My main focus so far has been on tangential or irrelevant material – but many students lose marks even though they make great points, because they don’t quite impress how relevant those points are. It doesn’t matter how impressive, original or interesting it is.
It doesn’t matter if you’re panicking, and you can’t think of any points that do answer the question. It’s a waste of time, and might actually work against you- if you put tangential material in an essay, your reader will struggle to follow the thread of your argument, and lose focus on your really good points.
However, the detail of the phrasing of the question will significantly affect the way you write your essay.
You would draw on similar material to address the following questions: Discuss Shakespeare’s representation of the three witches in Macbeth.
“Within Macbeth’s representation of the witches, there is profound ambiguity about the actual significance and power of their malevolent intervention” (Stephen Greenblatt). I’ve organised the examples into three groups, exemplifying the different types of questions you might have to answer in an exam.
The first group are pretty open-ended: ‘discuss’- and ‘how’-questions leave you room to set the scope of the essay. Beware, though – this doesn’t mean you don’t need a sturdy structure, or a clear argument, both of which should always be present in an essay.
The second group are asking you to evaluate, constructing an argument that decides whether, and how far something is true.
Good examples of hypotheses (which your essay would set out to prove) for these questions are: The final question asks you to respond to a quotation.
It means looking at the directions the question provides as to what sort of essay you’re going to write.
I call these ‘command phrases’ and will go into more detail about what they mean below.