E is for Evidence
Evidence is important in any subject. It doesn’t matter if you’re studying English, science, law or anything else. If you make a claim, you’ve got to back it up with proof.
It’s like being a lawyer in a court case. Imagine that you and your client are accusing someone of committing a crime. The first thing you need to do is prove that the crime happened and the other person was involved! If you can’t do that, you’ll be laughed out of court.
English essays are a lot like a court in that way. Your point is like the “crime” that you’re “accusing” the writer of committing. Your evidence is a chance for you to show that you’re not making it all up.
Without proof, your claim is just a guess. You’re basically saying you just feel like what you said is true. That’s not good enough!
In fact, evidence is the thing that separates a right answer from a wrong one. It doesn’t matter if your point is obvious or it makes complete sense. It doesn’t matter how logical it is. You’re responsible for proving that what you said is true.
In law, we’d say that the burden of proof falls on you. You’re the one who made the claim, so it’s up to you to prove it!
In a court, that means dates, testimonies, pictures, videos, written correspondence, DNA and so on. In English, most of it will come from quotes from the text. Structure is also a valid thing to bring up, though.
Table of contents
Choosing Your Evidence
So, how do you prove the point you’ve made? Well, quotes are your friend. That’s because they are concise and get to the point very quickly. It’s the easiest to reference in your essay, too. All you need is some quotation marks and you’re sorted! Plus, writers rely on their words to have an impact on their reader or audience. It’s their biggest tool.
However, you can also talk about the punctuation, order of events, character details, the structure of the plot, line breaks, sentence breaks and paragraph breaks. Even then, a quote or two will help you draw the examiner to the right part of the text.
Once you get to A-level, you can also use something called “graphology” as evidence. That means you get to talk about how the words look on the page or screen. It covers things like font, capitalisation, spelling and italics.
The most important question to ask yourself when selecting a piece of evidence is: does it prove the point I’m trying to make?
It’s also helpful to ask yourself if the evidence you’ve selected is the best way to prove your point. Are there other, better ways to prove the point you made? Are there other pieces of proof that will allow you to talk about better terminology?
You want to make sure you start each paragraph with your best, most relevant evidence. That way, you can be sure you’ve said the best stuff even if you run out of time.
What This Looks Like
Let’s look back to the example I gave in the lesson on creating a good point.
I’m going to write an essay for GCSE English literature on An Inspector Calls. The question is about how Priestley presents the differences between the older and younger generations.
I’ve already said my point is this:
Priestley suggests that the older generation is out of touch, while the younger generation is much more willing to change.
How can I make sure that my evidence proves this point? Well, I need to find proof of both of the things I mentioned:
- The older generation is out of touch.
- The younger generation is more willing to change.
Let’s try proving the first one. It’s actually pretty easy!
I think to myself “where in the play has the older generation been shown as out of touch?” A few different places spring to mind. One of the easiest ones to remember for your exams is the mention of the Titanic.
Mr Birling, a member of the older generation, calls the Titanic “absolutely unsinkable.” This shows that he is out of touch because the play was written in 1945 and the audience knows that the Titanic did sink. The dramatic irony shows that Birling doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
That’s a great piece of evidence that directly proves the point I made! It’s perfect!
In the comments below, find a quote to prove that the younger generation is willing to change OR prove a point from a different text. Only logged-in users can comment.
How Much Evidence Do You Need?
When I’m teaching essay structure to my students at school, there’s something I always like to say:
One piece of evidence is a coincidence. Three prove a pattern.
What I mean by that is that one quote or reference to the text is often not enough. It helps to show the examiner that you understand how writers use their tools, sure. However, it doesn’t show that you know how writers create messages and impressions over time.
If Mr Birling only ever did one thing that showed he was out of touch, could we really claim that Priestley is saying that about the whole of the older generation? Nope. Of course, it’s a start. It’s also a great point because there’s so much to say about it. However, don’t just rely on one.
The best way to prove your point is to use lots of evidence that backs it up. The more you have, the more solid your point seems. However, you also don’t want to get bogged down with one single point. It’s important to move on to other points, too.
That’s why three is such a good number. It’s just enough to prove that what you’re saying is a pattern, but not enough that you’re just repeating the same point over and over again.
When you first start writing with the PETZAL essay structure, you might want to add extra quotes into extra paragraphs underneath your first point. So, you’d have a PETZAL paragraph followed by two ETZAL paragraphs (without the point, just using connectives like “also” or “similarly”).
However, once you’ve got the whole PETZAL paragraph thing down, it’s a much better idea to combine your quotes into one mega “PETZAETZAETZAL” paragraph. More on that later.
Is There Such Thing as Bad Evidence?
Yes, there are many things that an examiner would consider to be bad evidence. Here are some of the big ones:
- Making your quotes too long.
- Choosing a quote that doesn’t match the evidence.
- Not choosing the best evidence for the point.
- Not copying out the quote properly.
- (For essay questions based on extracts) not using the extract to find quotes.
- Relying on the same type of evidence over and over again (for example, only finding metaphors).
- Forgetting to use quotation marks.
- Not leading with the best evidence first.
- Not providing enough evidence.
Evidence should be concise, relevant and useful. Otherwise, it’s not going to help you further your argument!
Let’s go back to the court comparison. Imagine that you were trying to prove your neighbour stole your cat. Do you think it would help you if you showed a CCTV video of nothing happening for 5 minutes before the crime happened? Or would you only show the minutes that are relevant?
It would be weird to show a video of a different person on your driveway petting your cat, too. That would have nothing to do with your neighbour. You probably don’t want to show the weakest evidence first, either. All of these things would undermine your argument.
You’ve got to think about your evidence like that. Make sure that it fits its purpose as best as possible. Plus, you also want to make sure it proves your argument as soon as you can. That makes your essay stronger!
Making the Quotes Concise and Relevant
One of the biggest issues I’ve seen in students’ work is the length of their quotes. They write whole sentences into their work! That’s a big issue for a few different reasons:
- The GCSEs are closed-book exams. So, writing down whole sentences means having to remember whole sentences.
- If you are trying to remember whole sentences, you’re more likely to mess up the word order.
- You rarely need the whole sentence to prove the point you’ve made.
- Copying out a whole sentence takes up time and space in an exam that you could use to write something else.
- Students who write down full sentences also tend to do less analysis.
Instead, it’s much better to stick to between one and three words. Phrases are fine! All that matters is that each and every word is important for the point you’re making. If not, consider shortening it.
The shorter the quote is, the more you can really go deep into A and T parts of PETZAL in your essay. It helps you to narrow down your thoughts and shows that you understand the impact that words and phrases have on a piece of text.
For the Mr Birling example, the full quote is LONG, but only two words matter:
the Titanic – she sails next week – forty-six thousand eight hundred tons – forty-six thousand eight hundred tons – New York in five days – and every luxury – and unsinkable,absolutely unsinkable.
If you’re struggling to shorten your quotes, I have three bits of advice for you:
- Don’t be afraid to break up the quote and analyse each part individually.
- If you need a word from the beginning and a word from the end, use ellipses (e.g. “the Titanic… absolutely unsinkable”).
- You can use your own words to explain parts of the quote that would make it too long (e.g. “Mr Birling calls the Titanic ‘absolutely unsinkable'”.
What About AQA Language Paper 1 Question 3?
When it comes to AQA Language Paper 1 Question 3, I highly recommend that you don’t use any quotes at all. That’s because quotes make so many students fall into the trap of doing language analysis instead of structure analysis. A great way to avoid making that mistake is to avoid quotes altogether.
But how can you provide evidence in the question if you can’t quote anything? Well, you’ve got to find other ways to add the proof you need to.
In this question, there are many things you can use as evidence instead. For example:
- A brief mention of what is happening in the scene at what points.
- A summary of the tone or mood of the piece.
- References to changes in tone or topic, as well as flashbacks and flash-forwards.
- Pointing out when the writer reveals certain pieces of information to the reader.
As I’ve said before, it’s not only quotes that count as evidence. You just need to make sure you’re referencing the text!