So you want to go through those four huge set books all over again! Why? Where will you get the time? It is only one and half months to final examination if you are in Upper Six.
Whether you are in Form 4 or 5, the year-end examination is around the corner and you have History, Geography, Divinity and the rest of them to attend to. So what do you do now with the time left? Visit your syllabus again. Study it carefully. It is the Constitution that binds the candidate and the examination board.
Make sure you thoroughly understand at least two or three main themes in each set book and make sure you have enough material to write about each one of them.
It is time to go through several past examination papers. They will acquaint you with how questions are asked or phrased. This is important. Critical.
Each question leads particular key words: Justify, Compare, Contrast (sometimes both), Discuss, Argue, Describe, Narrate, Do you agree? How far do you agree? Cite examples of . . . Make sure you identify the key word(s) and what it means. When you answer you are doing exactly what the key word asks you to do, what the examiner wants you to do, not what you know or like.
Form 4 students, mind the contextual question. Know the chronological sequence of the story well. What comes first, second, third, after, before . . . etc? Who said these words? Why? To who were they said? What was the response to the words? These questions are typical contextual questions particularly in the Shakespearean type literature-Drama. What does this statement, question, expression by the speaker tell you about him or her?
Still with the Form 3-4 students: Mind the two-part question, (a) and (b)! Budget equal time to each part. Do not excel in part one at the expense of part two.
The way you introduce your literature answer . . . your essay . . . all the time must do two things: Briefly give your personal insight into the question and how you are going to respond; meaning what issues you will look at and in what order. The marker will be guided by this Intro. It is like a briefing, which is actually a guideline. If the question asks ‘‘How far do you agree?” This is where you take position, right there at the beginning. If you both agree and disagree say which side takes the toll of your argument or discussion? Say whether you are going to agree to a larger extent or lesser extent. If you do not agree at all, say so.
Always remember that you gain more marks for supportive evidence. Do not make a point and leave it hanging for the mercy of the marker. Support it by giving contextual evidence or example and (Form 5 & 6) what is your personal take on it . . . your remark or comment? Quotations are perfect illustrations of points, but they must be exact quotations, accurate in every sense, comma and full stop. Wherever you are not sure and cannot be exact, simply paraphrase (No quotation marks.)
Form 5 & 6: In Practical Criticism, if the question is open, namely if it asks you to make a general literary appreciation of a given piece, without specifying ‘‘Look at the Tone, Techniques and Language’’ for example, be systematic in your presentation . . . in your essay. Do not resort to the pop-corn method, that is, attending to whatever you notice at every glimpse. Begin with the title. That is the entry point. What clue does it give you? What idea(s) does it encapsulate or introduce? Then go to the form of the piece. Is it written in dialogue, in verse (stanzas) or in prose (paragraphs)? Is it Drama (Acts and Scenes)? If it is a poem, what is the verse type (blank or free)? Is there rhyme scheme? If so, what kind of rhyme scheme: initial, internal or end-rhyme? Is it a sonnet? If so, what kind of sonnet? Shakespearean (English) or Petrachan (Italian) or Modern sonnet (just 14 lines neither Shakespearean nor Petrachan)? Is the poem an Ode, an Epic, a Eulogy, a Ballad . . . a Lyrical Ballad (with obvious qualities of a song)? There is so much to know and understand about FORM. Then you go the SITUATION. What is the story about in a nutshell? Then you benchmark its movement . . . its DEVELOPMENT from one point to the other. Then you identify the TECHNIQUES: first the voice of command or presentation ie. Is it first person narrative or second person? Identify use of similes, imagery, use of punctuation . . . ellipsis, caesura, commas, full stops, enjambment (run-on lines), rhetorical questions, long and short lines, metaphors, assonance, alliteration, antithesis, euphemism, irony, humour, litotes, melodrama, paradox, sarcasm, satire etc. You need to be very observant and knowledgeable around these technical terms. Then you identify the INTENTION of the poet/ writer. This refers to the meaning of the piece. What issue or issues are obvious here? Do not forget some intentions are hidden, for example in the case of a parabolic or allegorical piece with a second layer of meaning. From here you give your evaluation of the piece. Is it a successful attempt by the author/poet to achieve his or her intention? You will remember not to judge the writer or piece on your own whims or desires, your likes or dislikes. The judgement must always be based on the intention of the writer, please note. What did he/she want to bring out? Was that successful?
If you are answering a question on characterisation: Desist from the notoriously common habit of re-telling the story . . . narrating the story you know very well, to bring out your understanding of this or that character. Unless you are quoting an incident very briefly that is an example of what you are claiming. Otherwise the marker wants definitive, authoritative adjectives not found in the story, but in your head. The character is short-sighted, is intelligent, is ill-tempered, hard-hearted, brutal, wicked, cruel, evasive, full of humour, jealous, envious, ambitious, power hungry, chauvinistic, dull, understanding, inquisitive, polished, unpolished, the list is and must be as long as your depth of understanding. Use these to engage the marker, then support your choice of word (adjective) and make a round comment. You are done! You base every understanding of a character on the following: (a). What the character says about himself. (b). What other characters say about him or her. (c). What he/she does in action or reaction to something said or done to him/her. (d). What the author says about her/him. These are the only dimensions from which a character, any person, can be understood.
Last but not least, Literature has its own language specifically registered to it. You must use appropriate language all the way: Most of this is around the techniques as you have seen above. These characters for example have specific names: Protagonist (referring to the major character around which the story revolves), antagonist (the one bent on frustrating the cause of the protagonist . . . ever plotting his or her down fall), round character (not major but fully developed and without whom the story cannot be the same essentially), and flat characters (undeveloped, appear very briefly, usually once) used to amplify a major character’s character or manners.) You may understand all the issues and tissues in a given set book or literature piece and answer a particular question very knowledgeably, but if you do not use the appropriate language, you will not impress the examiner at all. This is critical.
The tips above are certainly not the only ones critical in the study of Literature. But your awareness and mastery of these can place you on the top shelf. Sometimes, perhaps often-times, distinctions do not come from knowing everything there is to know, but knowing enough there is to know . . . and excelling with that little known in classical detail.