An accurate and nuanced understanding of, and creative response to the task you have been set is a fundamental basis for every other aspect of producing a good essay, from constructing your literature search to writing your final paragraph. This is noted in the English Faculty's marking criteria, which rewards "work which engages closely with the question by addressing its language and theoretical implications as well as its "surface" sense, or by seeing and exploring several possibilities of approach to the question." This is true of supervision essays and those you may select for submission as a portfolio, but is equally true in exams; the rubric on every exam paper stresses that "irrelevant answers, or answers only tenuously related to the question, will be penalised". The paramount need to engage closely and imaginatively with the question set is also stressed frequently in Examiners' reports each year:
- "the biggest mark-loser was lack of or tenuous relevance to the question." (Examiners Report 2010)
- Students approaching this paper are reminded, as ever, of the importance of reflecting carefully on the implications and assumptions of the examination questions, and of developing a clear, strong and sustained argument in response thereto." (Examiners Report 2009)
- Candidates should attend carefully to the wording of the question, and address it in some non-perfunctory way. An answer which altogether fails to address the question set is a failing answer." (Examiners Report 2008)
Developing your approach to title analysis can make a significant difference to the quality of your work. This resource will clarify some of the expectations and conventions that underlie the way titles are set, and will suggest some strategies you can use to analyse titles accurately and draw out their implications in a complex and imaginative way. The focus will be primarily on supervision essays, but exam essays will also be considered. Developing your strategies in a supervision context will also help you develop good exam technique.
The strategies suggested here are not intended to lead to any particular, formulaic response. There are of course wrong answers to any given essay title, but there is never a single right answer expected by your supervisor, only a range of individual, possible responses to explore. Any strategy you apply to analysing an essay title should allow for and promote flexibility and creativity, as well as identifying the task you have been set. Engaging closely with the title while responding imaginatively is a tricky balance, but the ultimate aim of any title set by your supervisor or examiner is to offer you a 'way in' to a deeper analysis of the text. Paying close attention to the terms of the title (or formulating a clear title of your own) will enable you to develop a focussed and analytical argument, while offering openings for your own creative interpretation. The strategies offered here are intended to help you identify these, as suggestions to experiment with rather than a recipe for identifying the 'correct' answer.