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Exam essay writing tips: Book webs and theme webs

Kate Cattell-Daniels

Kate Cattell-Daniels

Jul 2, 2020

English exams can be tough. Unlike math or science exams, there is not very much concrete information, like formulas, to be memorised. But never fear! I am here to walk you through a study strategy I call Book Webs and Theme Webs, which is a kind of mind-mapping strategy.

 Step one: Read the books

This may seem obvious, but the first thing you want to do is read all the core texts. Sparknotes, Coles Notes and other summaries will not give you the in-depth knowledge you need to perform your very best. Ideally you’ve been doing this throughout your course, but if you find yourself in a pinch (as can happen to the best of us), focus on the texts that you spent the most time discussing in class and that are therefore more likely to be on the exam.

Step two: Spin a book web 🕸️

The basis of an English is exam is usually thematic, focusing on the big, overarching subjects that tend to crop up over and over again in multiple books. This can feel overwhelming, since you probably read about 5 or 6 novels and a handful of poetry and short stories in any given class. And since many exams ask for 'compare/contrast' essays, it is important to have each text right at your fingertips, and also to be able to tell those texts apart. This step will help you break all that information down into bite-sized pieces.

The first thing I do is take a look at the texts I think are most likely to crop up on an exam. These are usually longer works, such as plays or novels (unless you are taking a poetry course). It is also likely that your instructor spent a lot of time in class or lectures talking about these more important texts. If you have no idea where to start, look at your notes. How many pages do you have on The Great Gatsby? How many about Macbeth? As a general guideline, more notes = more important.

Then I take one piece of A4 printer paper for each book, and write the title in the middle. Easy. (I like to do it double-sided for eco-friendly study notes. 🌏)


Next, I draw a line outward from the title and slap a theme on it. I usually aim to find at least 5 themes per book. If you’re coming up with two themes or less, it’s probably not going to be on the essay portion of the test. At this point in the process, see what you can remember without going through your notes point-by-point. You will probably be surprised to see how much you remember! Then, use your notes to help jog your memory for any other topics you covered in class.

Writing them down again will help you remember for next time. I also like to talk out loud to myself, and studies have shown that this technique helps your memory work as efficiently as possible.

Step three: Reverse web

Once I’ve gone through all the books and attached themes to each one, I flip the exercise on its head. Look carefully at the themes. Which ones repeat most often? Probably you will have between 5 and 10 recurring themes.

Take some clean paper and write each theme in the middle of the page. Branching off from this, write down each book that has this theme. Then, jot down about 3 examples of points from the book that demonstrate this theme. This way, you focus on thematic similarities, which will help you avoid just writing plot summaries when exam time comes.


 A final thought: Knowing your strengths

Sometimes, success in an exam comes down to speed. And since the essay portion of an English exam is usually worth the most marks, it can be worth saving your strength for. Generally, there is a choice of essay questions, and each one will ask you to draw on 2 or 3 texts. In my experience, you are often not allowed to examine the same books in the short answer section as in the essay. So, when you flip your exam paper over, READ THE WHOLE EXAM FIRST. READ IT. READ THE WHOLE THING. Then you can “save” your favourite texts to talk about in the essay, and it won’t take you by surprise, as once happened to me in a university British Literature exam where I DIDN’T READ THE WHOLE EXAM FIRST and almost (but not quite) got myself stuck not being able to write an essay about Pride and Prejudice, which I was really counting on.


Congrats! Now you’re an expert on book webs and theme webs and you’re all set for those not-so-scary finals!

Don't forget, if you'd like any help when preparing for your English exams, whether it be with book webs or other study or writing techniques, you can connect with English writing specialists online anytime, through Studiosity.

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