This entry was inspired by Mei's blog. Last minute tips for handling the General Paper essay, just before the Prelims. If this issue is of no interest to you then don't bother reading on...
Gather materials that are current by having a daily read of the newspapers. News that tends to get repeated every day is worth paying attention to.
Use the news as relevant to your question -- drop names (people, places, organizations), refer to incidents, but don't waste time retelling the stories.
Choose questions that you have the most to say about. It doesn't matter if you don't have an opinion on the issue at the time you choose the question.
Give some thought to what the question is essentially about. Most of you answer to the topic but fail to pay attention to the question. LISTEN to the problem first before you go blindly solving something you don't really understand.
Completely answer the question in 1 paragraph within the first 20 minutes of the paper (if you answer the question in the sequence the question is presented in, it's hard to go wrong). By this step, you would have formed your opinion on the issue and not before. This paragraph becomes your introduction para.
Develop your essay according to the sequence of points you raised in the intro.
Do not bring up new points in the conclusion. Conclusion must agree with the intro. You may conclude with an insight into human nature, or about society, but only within the context of the points you have raised and discussed.
Balance: your job is to NEGOTIATE a fair position between 2 conflicting points of view. Your position must be realistic and fair (repetition for emphasis). Remember that both conflicting parties are idealistic children, but you are the rational adult arbiting between the both of them. Do not sink to their level.
Refer to the following web resource for more general instructions on essay writing and language use: OWL at Purdue.
Try hard to get a good grade in the prelims. It'll give you confidence in preparing for your 'A's.
English Lit advice:
My best advice is, unless you are dealing with early 20th century poetry, do not first approach your texts with your brain. Instead, pay attention to what your senses are telling you, i.e., your sense of sight (imagery, metaphor, simile), sound (rhythm, rhyme, metre, alliteration, other sound effects), touch (texture), not so important are smell and taste. When you can discuss what your senses are telling you, then only can your brain start processing how the author/poet is attempting to manipulate the reader into fully participating in the story, to see things in the first person instead of in the third.
Being intelligent (brain smart) doesn't help in lit. Being able to utilize our 5 human senses helps us appreciate lit a whole lot more. Remember: no author sits down to write "literature." People write to people and they make contact using the tools that are common to everyone, our 5 senses. Everyone connects, but lit students see how the connections are made, and appreciate the author's craft in doing so.
Bzzzt... ERROR: INFO OVERLOAD. Allow time for processing...