How to write an essay

Writing an essay

  • What is an essay?An organized argument of your ideas about a literary text. The essay must be well structured, coherent, and logical. It must be presented in a way that the reader finds easy to follow and clear: it must look tidy and not present any obstacles to the reader (such as incorrect punctuation, sentence fragments, or poor syntax). It must have a clear readable interesting style. But, above all, it must consist of your ideas about literary texts. Writing a critical essay implies that you have read a literary work and have something original to say about it. Even though occasionally you may feel that your own ideas/concepts are not as professionally sounding as those who have published material, please keep in mind that they were where you are once as well. You become proficient at writing only as you learn by writing more and more. Neither long quotations by critics, not generalizations, not repetition and padding, nor plot summary will achieve good grades.
  • Literary critical essays. In the English Department you learn how to respond to literary texts and much of what you say in an essay is dependent upon how well you read. Reading itself is an act of interpretation. Your audience, your subject, and your argument are connected. An essay, therefore, will demonstrate how well you express your ideas, how well you can identify a problem, and how well you analyze, organize, and synthesize material. To write professionally suggests that you need to follow certain guidelines, exact rules for documentation, and other exacting grammatical rules.
  • Gathering and analyzing. This material is of two kinds: primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are literary texts: the actual poems, novels, short stories, essays, and dramas. Secondary sources are works of criticism. Remember that it is always better to read an original text and refer to it than to read and refer to a critic who has read it. The more literary texts you read and can refer to the better. You can’t possibly read too many. Remember, the key to your essay is the number and quality of your ideas about literary texts. To catalogue random material does not comprise an essay. If you casually refer, from at least an apparent position of familiarity, to some obscure literary text, you will win the admiration of your marker. If you refer to a critic, particularly an obscure one, your reader may not be impressed by the mere mention of a name or worse employing a critic in a manner that is hostile to the theory.
  • Critics and theory. Ideas and interpretations from critics should be used in a way that these ideas become an integral part of your essay. Never simply quote a critic without commenting thoroughly on the meaning and value of the quotation. Remember that whole published essays have been written as arguments against a particular literary viewpoint. Reading critics can give you an idea of what the state of critical opinion is about a literary text, to save you re-inventing the wheel and coming up with some brilliant original perception that Geoffrey Hartman thought of sixty years ago. In order to write intelligently about a given work of literature, it is a good idea to read what has been said about that work. Reading in secondary sources should only be done after your own thorough reading has been done and after you have formulated and written down a thesis and some ideas of your own. Secondary sources do stimulate ideas; however, they also tend to make students (no matter how advanced) question their own premises. This can be very good, as long as you are on firm ground.

    Try never to quote a critic just to agree with him or her. Always, under all circumstances, quote a critic in the following form:

    Stuart Curran says x about Shelley’s work, but I disagree as follows.


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.

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