Writing an essay
Curran says x, and this is very true, but I would develop his thought as follows.
Do not do this: As Stuart Curran says, followed by a quotation, and then followed
by either further quotations or by nothing.
- Books and/or articles
in Journals. Secondary sources can be found in both books and articles. Search
in the MLA hard copies in the library, or look into the cd rom. Look in indexes and bibliographies of bibliographies.
Keep in mind that it takes approximately two years to get in print; this means that often the material found in
books is dated. In the field of literary studies, however, age is often not a bad attribute. If you have a problem,
ask a librarian, s/he will be happy to help.
Articles are a different matter; they are full of interesting, original, and up-to-date
ideas about literary texts. Many of these articles are very specific and will often refer to either primary or
secondary works you may not have heard of before, and/or they may include as their primary mode a theoretical perspective
that is highly complex. Remember too that just because an article is in print does not make it infallible.
- The Web is rapidly becoming a vast and more reliable resource for research every day. Stay tuned
for more up-to-date information. This web site maintains sources that are directly connected to current reseach
in the field. See The Literary Link for sources.
- Reading, making notes, having ideas.
When you find sections of books and/or articles, you will need to
read them. Check out the page on this site for Mortimer Adler's How to
Mark a Book. (soon to appear). The best time to have ideas is when you
are reading, either a literary text or a work of criticism. Don't count on your having time later to return and
take better notes or on your being able to write annotations later. Don't make notes in the form of summaries,
unless you need to remember a plot. Read with a critical eye and a good dictionary. When a thought occurs under
these circumstances it will be in reaction to a piece of the text at hand: a quotation. Copy out the quote, and
a page reference and the complete bibliographic information found on the inside of the front page. Write down why
you are responding to this quotation, so you don't forget your own reasoning. . If you tie the idea in with the
quote in this way, then your ideas will always be text-based and close to the concrete life of the text.
- Prewriting and planning.
The plan you construct should be in the form of an indented outline.
This is a series of headings and subheadings, indented, suggesting ideas and support for like those ideas. Behind
every essay there must be a plan.
- The paragraph. The second thing, in order to maintain and make obvious a clear structure, is to be aware
of the nature of the paragraph as the basic structuring unit in the essay. The paragraph is the building block
of the essay. It should be at least a third to half a page in length, but not too long or the reader will get lost.
No one-sentence paragraphs! It
should have a topic sentence (preferably near the beginning} that announces the theme of the paragraph. For the
more sophisticated student, please see Right Words, Right Places by Scott Rice.The first sentence should be linked to the last sentence of the previous
paragraph. The introduction or first paragraph should announce clearly your thesis. Not all professors like this,
but I prefer first paragraphs that announce, "I will argue this and that in this essay." Make each paragraph
a solid unit that develops a clearly announced sub-theme of the essay
- The List of Works Consulted
(or Cited). Every book you read should have its details listed in your master book-list, your card index or computer file. Author/s, title, date, publisher, shelf mark, place
of publication. I repeat: every single book and article you read should be in this list. Remember that it is more
likely to forget than to remember all the details. Every essay without exception should end with a list of books and articles used. Often a marker will
look at this first, to see what kind of work you've done: where, as it were, you're coming from. On the whole and
within reason, the longer this is, the better. As long, that is, as you can reasonably show that you have indeed
used the works on the list.
Back to Writing
and Submitting Essays