Short Answer Strategies – English Advanced

We give you our top tips and strategies to aceing your short answer questions for English. Don't panic about time, remember you've put the work in, you know your literary techniques, you know the rubric. Now it's time to shine in the short answer questions using these simple strategies!

Content by English Tutor, Tamsyn Smith

In the short answer section of Paper 1, the focus is on analysis that champions literary techniques. In other words, almost everything you say about the unseen texts should be linked to a technique that is in use.

Often this section of the exam can seem quite daunting. You are used to studying texts over the length of an entire term before being expected to write about them through a lens of formal analysis.  To do this for 3 to 5 unseen texts in the space of 45 minutes might appear to be a big ask. However, here are some simple tricks that with practice will help you respond to unseen texts in an original and efficient manner:

Have a thorough understanding of literary techniques.

To write analysis that champions literary techniques you must understand what various techniques mean. In your responses you need to do two main things with techniques: identify them and explain their effect. A successful short answer response does not simply say where a certain technique is found in the text, but also what it adds to the text overall. By understanding the effect, you can link the technique to the ideas you are discussing, creating a coherent and meaningful response.

Have a thorough understanding of the Texts and Human Experiences Rubric.

Paper 1 is focused on the Common Module: Texts and Human Experiences. By having a strong knowledge of this module’s themes and keywords you go into this exam having already engaged with the themes it will ask you to discuss.

Identify the form of the text before anything else.

Under the question number, the exam will outline the form, that is, the type of text. For example, it might say “Text 1 – Poem.” By knowing the form you can narrow down the types of techniques you are looking for. For example, if it were a poem you would focus on finding poetic techniques such as metre, structure and rhyme. In the case of nonfiction, you could focus on identifying the tone, informal/formal language or persuasive techniques. This allows you analyse more quickly; You already know what to look for.

Read the question before reading the text.

Reading the question tells you what to look for while reading the text. A question that asks about paradox tells you to look for paradoxes in the unseen text. A question that asks about individual and collective experiences tells you to look for how these experiences are represented. If you read the text before the question you will likely find yourself going through the text a second time before being able to answer the question. If you know what the question wants first, you can analyse and identify techniques on your first reading.

Annotate the text as you read.

If you are managing to identify techniques, think about the question and read the text all at once, your brain is going to have trouble retaining all the thoughts you are having. How you annotate depends on what works best for you, something you will figure out with timed practice. You could draw arrows to techniques or themes on the side of the page, or simply underline words and phrases that stood out to you as important. When it comes to answering the question and forming a coherent response your annotations will prompt your brain to remember what it was thinking during the reading. Instead of looking at a blank slate, you will see a text that you have already begun to analyse. Whatever method you choose, make sure it is one that will not slow you down too much. Again, this is something that comes with timed practice.

Analyse, don’t describe.

The markers are looking for analysis, not description. Instead of saying, “the characters do this” or “this happens” which is simply a description, talk about what the author does in terms of techniques. Most importantly, talk about the effects of these techniques on the overall themes.

Keep an eye on the time and allocate this time well.

Since you are used to writing 800-1000 word essays, it will probably be easy for you to write too much for your short response, especially if the unseen text is long and has many techniques to draw on. Not all questions are worth the same marks and you should allocate your time depending on this. While the lines on the page are a good indication of the expected length, this varies depending on your handwriting size. A better indicator is the amount of allocated marks. The section is worth up to 20 marks and is to be completed in 45 minutes, meaning that each mark should take up 2 minutes and 15 seconds of your time. So a three mark question should take almost 7 minutes to complete, while an 8 mark question should take closer to 18. You don’t need to bring in your calculator and work out the exact seconds, instead just be aware of how long you are spending on various questions. As a backup plan, if you struggle with writing too much start with the question worth the most marks. It’s better to rush a 3 mark than an 8 mark response. Conversely, if you feel you write too little, ease your way into the section by starting with the shorter response and building up to the longer one.


You have heard the word practice a lot in these strategies because of how important it is. These strategies do not replace timed practice. Rather, they will be most successful when you practice applying these to your writing under timed conditions.

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