academic and analytical writing. I get excited when my students write beautifully crafted essays, and they laugh at me for my enthusiasm; one of my Y12 Literature students recently said, ‘Miss, calm down,’ as I marked his final coursework draft. To me, the most effective (or beautiful…) essays do the following things:
1. Keep me interested!
Answer the question without being boring – this means interpreting the title or task in an interesting way, and following it through without being too predictable. A good introduction will ensure that the essay is well focused, but the key is finding more than just the obvious points.
2. Place analysis (currently AO2, but soon to change…) at the heart of every single paragraph or point made – this way, no points are made without being firmly rooted in exploration of the text itself…
3. Be simultaneously tentative AND dynamic in tone – it’s important to hedge and use words and phrases like “perhaps” and “this could suggest”. However, being overly tentative can be detrimental to a solid argument – I want my students to write with dynamism – to be strong in their assertions, while also acknowledging that there are other perspectives and interpretations out there.
I have been teaching the essay planning structure below for years and, on the whole, it has helped students to understand the need for a strong internal structure. I call it ‘The Solar System’ because of the shape, but some students call it a wagon wheel or tortoise shell. I would like to apologise in advance to any science types out there who will undoubtedly be offended my terribly simplistic and inaccurate use of the solar metaphor…
This shape puts the introduction in the centre (or ‘core’) from which all the paragraphs spread out like beams or rays.
(you will notice that the introduction uses the DDR model which I outlined in a previous post…)
As you see, each paragraph (or ‘beam’) is separated into three sections.
Section 1 is for AO1 – topic/point and quotations:
Section 2 is for AO2 – analysis of language, forma and structure:
Section 3 is for AO3 and AO4 – textual linking, alternative/critical viewpoints, context:
The spaces in between the sections can be used to write linking words and phrases. If you use the border space to summarise each paragraph in a few words, this can then become notes for your conclusion.
The finished product looks like this:
This can be used or adapted for any kind of analytical writing. Because it is so detailed a plan, I often ask my students to complete one of these for homework when I don’t want them to write the full essay – a completed ‘Solar’ plan shows me exactly what they would include in their essay, and how they would structure it.
n.b. I am still using the resource I drew by hand and have not created a digital version of this shape. If anyone fancies using it and makes one, please send to me!