GUIDELINES FOR WRITING AN ESSAY

 

1.  The introduction

Your introduction needs to accomplish several things.  It should clarify for your audience what your essay will explore, but also how you intend to explore it and why this is a worthwhile meaningful approach.  The introduction frames your thesis, defining its significant terms and shaping its logical strategies.  Note: an introduction will occasionally be two paragraphs long. The first might introduce the paper’s topic in a creative or engaging manner, and the second would then explain and develop the paper’s central argument as it applies to the text or texts being examined in the paper. Or, more straightforwardly, the introduction might be found in the opening paragraph; this is usually advisable in a shorter essay.

2.  The Thesis

A strong thesis provides an essay with its conceptual and theoretical framework; it explains the central premise of a paper, clarifying both its purpose and its focus.  It should explain the issues your paper will explore and also how and why the literary text you're examining confronts these issues.  If you don't have a clearly defined thesis, your readers will lose their sense of direction as they stumble through your paper.  Your entire essay is based on this argument, and each paragraph will act to extend it, define it, "prove" it, and re-shape it.  It's your ultimate point of reference, and it must be clear, complex, and complete. Remember that a thesis is an argument, which means it must be something your audience could potentially disagree with or refute.  It must be something that you need to prove using evidence, logic, persuasion, and analysis.  Note: In a critical essay, it might take you two sentences to clarify and define your thesis, although it’s fine if you can accomplish this in one concise but complicated sentence. 

3.  Paragraphs

In a critical essay, each paragraph should begin with an interpretive position linked directly to your thesis.  In other words, begin a paragraph with the idea you intend to explore in that paragraph—not with a quotation or a factual statement about the text. By beginning with a challenging idea, you'll avoid sounding as if you're simply summarizing the text, piling observation on top of observation without a clear focus.  Paragraphs should be both cohesive (acting to promote a clear idea) and coherent (promoting that idea in a logical way). Also, there needs to be a smooth transition at the beginning of the paragraph that guides your readers from the previous paragraph into the next.  First, remember that there’s a reason you’re changing paragraphs; you need to clarify how this new paragraph relates to its predecessor (and to your thesis), but also how it departs.

4.  Textual analysis

Once you've defined your paragraph’s interpretive position, use the text to substantiate it and further develop it.  Choose passages that are both complex (even confusing) and thought provoking, as they provide you with the strongest opportunities for intensive textual analysis.  (If you’re simply referring to an event in the text, for instance, there’s no need to supply a quotation—unless you have reasons for looking closely at the language used to describe this occurrence). Once you've found a significant passage or moment that relates to the argument you're pursuing, delve deep into the implications of its words, details, and images, and then connect your "reading" (interpretation) to the idea you're promoting.

5.  Integrating Quotations

When integrating a passage into your essay, you need to introduce it and clarify its context.  Explain who is speaking, what is being described, and/or when the passage appears in the text (without referring to page numbers, chapters, etc., except parenthetically).  Also, integrate the passage in a way that maintains the grammar of the sentence. Finally, avoid opening or closing paragraphs with quotations; instead, open paragraphs with an argument or idea, and conclude them with a closing statement.  This means you always get the first and last word; you shouldn’t assume the text will ever speak for itself or make your point for you.

6.  Present Tense

Keep your discussion of literature in the present tense whenever possible. If you are discussing history, though, employ the past tense.

7. “What are you looking for in a paper?”

a)   “The Big Picture:” I immediately look for a paper’s main argument and its structuring principals.  Does the essay have an important, significant, and challenging point it’s trying to make, and do I have a clear sense of the writer’s larger purpose? Is the argument complex enough to sustain an entire essay?

b)   Structure, Organization, and Logic:  I also look at the logic connecting a writer’s ideas together, and I examine the framework used to structure those ideas.  A strong critical essay has a clear sense of development, progress, and forward motion: it doesn’t keep repeating the same ideas, and it doesn’t move in circles.

c)   Textual Engagement: A critical essay on a literary text must demonstrate a clear understanding of that text and must engage closely and meaningfully with its language and themes.

d)   Originality:  It’s important that a paper engage the assignment and draw from the issues and ideas discussed in class, but I alsoI like to see students taking risks, exploring ideas we haven’t discussed, and challenging readers to think from a fresh perspective. 

e)   Prose:  The prose is the actual writing and rhetoric of a paper. Mechanics, grammar, style, diction (word choice), sentence variety, and clarity all determine the effectiveness of an idea. Although we won’t be spending much class time on these things, keep in mind that they do count. Incorrect grammar and punctuation will sabotage even the best ideas. It is not possible to pass classes in the English department unless you can express yourself in clear, grammatically sound prose. If you struggle with this, I recommend that you make use of the excellent writing center; you may also come to see me during my office hours.

 

8. Turning in a Final Draft

 

¨      Use a standard font and margins that put approximately 250-300 words on a page.

¨      Devise an interesting, engaging, informative title for your paper.

¨      Your pages must be numbered.

¨      All quotations should be properly cited and punctuated. Passages of more than 5 lines should generally be block-quoted (and a 5-page paper should contain few if any of these).

¨      Your paper should be carefully revised, proofread, and edited.

¨      Please bind your paper together with a paper clip or staple.

¨      Make a duplicate copy of your paper, or keep a copy on your hard drive. I am not responsible for lost papers. Print your paper well before class to avoid last-minute computer or printer tragedies.

INCLUDE A WORKS CITED PAGE, PROPERLY FORMATTED.