Writing essays and exams: French Studies
By Dana Paramskas
[There are] two distinct circumstances:
- language courses
- literature courses
In the first case, the best preparation is to go over your homework, and workbook. For both, see where instructor feedback seems unclear to you and ask her/him about it. If the workbook has not been marked, pick out examples which are unclear to you and ask about them.
In the second case, go over your course notes; reorganize them to eliminate minor points and keep only major points. If in doubt about any point, ask your instructor. Often, instructors post sample exam questions. If this is your case, take advantage of them ... send back sample answers to the instructor with a request to evaluate them. Many - but not all - will be pleased to do so and impressed by your interest.
In both cases, make a notebook of your most frequent errors in grammar as well as the solutions to those errors. Do not list all your errors, just those that reappear consistently: we all make errors, most of which are "oops!". But consistently recurring errors indicate a weakness somewhere in your language skills; the more often they occur, the more the weakness has somehow become ingrained in your mind. You need to pay special attention to those. For example, in French, agreement between the subject and verb, agreement in gender between a noun and its modifier - no one expects you to know all the genders, but if you say something like "la table, il est ..." or "la grand table", we're dealing not with lack of gender knowledge, but of consistency, which can be fixed.
Before submitting an essay in French, or while writing an exam, check:
- agreements as above
- consistency of tenses: if you start off in the past, stay there, don't wander off into the present. Avoid the passé simple (which nowadays rarely occurs) but do try to sort out the use of the passé composé and the imparfait, not an easy thing, I know. If in doubt, and if your instructor is amenable, submit some doubtful sentences and ask for feedback.
- subordinate clauses: don't worry overmuch about the subjunctive ... if you have made yourself clear, that should not matter. On the other hand, overuse of the subjunctive makes a bad impression.
- something which applies to compositions/exams in any language: coherence and logic. The first sentence in a paragraph should follow logically from the previous paragraph. It should also resume the paragraph as a whole. In other words, people should be able to read your composition based only on initial paragraph sentences, which summarize the rest of the paragraph. Everything else in the paragraph is an elaboration on the first sentence. Once you change subjects/perspective, start a new paragraph.
- a classic error is to start a paragraph which includes a pronoun referring to a previous paragraph. Example: [previous paragraph] "Marcel avait bien compris le thème... etc" Following paragraph "Il met en valeur les aspects noirs"--> the "il" in the following paragraph is ambiguous: it could refer either to Marcel or "le thème". Better: repeat the key word: Marcel met en valeur... or, if relevant, le thème met en valeur/reprend...
Finally, about essays as well as preparing for an exam, remember that a first draft is only that. Our first thoughts may be great, but they may also be incoherent. Take the time to write a first draft some days before the assignment/exam is due. Let a couple of days pass, then review your composition. You'll be amazed at what you see, in terms of coherence, not to mention grammatical errors. When we look too closely, immediately, at a composition, we really cannot see errors in grammar or logic. The mind needs to forget for awhile, then see the thing anew. And best: same procedure a third time around: look again at the second draft, after leaving it aside long enough to forget it. Revise.
I realize that all of the above advice means a lot of time, especially advance preparation time. But if you can pace yourself to meet those stages, you will be rewarded by... a much higher grade!
Dana Paramskas, Department of French Studies, University of Guelph, and 3M National Teaching Fellow.
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