I am taking a Renaissance Drama course this semester focusing primarily on Shakespeare. I am struggling with my literary essay questions. I have scored quite low in my first midterm (17 out of 25)....

I am taking a Renaissance Drama course this semester focusing primarily on Shakespeare. I am struggling with my literary essay questions. I have scored quite low in my first midterm (17 out of 25). Moreover, I had my second midterm last Thursday, and I believe that the mark of the latter might be even worse.  

I had studied very well for both of my midterms, but once I got the paper my mind froze. The duration of the test (consisting of two essay questions) is roughly 60 minutes.

I don't know how to organize or put the information properly on the paper. I was greatly anxious and I have had some really negative thoughts in my head that I wasn't going to be able to write; seeing everyone else writing added to the difficulty.

What is the right way to write a literary essay in such a limited time? 

Your suggestions & views are highly welcome.

Thank you in advance.

Expert Answers
keyturn15 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It sounds as if your primary challenge is dealing with your test anxiety.  Start by remembering that the study of literature is a very open field of academics; there are thousands of correct answers provided you support your conclusions with text evidence.

Given the limited about of time you have for two essay responses, it would be better to focus on specificity rather than trying to write an epic length response.  Start with the prompt.  Figure out what the specific task is; are you comparing/contrasting, analyzing (which means breaking down and picking apart), or synthesizing (putting the pieces together)?

Once you know what information the prompt is seeking, try using a strategy like A.P.E.  This technique has been around for a while, but it is highly useful in organizing your thoughts and ultimately your writing.

A = answer the question.  Whether you keep it simple and come right out and state your answer to the prompt or take the time to add a hook (don't use rhetorical questions or cliches for this), answering the question straight away allows the professor to determine if you know the subject matter.

P = prove.  You cannot make a claim without supporting it by citing text evidence. Now, unless you have the text in front of you, this evidence will have to come in the form of paraphrase and summary.  Do not be vague here.  Include specific details from the text or texts.  Don't write, "the main character is afraid because the situation is difficult," write, "Macbeth's doubt and terror are heightened as he realizes his wife, who to this point has been the driving force for his ambition, stands broken and guilt-ridden, washing her away blood that only figuratively stains her hands."  Detail is key to evidence, think like a detective.

E = explain.  Your reader has to know why your claim is worth hearing.  Explain the impact of knowing why something is the way it is.  Why does Macbeth's fear matter?  Well, he's making a play for a role that requires hard and final decisions; if he cannot deal with his own treachery, how will he deal with the politics of an entire country?  This explanation comes from you.  Why do you think your answer is the correct one?  In explaining why your conclusions are valid, you are wrapping up your essay response.

One last note, try not to use phrases like, "I think," and "I feel."  Simply put your ideas forward as if they are true.  If you want to say Shakespeare was a master of manipulating characters, then just say it.  Your answers will be correct when you state them clearly, base them on the reality of the text, and support them with text evidence.

thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The excellent suggestions above are all good starting points. One possible issue is that test anxiety is causing you to start writing too quickly. What I mean by this is that you should spend the first 5 to 10 minutes of a test reading over the questions carefully and preparing an outline for each question, rather than just leaping in and starting to answer questions. Good planning is the key to test success.

For each question, what are the main points the instructor wishes to see covered? For example, imagine the question: "Analyze three women in Renaissance drama. Are all strong women in Renaissance drama evil or are there women who are both strong and morally good?" Rather than start writing immediately, you would write an outline as follows:

1. Stance: Although some strong women in Shakespeare are evil, others act as a force for moral good.

2. Example 1: Lady Macbeth (strong and evil)

3. Example 2: Portia (strong and good)

4. Example 3: Cordelia (strong and good)

Once you have made outlines for all the questions, assign a fixed amount of time to each question and then write by filling in your outlines, writing just enough to cover the points in your outline, and looking at the time frequently. That way you won't end up writing too much on the first question and then running out of time. Don't include material irrelevant to your main points -- it just wastes time and won't improve your marks.

Make sure to allow 5 minutes at the end of the test period to look over your test and proofread. 

thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

You're welcome. Best of luck on your upcoming test!

gofran | Student

Thank you very much. I shall keep all of what you have said in mind ☺.