Essays. The bane of AP English students everywhere. You can’t avoid ‘em, and that’s why I’m here!
My AP Lit teacher was great. She actually read our essays, gave good feedback, and graded according to a scale rather than curving to her favorite students (unlike some of my previous teachers). The one thing I really couldn’t stand was that her only advice to me to improve my scores was to “go deeper” and “add more depth to the author’s purpose”. I really couldn’t understand what that meant! It took me a while, but I eventually found a formula that earned me consistent 7s (and one record-breaking 9!) on my essays. In every essay, always include The Act, The Fact, The Abstract, and finish it up by Tying it Back.
Now I know what you’re thinking, “what the f*** does that mean?!” Do not fear, my friends, I will explain it all. But first, a standard disclaimer: While I credit this formula for most of my success on the essays, it will only work if done well. Just including everything does not guarantee success. It just really helps.
This is the literal act of the characters, actual description of a scene, etc. It is a concrete detail that does not need to be proved. The Act comes in two forms – quoted and paraphrased.
Always quote whenever you have the actual text right in front of you. This can come from the poetry/prose essays, a take-home essay, or a quote from the prompt. Whenever you are given words, use them. Why waste time trying to come up with synonyms to “conforms” or “questions” when you can just use them?
Whenever the above doesn’t apply, paraphrase. You will be paraphrasing for most of your class, since your teacher will want you to practice the open-ended question more than the poetry/prose ones (at least if your teacher is like mine). When you paraphrase, be as specific as possible without going off on tangents. For example, instead of saying “at Gatsby’s party,” you should say, “at the party where Nick meets Gatsby” before including The Act. You can’t just say “at Gatsby’s party” because Gatsby throws many, many parties. You have to make sure your reader knows which party you are talking about before you begin throwing Acts at them. But remember, the purpose of the essay is to show off how well you can analyze the novel, not recall events that took place. It’s more important to give your reader a general idea of what part of the book you’re talking about and provide an amazing analysis than it is to make absolutely certain the reader knows exactly what page you’re going to analyze and then have to rush through your analysis.
This is a small bit of outside information to tie The Act and your thesis together. For example, “The color yellow is symbolic of corruption because of the connotations derived from yellow journalism.” or “The class system of Victorian England promoted Higgins’s belief that he was inherently above a common flower girl.” (For those who figured out the non-italicized parts of the examples were Acts, I give you a virtual-cookie! :D) The Fact is a stepping stone to the real analysis that comes later.
Facts just need to justify that what you’re about to say has some “actual” meaning. They are not the be-all, end-all of your essay. Don’t stress out about them. Just write the first thing that comes to mind about your Act that will tie it to your thesis. The Fact does not need to be proved, since it is a small bit of outside information or a simple, logical conclusion based on your Act. It can be accepted easily. Do not make your Fact an in-depth analysis of the novel.
This is the “fun part”. The Abstract is the in-depth analysis of the novel, a leap into the unknown world of literature, with nothing but your skills at BS-ing as your guide. Basically, it is a leap from the Fact to an idea that needs to be proved extensively. The body of your essay is where you wax poetic about how your Abstract appears in the novel and contains deep meanings that add to said novel’s profound what-have-you. Since the Abstract will take up the majority of your paper, put most of your effort into mastering the Abstract.
Now, what do I mean when I say the Abstract needs to be “proved”? I mean, the Abstract will include numerous Acts to illustrate your point, and, depending on your prompt/thesis, a lot of Facts too. The Abstract will take up the largest portion of your essay. Feel free to be as creative, strange, or out-there as you can in the Abstract. If you pull it off well, you will get a better grade. Note: If you pull it off well. Just saying the oddest things you can come up with will not work. But, if you back it up with a logical progression from Act to Fact to Abstract, it will typically work. HOWEVER:
Be sure to cater to your teacher. Some teachers love reading something new and different in the midst of other essays about “the timeless struggle of good vs. evil” but others don’t. Make sure you know your teacher early on in the year. If your teacher likes new ideas, then go all out. If your teacher wants everyone to read and analyze the book the way the teacher believes it should be done, then just spew back what the teacher has lectured about for weeks on the page (I really hope none of you have this kind of teacher, it ruins the fun of mastering The Art of Beautiful Sentences). Remember, you might have a great idea or amazing way to BS an essay, but until the AP Exam, it is your teacher who grades the papers. Go all out on the actual exam, but make sure you have a good grade to back up your AP score.
A few other minor notes about the Abstract: The Abstract is typically referenced in your thesis briefly. Since your thesis is supposed to be your road map, the idea that takes up the majority of your paper should be in there somewhere. Just hint at it – you will spend the rest of the paper proving your Abstract, don’t make the rest of the paper meaningless by explaining it in one sentence. Also, do not mention the author unless it is to provide information about the actual words on the page (ie “the author uses serene diction”). The author will have a place in your essay, but not in the Abstract.
Tying it Back
This is the part that gave me the most trouble. On nearly all the AP Exams there is that little bit at the end “explain how meaning affects the work as a whole”. I spent ages trying to figure out what that meant, and now I provide you with my answer – It is what the author was trying to say by having XYZ do/see/etc in relation to the society the author is/was living in. For example, “Through Liza’s animosity toward Higgins’s changes of her, Shaw promotes a pro-feminist viewpoint in ‘Pygmalion’.” If you can master Tying it Back, you can master anything (…AP English related. Don’t go jumping off cliffs thinking you’ll grow wings please!) Tying it Back refers to grabbing your wayward Abstract and forcing it to tie back to your thesis via the author’s point. I typically do this in my conclusion, since honestly, I suck at conclusions. Use the author’s name constantly. The author did this in order to, the author used this because, the author the author the author.
Bring in some historical context if you can. For example, “The corruption apparent in all settings in The Great Gatsby illustrates Fitzgerald’s commentary on the futility of the American Dream in the Prohibition Era.” Before the AP Exam, maybe look up some basic information about the time period the author was living in when s/he wrote the book (but then again, that defeats the point of procrastinating, doesn’t it?).
Whatever you do to make sure you include the author, it will show maturity on your part, your ability to look beyond the book to the society it was written in. Ultimately, a well-written Tying it Back will push your paper up to a higher score.
Structuring the Essay
There really isn’t a specific way to include all four parts of my formula. You need to experiment with your style, pay attention to the prompt, and change things accordingly. What I’ve given you are just the parts of an essay you need to include. But, for those of you who might need some help starting, here is a basic outline of one way to arrange your essay.
In the introduction, introduce the book, lead into the prompt, and finish with your thesis.
Arrange your body paragraphs by Acts. Begin each paragraph by writing a topic sentence (back to the very basics, everyone!), state your Act, sprinkle in a Fact, add a good hunk of Abstract, and end with a concluding sentence that references your thesis to make sure you stay on track. Then, repeat. (Most of my essays wound up having two body paragraphs because I placed so much emphasis on the Abstract. I would say the stereotypical three body paragraphs is a good guideline, and to either add or subtract paragraphs depending on if you need the paper to be longer or if you’re running out of time.)
In the conclusion, lay the Tying it Back on thick. My teacher believed restating the main points your body paragraphs was a waste of time, but if your teacher likes that then start with the review and end by Tying it Back. End with a strong concluding sentence that leaves the audience pondering (or just scribble the first thing that comes to mind right before your teacher shouts “Time!”).
Good luck, my fellow Procrastinators! Let the Beautiful Sentences be with you!