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.
Let’s imagine you’re writing an English essay about the role and importance of the three witches in Macbeth.
You’re thinking about the different ways in which Shakespeare imagines and presents the witches, how they influence the action of the tragedy, and perhaps the extent to which we’re supposed to believe in them (stay with me – you don’t have to know a single thing about Shakespeare or Macbeth to understand this bit! Now, you’ll probably have a few good ideas on this topic – and whatever essay you write, you’ll most likely use much of the same material.
You’re not totally convinced that what you’ve written is relevant to the title you were given – but it’s inventive, original and good.
In fact, it might be better than anything that would have responded to the question.
But your essay isn’t met with the lavish praise you expected. The grade your teacher has scrawled at the end is nowhere near what your essay deserves. And the comment at the bottom reads something like, ‘Some good ideas, but you didn’t answer the question! If this has ever happened to you (and it has happened to me, a lot), you’ll know how deeply frustrating it is – and how unfair it can seem.
When it’s tossed back onto your desk, there are huge chunks scored through with red pen, crawling with annotations like little red fire ants: ‘IRRELEVANT’; ‘A bit of a tangent! ’; and, right next to your best, most impressive killer point: ‘Right… This might just be me, but the exhausting process of researching, having ideas, planning, writing and re-reading makes me steadily more attached to the ideas I have, and the things I’ve managed to put on the page.
The second part involves identifying key words and phrases.
Use forceful, persuasive language to show how the points you’ve made do answer the question.