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The Heart of the Text: The Author's Purpose

By: Kristin Barlow

How often have you looked at an unseen text and scoured it desperately for the first sign of alliteration? A metaphor? Perhaps you’ve even been lucky enough to detect the word “like” or “as” and peg that one down as a simile upon first glance. Boom. That’s one mark. Time to find another.

So many students jump into text analysis with the idea that if they find four language techniques, four quotes and four effects, they’ll nail it. Frequently, I get asked, “Miss, how many quotes should I have?” “Miss, how many paragraphs?” Now, I understand that it can be helpful to quantify such things, so that you have a benchmark and a clear goal in your sight. But oh how I wish I could make students see that, fundamentally, that’s not the point.

Unlike Drama, in the subject of English, you are not being tested on your ability to memorise lines. Unlike Maths, you are not being tested on your ability to construct the perfect equation of sentences that adds up to a full paragraph. Unlike Art, you are not being tested on how many colourful words you can flaunt on the canvas that is your essay (also, unlike Art, your words do have to make sense). These elements are parts of the whole, to be sure. But they are not the gold nuggets that are going to make your English teacher leap up from their chair and cry, “Eureka!” (I’ve never done this myself, but my heart has certainly leapt when I’ve encountered a golden thesis statement.) In English, you are being tested, in essence, on whether or not you have studied the text enough to have reached that lightbulb moment where you say, “Ah, yes! I finally get it!”

Here’s the thing: Authors write texts in order to connect with their readers. They write texts to share their experience with their readers. In the process of writing, the author pours their soul out onto the page. And from that moment on, their soul travels with the text, waiting for the chance to connect with a reader. Each little simile, each metaphor, each comma, each dreaded semicolon, is meticulously and intentionally placed in order to push you closer to that moment where your soul resonates with the author’s. Sometimes the author just wants you to get inside their head. Sometimes they want you to feel their lived experience. Sometimes they just want to make you laugh through relatable human experiences. Each text varies drastically from the next when it comes to the nuance of its author’s purpose. But what they each share is the universal human experience of wishing to be understood.

This is what you are being assessed on in English. Have you connected with the author? Have you uncovered their purpose? Have you walked their streets? Have you sat with them on lonely nights as ideas danced in their heads and they dared to dream of sharing a story? Have you entered their world?

Unfortunately, many students don’t get that far. Which makes it no wonder that English is commonly deemed “too hard” or even “dull”. The truth is that if you’re not all-in with the text, you’re missing out on a wonderful world of new perspectives, a slice of history, the emotional experience of a fellow human who has been so bold as to share it, and, quite frankly, a much more exciting experience in the English classroom.

So dive in, students. For let me advise you, if you want to get a band 6 in your HSC, no amount of memorised quotes are going to get you there if you don’t have an understanding of the text - its core, its essence, and its author’s reason for writing the thing in the first place! Look up its context, search Google for analyses from other brilliant literary minds, and (heaven forbid) actually read the text. (Yes, it turns out that you are much more likely to understand the text if you’ve deigned to open it.)

Most importantly, students, home in on that meaning. Because if you understand it from all angles, and I mean truly understand it, you’ll be able to answer any essay question that comes your way. And that’s just good math.

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