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Exam Preparation Week 1

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

Practicing writing topic sentences and contentions for comparatives

This blog post series is aimed at breaking down your English exam prep into manageable chunks that address all the relevant skills you need by the time you get into the exam!

I took myself back to last year when I was preparing for my English exam in those final two weeks and thought to myself, ‘What do I wish I could have done by this point in order to feel like I am ready to sit this exam?’

Writing topic sentences and contentions are absolutely crucial for your essay. In my experience, English essays really value clear writing and well-expressed ideas, which comes from well-developed contentions and topic sentences that link up tightly.

It’s easy to say, but how can we get it out on the paper? The following is a step by step guide based on my thought process, that can hopefully help you identify your own personal systematic way to attack essay topics!

For this exercise, let’s use the topic:

‘In Joan London’s The Golden Age, the characters must grapple with life and death.’


1. Highlight the key terms in the topic.

Firstly, I would grab my highlighter (Stabilo pastels, of course) and work out - what are the key ideas in the topic? Think about the theme words or the quotes in the topic that lead you to questions. In this case, life and death are the most important words because they force us to consider what life and death means in the text.

2. Define and unpack the key terms in the topic.

What questions do these keywords prompt? Think of these words like questions that we have to provide an answer for in our essay. Think in terms of, ‘What does life mean to the characters? What does death mean?’ I always used my dictionary in the exam no matter how simple the words, so feel free to look these words up to get ideas!

I would also use this time to jot down some first thoughts that might form the basis of your body paragraphs as well.

3. Form your contention!

Whenever I was stuck, I would break it up into two sentences:

  • Stance sentence: do you broadly agree/disagree with the topic? Based on this, use the terms of the topic to write out your stance! For example: ‘In The Golden Age, life and death are indeed forced to grapple with ideas of life and death’.

  • Then, I would extend and justify the stance: what does life and death mean for the characters? What are the consequences? What do the characters learn, or how do they develop due to these ideas? For example: ‘Reconciling these ideas allows the characters to make sense of their lives and embrace their struggles to live full lives.’

By using my stance/extension technique, I found that my contention was specific enough to deal with the topic, but also broad enough to include many ideas in my topic sentences!

4. Forming your topic sentences based on your contention

If I couldn’t identify three distinct ideas, I would break up the topic according to how the ideas are expressed chronologically throughout the text.

For example, how are ideas of life and death dealt with in:

  • The beginning

  • The middle

  • The end of the text

Another hint is that whenever I was tempted to centre my topic sentence around a character, I would ask myself – ‘What does this character represent?’ I would still use that character as evidence throughout the body paragraph, but instead I would be framing it around an idea, such as transformation, strength or hope. I found this to be a simple but effective way to add some complexity to my piece.

Hopefully, these tips can give you a launchpad into thinking about how you can attack essay topics and provide a great framework for your essay. It’s often the hardest part! Whenever I couldn’t get into the groove of writing out a whole essay, I would just write out a bunch of plans based on sample topics.

All the best, and happy writing!

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