Writing in English, English in Writing
English papers take on a variety of forms. They range from personal essays, to poetry, to critical analyses, to guides like this one. This particular writing guide will concentrate on English papers that are literature-based. It is important to keep in mind, though, that some of the keys to writing a good literary analysis also apply to writing a good poem or personal essay. Since there is no single, specific formula for writing an English paper, it is really your responsibility as a writer to decide how to employ these general strategies and suggestions. It is also worth mentioning that there is no “wrong” way to write, but experimenting with different processes can be beneficial to see what does and does not work for you; everyone has a different approach to writing. But enough of this introduction—let’s begin.
It is incredibly difficult to write a paper about something you haven’t read. In fact, it is nearly impossible. And it is completely impossible to write a good paper about something you haven’t read. So the first step in writing a literary analysis or critique is to read the material about which you intend to write. That seems simple enough, but reading is actually a complicated process. Here are a few reading tips:
- Ask questions. In his book The Working Writer, Toby Fulwiler writes, “Ask questions of a text from the moment you pick it up” (17). Even simple questions, like “What does the title suggest,” or “What is the point–of–view” will help shape your reading and allow you to read more carefully.
- Make sure you understand what’s going on. You cannot interpret/analyze/critique anything you do not understand. Read for content. Before you do anything else, get the point.
- Respond to the text. Fulwiler also stresses the need to develop an early response to a text. He says that it might be a good idea to even “respond” or “talk back” to the text in writing (19). Make notes, keep a reading journal, or draw pictures; just respond.
- Review the text. Would you feel confident performing brain surgery after one reading of a surgical guide? Probably not. After you make your initial response to a text, look at the text again. You may find new evidence to support an argument-in-progress, or you might find a completely new idea. In any case, your understanding of the text will improve and that’s important.
With a lot of English essays, beginning is more than half the battle. A good start leads to a good introduction, and a good introduction leads to a flowing paper, and a flowing paper leads to … well, you get the point. Starting is tough because it can set the whole tone of your writing experience. But there are some different strategies for a good beginning:
- Summarize. In Writing, Processes and Intentions, Richard Gebhart writes that “sometimes writer’s block can be cured by writing” (202). While it is a very good idea to avoid summary in English papers themselves, it is sometimes helpful to create a summary for your own benefit. This will not only reinforce your reading, but it will get you writing.
- Try other strategies. Brainstorm. Make mind maps. Outline. Write by hand. Write with crayons. Ask your roommate to pick what is the most interesting from a few ideas. Tape paper all over the wall and make outlines or write down all your ideas. Just start writing something.
- Get yourself a thesis. English papers are, for the most part, thesis-driven. A thesis is more or less a statement of purpose that sums up your main, bare bones argument. Keep your thesis simple and clear, and try to limit it to a few sentences. Remember that it is not always necessary to state your thesis directly in your paper. You can imply a thesis, but you must have a thesis. If you have difficulty developing a thesis, write out the phrase “What I want to say in this paper is … ” on a piece of paper and try to finish it.
- Write a wacky introduction. Introductions to English papers don’t always have to be 7 to 10 dry sentences that end with a thesis. If your professor seems game, try something different. Open with a strange sentence, or an anecdote, or a lie. (Still, run it by your professor if you’re going to try something unconventional, otherwise you could be taking a risk and you won’t know if they’re game or not until you ask.) Note: Do not be creative for the sake of creativity. Your introduction must have something to do with your paper, and it must make your objective clear. The trick is to balance the interesting with the functional. You’ll have to play around until you hit on something useful.
- Title, title, title. A title needs be informative. After that, you can see about making it catchy or clever. Having a clever title for the sake of being clever won’t benefit you if it doesn’t inform the reader what the paper is about. Creating a title can happen after you’ve finished writing, while you write, or before you start writing. A tutor once wrote a paper on a subject she was not initially interested in simply because she came up with a good title for it. She found that once she developed the idea in her title, she became interested.
- Start in the Middle. If you can’t figure out how to start your paper, then start somewhere else! Perhaps you have some good quotes you want to write about, or a couple of good examples to analyze. Do this. Once you get writing, everything else may fall into place. By beginning to write, you may be able to figure out your thesis and write a great introduction as well.
- Talk. You probably have an idea of what you want to say but don’t know how to put it in writing. Try explaining what you want to say to a friend. If no one is around, talk out loud to yourself. This will help you figure out what you want to say, and also help you clear up parts that are unclear in your head..
Demystifying the Use of I
After leaving high school, students often feel like they are not supposed to incorporate ‘I’ into their literary essays. But this isn’t true. It is actually important for writers to incorporate their own voice and to take credit for their original ideas. Placing yourself in your essay doesn’t have to detract from its formality. Using ‘I’ can be a particularly effective tool when writers are:
- Introducing a new idea
- Engaging in a scholarly conversation
- Grappling with author’s intentions and style choices
- Disagreeing/agreeing with relevant scholarship
High school professors want students to avoid ‘I’ because it can potentially weaken our arguments; most notably, with these phrases:
- “I think…”
- “I believe…”
- “I feel…”
But there are ways in which you can employ ‘I’ without questioning the validity of your claims; there are also ways in which you can use ‘I’ to draw attention to your voice without doubting your presence in the conversation. For example,
- “In this essay, I will argue…”
- “I am wondering if…”
- “I will call this…”
Often times when students avoid “I,” their paper sounds awkward. For example, a thesis that avoids ‘I’ may sound like: “One might argue that one’s…”, but this is a wordy approach to an argument. Rather, “I will argue that…” makes for a much clearer statement. The presence of “I” can impress professors as long as students use it with conviction. Lastly, if you’re feeling stuck about how to write down your ideas in a more formal way, start with using ‘I’— see if your own voice can help you explore a path you would have never otherwise been down.
No, not the Stephen King novella, that big middle section of your paper. You know, the one that follows your magnificent opening? Try these ideas out:
- Be clear. In Writing in the Disciplines, Kennedy writes that “one aim of literary criticism … is to make the meaning of…texts more accessible to us” (594). After you write your paper, read it aloud, or have someone else read it. Listen. Make sure that your points follow from one another and that your sentences are clear and understandable.
- Use quotes. One way to increase your clarity is to quote your sources. Well–placed, clearly explained quotes give you credibility and makes your points more solid. *Note: Never just throw a quote onto the page without providing an explanation. Always help your quotes out. Place them in context.
- Evidence. Quotes are not the only form of evidence. You can also paraphrase and mention specific examples from the plot. In addition to this, consider writing about imagery, symbolism, diction, and other writing techniques the author may use.
- Analysis. After you write about a certain type of evidence, you must analyze it to show how it supports your thesis. This is the part where you will show why the evidence you picked is important. Remember that although you know what you are trying to say, your reader does not. Using evidence and then analyzing it will form the entirety of your body paragraphs. Once you have written your paragraphs, go back over each sentence and try to define them as either evidence or analysis. If you have written something that does not fit into either category, it is probably unnecessary.
- Make sure your paper follows your introduction or vice-versa. If you find out after finishing your paper that you have written about something other than what is in your introduction, you may need to alter your introduction. That’s okay; do it.
- Play with form. Not all essays are eight paragraphs and not all begin with a thesis and end with a conclusion. Experiment. Some papers work well as poems, and some work even better as intro–body–conclusion papers. Try to hit on a form that matches your style, so your paper’s shape will add to your argument.
This is the way the paper ends.
This is the way the paper ends.
This is the way the paper ends.
Not with a whimper but a bang.
This isn’t exactly what T.S. Eliot wrote, but it’ll do. One common misconception about conclusions is that they must summarize the paper’s main points and restate the introduction. This is not always true. Like voice and form, conclusions can be professor–dependent. Find out what your professor expects; they will often tell you right up front. Sometimes it is good to use your conclusion to ask a new question, or to move in a new direction. Sometimes you can even conclude that there is no conclusion. And in some arguments, the conclusion is actually the thesis. So, play around with your ending like you did with your beginning. Remember, it is the last thing your reader will see, so try to keep up a good energy level and keep readers interested. (Some professors insist that the conclusion do nothing more than summarize the paper. If this happens, you’ll have to rely on interesting language instead of impressive new content.)
If you are still having trouble writing a conclusion, try answering the question “So what?” Usually your thesis will answer this question, but then ask yourself why your thesis is important. Take your paper a step further.
In a 1981 writing guide entitled Until I See What I See, Karen Burke and Mary Jane Dickerson write that “inexperienced writers think that revision is largely cosmetic” (83). Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, revision entails more than simple error-fixing. Revision means rethinking, readjusting, and rewriting. Here are a few tips:
- Don’t get attached to your drafts. Paragraphs don’t bleed; it’s okay to cut them. Free yourself up to delete anything that detracts from your main argument or point. If you’re having a hard time finding places that aren’t contributing to your argument, ask a friend or a Writing Center tutor to read your paper. Tutors are trained to analyze the content in a paper and see where there are strong and weak connections. A fresh pair of eyes can usually point out places of unnecessary information that could be shortened or completely cut.
- Allow yourself plenty of time. Don’t try to write a final draft quality paper in one sitting. (A teacher once advised that you should have at least eight hours of sleep between draft writing and revision.)
- Get help. It’s tough to work on your writing alone because you know what you mean. So get a fresh opinion if possible.
- Move. Get up, walk around, drink tea, take a shower, toss a ball against a wall… Do something to get out of your usual routine. People often say that their best ideas come to them at unexpected times. So switch things up and you might be surprised at the new ideas you come up with.
Editing and Proofreading
At the end of your writing process, you can work on sentence-level errors, diction, punctuation, and spelling. Again, give yourself time between revision and editing. And get someone else to help you. *Note: Spell–checkers are good, but they are not always adequate. Run your own human spell–check.
This is a brief reminder that English papers generally require MLA (Modern Language Association) style citation. This style uses in-text citations (like the page numbers in parentheses that have occurred throughout this guide), instead of footnotes. It also uses a Work’s Cited page instead of or as well as a bibliography. You can find a brief guide to MLA citation rules and examples on the MLA Style page and in any good writing handbook.
Burke, Karen and Mary Jane Dickerson. Until I See What I See. UVM Publication, 1981. Print.
Fulwiler, Toby. The Working Writer. New Jersey: Simon & Shuster, 1995. Print.
Gebhart, Richard. Writing, Processes and Intentions. Washington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1989. Print.
Kennedy, William J., Mary Lynch Kennedy, and Hadley Smith. Writing in the Disciplines. 3rd ed. New Jersey: Simon & Shuster, 1996. Print.