Most people hear the phrase ‘devil’s advocate’ and immediately think of the slick, sly characters in TV shows who seem to be there just to cause trouble. While that’s not exactly the wrong definition… but playing devil’s advocate in English is less about causing trouble and more about causing discussion – namely when it comes to essays.

To play devil’s advocate is when you get an essay question and decide to go against it in some way or another. Usually this involves a ‘statement’ question that gives you a set point of view and tells you to argue for it – you just have to go in the opposite direction.

“But wait,” I hear you ask, “Can I do that? Is that allowed? And will it actually work?”

The answer to all of those is yes! Here are 5 Reasons You Should Play Devil’s Advocate for HSC English and HOW! 

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Why Play Devil’s Advocate?

There are a whole bunch of reasons to play devil’s advocate when it comes to responding to an essay, most of which boil down to just not doing what’s expected! You need to remember everyone who does the HSC ends up with the same questions, so putting a twist on it or arguing against it completely can really help set you apart. That said, there are plenty of other reasons to play devil’s advocate too.

For each of the following reasons we’ve included an example statement that may be part of a whole question and how to play devil’s advocate and argue against it!

1. It sets your essay apart.

Not answering in a generic way means that you’re not answering in the exact same way as everyone else, which automatically gives your essay that little edge.

Example:

 

Question statement: Discovery is always shocking.

Devil’s advocate thesis: Whether or not a discovery is shocking depends entirely on what is discovered.

 

2. Markers wont expect it.

The general expectation is that students will agree with the question, so the second you veer away from the ‘default response’ you’ll be surprising the markers!

Example:

 

Question statement: Not all discoveries are made for the first time.

Devil’s advocate thesis: First discoveries are the most important, even when they aren’t recognised as discoveries.

 

3. You’re creating your own thesis.

Any time that you disagree with or challenge a question you automatically have to create your own thesis to address, which is always a good way to go.

Example:

 

Question statement: Discovery is a process of careful planning.

Devil’s advocate thesis: The only true discoveries are those that are unplanned.

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4. Your ideas will be more complex (in a good way!).

Because you’re going against the grain and challenging the question you’re also going to be coming up with ideas and themes that are more challenging and complex than your average essay.

Example

 

Question statement: Discoveries have positive impacts on those involved.

Devil’s advocate thesis: How a discovery impacts the people involved relies entirely on what discovery is made.

 

5. You’re showing a greater understanding of the text.

Generally when the questions are created they’re aiming to suit the average level of textual understanding, but if you can flip the question you can straight away show that you understand the text beyond that.

Example

Question statement: Relationships are made through discoveries.

Devil’s advocate thesis: It’s the events surrounding discoveries that build relationships rather than discoveries themselves.

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How Do I Play Devil’s Advocate?

Okay, so we’ve shown you what a few devil’s advocate theses might look like, but we haven’t quite explained how to do it yet.

When it comes to developing your own devil’s advocate answer, there are a few different ways to go about it based on what and how you like to write, but a few things stay the same as well.

Answer the Question

The biggest mistake rookies can make when it comes to playing devil’s advocate is forgetting to actually answer the question. This happens in two ways;

  • Your thesis becomes too complex and you lose the original point
  • You ignore the question and make a totally new thesis

The biggest thing to remember when it comes to playing devil’s advocate is that you still have to answer the question – you’re not ignoring it, just twisting it. This means that no matter what you do the question should always be focussed on the same idea or concept, just looking at it in a different way.

Example

Question statement: Discovery is always shocking.

The question is focusing on the idea of discovery being shocking, so whatever thesis we come up with for the devil’s advocate response has to look at the same concept.

Devil’s advocate thesis: Whether or not a discovery is shocking depends entirely on what is discovered.

This takes the idea of discovery being shocking and challenges it by saying that what is discovered can lead to it being shocking or not shocking.

Even though it’s taking a different route, it still focuses on the same idea of the original question.

This is a devil’s advocate thesis because instead of agreeing with the question you’re challenging the idea it presented.

As you can see in this situation even though we’ve changed the question and are taking a totally new angle on things, the actual idea we’re discussing remains the same. The second you change the idea you lose the question, and if you don’t answer the question there’s no way to get great marks.

 

Create a Response

When you’re coming up with your devil’s advocate response there are heaps of ways to go about it, and most of the time it’ll come to you naturally. That said, it’s still good to know the main two categories of devil’s advocate responses; arguing against, creating a new thesis or twisting the question.

Generally there’s a fair bit of overlap with the types of ideas you’ll come up with, but let’s take a look at how these two work.

Example

Question statement: Discoveries have positive impacts on those involved.

We know our idea is about the impact of discovery on the people involved, so we have to keep that in our response. With that in mind let’s look at it in two different ways based on the different response types.

Arguing against the question: Discoveries do not have positive impacts on those involved.

In this example we’re just straight up saying the idea in question is wrong and then arguing against it. This is usually the easiest route, as you can very quickly flip a question on its head and argue a different idea.

Twisting the question: How a discovery impacts the people involved relies entirely on what discovery is made.

In this case we’ve taken it a step further and developed a new thesis by adding an idea, limitation or ‘twist’ to the original question and/or idea. These can take a little longer to think up but they’ll almost always be more complex and encourage you to tackle some tougher concepts as you write your response.

 

Develop a Thesis

When it comes to playing devil’s advocate you can’t just jump in and start arguing the question because your markers will have no idea what you’re on about. You want to surprise your markers, not confuse them.

The best way to make sure your devil’s advocate ideas get across flawlessly is to develop a really solid thesis for your response. This means coming up with a new statement based on the original question and arguing that statement throughout. Remember, your thesis doesn’t have to be long and complicated (in fact you want to avoid that) it just has to state exactly what point you’re planning to make.

Example

Question statement: Discovery is a process of careful planning.

Our idea here is that discovery is based on planning, so we have to keep our new thesis relevant to that while still playing devil’s advocate. We’ll have to come up with a thesis that challenges the question in some way.

The best way to do this is by following a checklist like the one below;

  1. What is the original idea/concept?
  2. How can I argue it differently? (argue against, put a twist on it, etc.)
  3. How can I turn that into a snappy, succinct thesis?

It’s then just a case of going through and answering each of the questions for yourself! Lets go through the example to see how.

What is the original idea/concept?

That discovery is based on planning – key words are discovery and planning.

 

How can I argue it differently?

We could go straight against it and say discovery isn’t a process of planning, or we could twist it and say that some discoveries are and some aren’t; that planned discoveries are different; that no one can really plan a discovery, etc. For the sake of this example we’ll go with the last option.’

 

How can I turn it into a snappy, succinct thesis?

This is pretty much just shuffling words around until we find the right combination. “Discoveries can’t be planned” is okay, but let’s make it a little more sophisticated by saying “The only true discoveries are those that are unplanned.”.

 

And there you have it! Our devil’s advocate answer is ready.

Devil’s advocate thesis: The only true discoveries are those that are unplanned.

This thesis presents a really big idea in a really succinct way, which is exactly what you want. It’s challenging the question by going completely against it and saying discovery isn’t planned, but because it keeps that central idea it still works!

Even though we’ve taken the opposite view of the original question our thesis is strong and succinct and makes it really easy for markers to know exactly what we’re arguing.

Plus we’re showing markers that we can put together a solid essay thesis, which is just another skill they look out for when it comes to the HSC.

 

The Breakdown

So, what have we learned?

When it comes to playing devil’s advocate there are heaps of benefits and advantages, so long as you do it right! Make sure to keep the following things in mind all the time.

  1. Answer the question – make sure your response addresses the original idea
  2. Choose a response – figure out if you’re going to straight up disagree with the question or just put a twist on it
  3. Develop a thesis – come up with your new take on the idea and figure out how you’re going to argue it

And never forget the 3 step checklist for making your own devil’s advocate thesis.

  1. What is the original idea/concept?
  2. How can I argue it differently? (argue against, put a twist on it, etc.)
  3. How can I turn that into a snappy, succinct thesis?

Now get out there and start challenging those dull questions and turn them into something worth arguing about!

Good luck!

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Maddison Leach completed her HSC in 2014, achieving an ATAR of 98.00 and Band 6 in all her subjects. Having tutored privately for two years before joining Art of Smart, she enjoys helping students through the academic and other aspects of school life, even though it sometimes makes her feel old. Maddison has had a passion for writing since her early teens, having had several short stories published before joining the world of blogging. She’s currently deferring her studies until she starts her Bachelor of Communication at UTS in the spring.

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