Text Response: Identifying and Correcting Common Essay Errors

Published on
March 15, 2024
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Many students are taught ‘there is no right or wrong answer in English’; and to our disappointment, there are indeed unspoken rules that, when abided by, can impress teachers and assessors. If you are looking for a comprehensive list of common errors for each section of the essay, logically paired with actionable correction strategies that can be applied to your next practice essay, read this blog carefully and scroll down to the bottom of the page to download a printable version for revision purposes.

This blog will cover errors in introductions, body paragraphs, and conclusions, using examples from various texts on the current study design. A printable PDF of this file is attached at the end of this blog!

Table of Contents:

Introductions

1. Lacking contextual details

2. Doesn’t outline how essay addresses prompt

3. Too long!

Body Paragraphs

4. Plot-based topic sentences

5. Not engaging with evidence

6. Missing a linking sentence

Conclusions

7. Too long

8. Too short

Overall Essay – Structure + Interpretations

9. Character-based paragraphs

10. Not considering authorial intent

11. Lacking depth and detail

Arguments

12. Not closely connected to the topic

13. Too similar

Writing Fluency + Expression

14. Colloquial language

15. Repetitive vocabulary

16. Generic verbs

17. Tense usage

19. Not embedding evidence

20. Spelling/Punctuation/Grammar inaccuracy

21. Word choice

22. Handwriting clarity

23. Metalanguage

Formatting

24. Referring to the text

25. Line formatting

Finally, a category of its own: time management

Introductions

An effective introduction sets the stage for your essay, providing context and outlining how you plan to address the prompt. Common errors in introductions include lacking contextual details, not outlining how the essay addresses the prompt, and being too long or too short. By addressing these issues, your introduction will demonstrate your understanding of the text and establish a clear response to the topic.

Lacking contextual details

Error explanation: The introduction of an essay should demonstrate that you (the author) has an understanding of the text’s basic context. Without this, the intro appears lacking in detail and it undermines the reader’s confidence in your knowledge of the text.

Correction strategy: Ensure that you have included (1) the full name of the writer, (2) The time of publication/setting, (3) the genre, (4) the full title. Other details you may choose to include: the time the text is set, the place the text is set, any movements / contemporary events which influenced the text

Example: For the text We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson, the introduction’s contextual details should include:

  • “Shirley Jackson” (author’s full name)
  • “1962” (year of publication)
  • “mystery” or “gothic fiction” (genre)
  • “novella” (type of text)
  • “We Have Always Lived In The Castle” (full title)

It could also mention that the novella is influenced by the movement of gothic literature / incorporates gothic tropes.

Doesn’t outline how essay addresses prompt

Error explanation: The primary goal of an essay’s introduction is to outline how you (the author) plans to address the prompt. In particular, pre-prepared introductions will appear generic and fail to effectively engage with the essay topic. This will be penalised in both SACs and the final exam.

Correction strategy: Ensure that your introduction addresses the following:

  • The topic – what themes are core to the prompt you have been given?
  • The text – in what ways does the text explore these themes?
  • The contention – what does text propose is in its exploration of these themes

Example: Consider the following topic for the comparative pair Ransom and The Queen. “Compare how the two texts examine leadership and family.”

The introduction should identify that both leadership and family are explored in the texts, and identify a relationship between them. It should also touch on examples and broad trends of how these themes appear in the texts, and propose a contention as to what the texts claim about this relationship, e.g. that the isolating, dehumanising burden of leadership prevent individuals from connecting with their families.

Too long!

Error explanation: The introduction to an essay serves an important function – to show that you fully understand the text, and outline a clear response to the topic – but it is one which can be achieved quickly. An introduction which is too long is likely including generic details, going overly in depth about examples, and most importantly, is detracting from the time which should be spent developing strong body paragraphs. Those are what ultimately demonstrate your understanding, and get you good marks.

Correction strategy:

  1. Make sure your introduction doesn’t include any pre-prepared sentences, which are generic and not nearly as useful as sentences which target the essay topic properly.
  2. For those contextual details which are necessary, include them within sentences that discuss thematic ideas
  3. Remove anything which isn’t directly relevant

Body Paragraphs

Plot-based topic sentences

Error explanation: Topic sentences based on an event or character narrow the focus of the paragraph, and limit your ability to demonstrate a thematic understanding of the text. It also appears very simplistic, and wastes an opportunity to clearly establish where your analysis and essay is going.

Correction strategy: Make your topic sentences based around the conclusion of your analysis and overall contention. Ensure you are making a statement about their views and values.

Two ways to guarantee you’re creating views and values statements:

  1. Start the sentence or clause with the author’s name
  2. Use verbs of analysis to make sure you’re not restating plot e.g. portrays, conveys, suggests, questions, challenges, critiques, endorses, etc.

Examples:

NOT:

  • “In Women of Troy, Hecuba is displayed as a strong and compassionate figure.”
  • “One way Euripedes generates sympathy for Trojan women is through the symbol of Cassandra’s torch.”

Instead, frame around the author’s views + values:

  • “Euripedes’ focus on the suffering of Trojan women condemns the atrocities committed in war.”
  • “Throughout Women of Troy, Euripedes fosters admiration for humanity’s tenacity in the face of adversity.”

This allows you to then expand on this thematic statement, proving it by invoking examples of plot, characters, and techniques. It is the basis for a much stronger paragraph, and provides direction for where the analysis should lead.

Not engaging with evidence

Error explanation: Including quotes or evidence in your paragraph doesn’t guarantee that you’re engaging with evidence. If quotes are just summarising plot events, they’re limiting the depth of your analysis.

Correction strategy: When you include quotes, note more than just the plot they describe. What is the significance of the word choice? What images are being created? Are there metaphors, or other instances of figurative language?

With this in mind, throughout your study, build up a bank of quotes which allow you to draw comparisons and analyse language use.

Also, avoid using ‘this shows’ and ‘this is apparent’, as it lacks precision. Naming precisely what it is within the quote that evokes a certain feeling or generates a characterisation is much more effective analysis.

Example: (from Station Eleven) “Mandel’s characterisation of the corporate world as “full of ghosts” adds to the repeated metaphor of prep-pandemic society as lacking in life, conveying a disturbing absence of human connection in modern community”

This addresses both the specific language/technique which is used, and connects it to the views and values of the author. Therefore, the evidence is being fully engaged with and analysed.

Missing a linking sentence

Error explanation: It’s vital that the analysis provided in your body paragraphs is clearly linked to your essay’s contention. Therefore, you need a sentence at the end of each paragraph which demonstrates that link.

Correction strategy: Think of each linking sentence as a mini-conclusion for a body paragraph. It can be useful to use conjunctions which signify another layer of analysis (in this case, a link to your contention) – words like ‘therefore’, ‘thus’, and ‘consequently’. The linking sentence should refer back to the views + values of the author. Frame the sentence around the author’s name and se verbs of analysis such as portrays, conveys, etc.

Examples: (from Sunset Boulevard)

  • “Therefore, Wilder conveys the devastating consequences of prioritising illusion over reality.”
  • “Thus, Wilder condemns the vanity and superficiality of a culture which worships celebrity.”

Conclusions

Too long

Error explanation: Sometimes you just don't have the time. Especially because you’ve just finished writing the essay, and you definitely don’t want to sacrifice the end of the last body paragraph (or any other argumentative material) for a conclusion.

Correction strategy: If your conclusion restates material from your introduction, or your topic sentences, you’re doing it wrong. The assessor has already read those points – this should be something new. Simply summarise your key ideas, and focus on the views and values statements, to create a concise and effective conclusion.

Too short

Error explanation: One sentence is not enough!

Correction strategy: A conclusion is about more than just listing the arguments you’ve written down already. The conclusion should make a broader statement about the author, which goes beyond the world of the text, and addresses what they believe readers should do/think, how society should be, etc.

Example:

The following conclusion expands on the concrete analysis of the world of the text, to make overarching statements about the author’s worldview.

“The crumbling of civilisation in Mandel’s Station Eleven creates a post-apocalyptic setting which displays the tenacity of humanity through conflict. Mandel admires the human resilience required to survive and preserve, yet the novel extends on this, portraying the human capacity to use the remnants of civilisation to construct new communities, relationships and art. In this testament to human adaptability, Mandel places faith into the continued evolution of civilisation, as Station Eleven optimistically implies that, despite all challenges, community and beauty will prosper.”

Overall Essay – Structure + Interpretations

Character-based paragraphs

Error explanation: An essay paragraph which revolves around a single character is always limiting your analysis, and prevents you from demonstrating a thorough understanding of the text.

Correction strategy: When planning, consider 3 ideas which link to your contention. Then, consider which characters connect to those big ideas. If you find yourself still gravitating towards character-based paragraphs, ask yourself: what is it that this character proves? Search for other characters and evidence which bolster this point, and frame the paragraph around that idea instead of the character.

Use evidence outside of main characters: Minor characters can often echo thematic ideas in the main storyline; Language devices and narrative techniques are also useful evidence.

Not considering authorial intent

Error explanation: To form a solid contention, you need to show consideration of why the author created the text. If an essay lacks consideration of bigger questions – what should society look like, how should people behave – then it will lack depth overall.

Correction strategy: Consider the following questions:

  1. What is the author’s goal in creating the text?
  2. What does he/she support?
  3. What does he/she thinks needs to be changed in society?
  4. Which characters are designed to be empathised with? What does this reveal about the author’s values?
  5. Which characters are designed to be condemned? What does this reveal about the author’s values?

This should allow you to formulate statements based on the author’s views and values, and work your essays towards those statements.

Lacking depth and detail

Error explanation: If your paragraphs are too short, or your analysis feels shallow, it can severely limit the quality of your writing. Even if you use plenty of words, that doesn’t guarantee that your analysis is engaging as fully with the text, and values of the author, as it could.

Correction strategy: There can be a few reasons why your essay lacks depth or detail.

  • Ensure you are using at least two pieces of evidence, from different parts of the text, per paragraph
  • Explain the following for each piece of evidence
  • what it reveals within the text (the true feelings of a character, the nature of society, etc.)
  • the broader statement of values it connects to
  • Combine quotations which connect to each other – layering evidence strengthens a point
  • Use choices the author makes about language features and structures as evidence – combining different types of evidence also adds depth
  • Check that evidence has sufficient context – when is a quote said? by who? The characters or plot a piece of evidence connects to can provide additional paths for analysis.

Arguments

Not closely connected to the topic

Error explanation: Every argument needs to clearly address the topic. Sometimes students stray because they bring in a ‘counter point’ in a second or third paragraph, and other times might choose to write out paragraphs they have already written because it’s more comfortable. However, unless the paragraph is entirely relevant and targeted towards the topic, it’s a waste of time.

Correction strategy: Plan clearly, and ensure that each of the three arguments address the topic individually. If you feel an argument is similar to something previously written, ask yourself how you can make this argument specifically to address the topic in front of you.

Too similar

Error explanation: Having two paragraphs which essentially explain the same idea severely weakens an essay. It basically shows that you only have two ideas, and doesn’t allow for enough depth of analysis.

Correction strategy:

  • Use your reading time and a bit of writing time to plan – it may be the case that you’re not giving yourself enough time to think of three distinct points
  • If this is a persistent problem, practice planning out essays under time constraints. It only takes ten minutes, and can be a useful exercise to sharpen your skills.

Writing Fluency + Expression

Colloquial language

Error explanation: Language which is too informal renders writing unprofessional, and can affect the accuracy of your writing.

Correction strategies:

  • Avoid using cliches/idioms
  • Avoid casual language, such as abbreviations or slang
  • Write in the formal register – like an English teacher would

Examples:

  • Justice is not “served”, it is achieved
  • He’s not a character “with a really hard life”, he has a traumatic upbringing

Repetitive vocabulary

Error explanation: Overusing words can make your writing appear simplistic, and is annoying to read.

Correction strategies:

  • Note the words you overuse, look up synonyms, and use them in your writing
  • Note alternative words other students use in their essays
  • When you write practice pieces, scan your work to check for repeated words

Be especially careful that you don’t use a word in the essay topic over and over again. In planning time, brainstorm synonyms for key words of the topic.

Generic verbs

Error explanation: Verbs of analysis are, of course, incredibly common throughout text response essays. Words like ‘explore’ or ‘show’, ‘highlights’ or ‘says’ are very common.

Correction strategies: It’s better if you can use more precise verbs which also add flair and variety to your writing. These verbs all have slightly different meanings, so when writing, you need to select carefully.

Examples:

  • Instead of explores: reveals, exposes, warns, criticises, endorses, questions, condemns
  • Instead of highlights: underscores, accentuates, emphasises
  • Instead of says: states, reflects, claims, declares, suggests

Tense usage

Error explanation: Using the past tense, or worse, switching between tenses throughout the essay, hampers the fluency of writing.

Correction strategy: Use present tense in your essays.

Examples:

Instead of: In Rainbow’s End, Harrison employed dreamy lighting to demonstrate the wonderful, yet tragic, impossibility of characters’ aspirations.

Write: In Rainbow’s End, Harrison employs dreamy lighting to demonstrate the wonderful, yet tragic, impossibility of characters’ aspirations.

Too wordy

Error explanation: If your writing is too verbose, it can be a struggle to get to the highest level of analysis in the given time limits. Being more concise will save time, and more efficient writing will make your analysis clearer.

Correction strategy: Avoid placeholder sentences – get to the point! This applies to unnecessary clauses and ‘pauses’ in writing.


Example:

Instead of: “Throughout the entire novel, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart shows men as being each other's “brothers”, even when they are not actually family, but only clansmen, and this characterisation makes those concepts appear equal, most of the time.”

Write: “Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart equates family and community, as clansmen refer to each other as “brothers”.”

Not embedding evidence

Error explanation: If quotations aren’t embedded, writing doesn't flow as well, and your command over the evidence is slightly undermined.

Correction strategy: Embed your quotations every time.


Example: (from In Cold Blood)

Instead of: “Perry says, “I don’t believe in capital punishment”, demonstrating…”

Write: “Perry “[does not] believe in capital punishment”, demonstrating…”

Spelling/Punctuation/Grammar inaccuracy

Error explanation: Inaccuracies in spelling, punctuation and grammar are harmful to the fluidity of your expression, and leave a bad impression on the reader.

Correction strategies:

  • Request some support to identify spelling errors
  • Correct any spelling errors using a good dictionary
  • Read over sentences, checking for basic grammatical errors
  • Check that your word forms are correct (e.g. “unjust” is an adjective, “injustice” is the noun)
  • Write down any errors – keeping a record will help you identify frequent mistakes

Common errors to lookout for:

  • Capitalisation – check that all proper nouns (place names, the name of the author, etc.) are capitalised
  • Apostrophes – revise particularly in relation to possessions
  • Pronouns – check that pronoun use isn't ambiguous
  • Full stops and commas – check that these are not used interchangeably
  • Ending clauses with ‘is’ or ‘are’ is a common grammatical mistake

Word choice

Error explanation: Often students attempt to use more ‘sophisticated’ words, but can end up with something jarring, because the connotations were a bit off, or just because it didn't suit their writing style. Prioritise precision: above all, your essay has to make sense.

Correction strategy:

  • Check the definitions of any words you’re a little uncertain about.
  • Practice using a hard-copy dictionary when you plan essays, as you are permitted to do this in SACs/the exam.
  • Build up a glossary of terms that you’re comfortable with
  • Remember that your essay can (and will) be impressive without using obscure vocabulary

Handwriting clarity

Error explanation: Assessors can only mark what they can read!

Correction strategies:

  • Practice writing essays to time, and with a pen
  • Change up the pen from time to time to see i it helps with clarity
  • Time management will allow you to write at a more consistent pace throughout writing time

Metalanguage

Error explanation: Use of metalanguage is a way to demonstrate your knowledge of a text. Not using metalanguage enough, or worse, using it incorrectly, can harm the precision of your writing.

Correction strategies:

  • Review terminology to ensure metalanguage is used accurately Glossaries, samples, and peer work can all be sources of new terms
  • Incorporate metalanguage by learning the adjectival/verbal versions Many terms of metalanguage are nouns (e.g. symbolism) but can also be used as adjectives (symbolic) or verbs (symbolises)
  • Avoid repeating metalanguage more than once in a paragraph, or more than a few times across an essay


Examples:

Metalanguage relating to the form and structure of text:

  • Omniscient third-person narrator
  • Non-chronological narrative
  • Non-linear plot

Metalanguage relating to language devices:

  • Metaphor
  • Alliteration
  • Symbolism

Note that films have lots of metalanguage relating to camera angles and shots.

Formatting

Referring to the text

Error explanation: The generally accepted format is to underline the full title of the text. Use this, and there is no need to use inverted commas or quotation marks.

Example:

In Station Eleven, Mandel…

In Sunset Boulevard, Wilder…

Line formatting

Error explanation: Line breaks are specifically ofr showing where paragraphs start and end.

Correction strategy: Leave one line between paragraphs. Not more, not less.

Additionally:

  • Don’t start a new line within your paragraphs
  • Don’t label sections of your essay like ‘introduction’ – that's what the line breaks signal for you

Finally, a category of its own: time management

Possibly the biggest challenge of a 3 hour, 3 essay exam is cramming all of your best ideas and skills into such a short period of time. However, with enough practice, it won't feel so daunting by the end of the year.

Strategies: As well as practising whole essays within an hour, try the following:

  • Writing plans in 5 minutes
  • Writing introductions in 10 minutes
  • Writing body paragraphs in 12-15 minutes
  • Reading an article and planning an argument analysis essay in your head, during ‘reading time’
  • Practice writing more by hand – it’s the only way your speed can be accurate, and the more you practise, the faster you get

Don’t forget that you don’t have to budget each essay to one hour. Many students may find Section C quicker to write, and so have a bit more time to dedicate to the other sections of the exam. Experiment to figure out what is comfortable for you.


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