You can probably figure out how to compose your written answers based on feedback from your exam committee, but in case you don’t get any, my suggestions to you follow this Disclaimer: All I did was talk to everyone I know, and that’s where this advice comes from. Your department might have totally different ideas about Success and Knowledge and Insight and Whatever, so you make sure you do whatever they want so you can pass and then Challenge The System From Within or Eat Cake — however you see fit to celebrate / transform the status quo.
1) Answer the question. This is so patently obvious as to need restating: Answer the question. How you do this can be creative and amazing or satisfactory and fine, but make sure you do it! Read the question closely and respond to what is being asked.
2) When you answer the question, restate it to make it your own. For example, if someone asks you about the North as emblematic of the Canadian Promised Land and you want to talk about how Canadian academics are so banally anti-American in a totally non-productive way that you simply can’t stay quiet about it any more, make sure you make your thesis statement align with the question (so youareanswering it) while making it your own (so you are answering it as you see fit).
3) Cite key passages. I find myself often disagreeing about what “key passages” are, so whatever passages you cite, make sure you can justify your selection.
4) Position yourself within the literature. This means you should respond to your “key passages” and agree / disagree / elaborate on the commentary provided by other scholars.
4) Be a “fly on the wall.” You may notice that there are two #4s. That’s because I got advice that, to me, seemed to be contradictory. I tried to reconcile this advice by acting as a “fly on the wall” and setting the scholars on my list in dialogue with each other without expressing my specific bent, but still giving the last word to someone I agreed with.
5) Edit! This is a good thing to do all the time! On exams, you can’t (usually) have other people edit for you, but on other stuff, you should! I find it helpful to write, sleep on it, print out what I’ve written, and revise with a purple ink pen. It exploded on an airplane and now I have only the memory of that great pen, as well as loads of purple-y marked up pages and stains on my jeans. Find a method that works for you and EDIT! That means, incidentally, don’t wait until the last minute! Rushing is for chumps and undergrads. Take your time, be thoughtful, revise, reconsider, and also you are on a time limit so hurry up.
6) Include pretty pictures. This is not essential, depending on who your advisor is, but it might make you feel better. It always makes me feel better.
7) Submit and celebrate! Well done. You rock. Good job! Hopefully, you never have to do that again, or at least you only have to do it twice or so. Then you will be through that particular hazing ritual of the positional good that is a doctoral degree and on to the next hazing ritual – your oral defense (or defence) (or dissertation!).
Another place to look for advice is your departmental handbook, Google, and the book Graduate Study for the Twenty-First Century: How to Build an Academic Career in the Humanities. I read this after not passing my second oral – maybe you should Get Wise and read it first! Like everything, it had its shortcomings, but it seems to offer a fairly solid discussion of exams and how to prep.