Essay Composition Guidelines for English 151

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English 151
Welcome to your English 151 Essay Composition Guidelines! Please be sure to also consult the General Writing Guidelines.

Why Write a Critical Essay?
This is easy. You have to. Putting aside for a moment the fact that you are compelled to write an essay for this course, it is worthwhile to think about the sense of purpose you have when you compose an essay. An essay is an opportunity to make yourself heard on a particular topic in a way that you simply could not in a conversation or in a blog, for example. Writing an essay allows you to offer precise and perceptive analysis of something. While the essays you write for this course are indeed exercises, they are meant to mimic the sort of essays that professional critics write. Literary Critics write about just about anything. I have published essays on everything from the War on Terror to ghosts and haunting, right through to hypochondria and the abolition of slavery. Whatever I might write about, I am motivated to do so because I feel that I have a new contribution or unique understanding of a text that is important and needs to be heard and read by others. Similarly, you have the opportunity here to share your original insights into a literary work.
A Critical Essay is Not an Argument, But it Does Have One
While an essay is an opportunity to participate in a conversation among readers who are interested in a given topic or literary work, it is not quite the same as having a conversation among friends about a movie you all just watched, especially if that conversation is simply a recollection of what everyone liked best in the film. What makes an essay critical is that it has an argument or a specific point that it seeks to make and does so by including evidence and analysis as a means of proving that point.
Whatever a critic writes about, he or she writes as a way of contributing to or starting up an ongoing conversation on a given topic. The first questions a critic needs to ask are the following:
To whom am I writing?
What do I need to spell out and what can I assume my reader already knows?
When you write for this class you are writing to your instructor who is an interested reader. Like you, I have read the text, so I don’t need plot summary. I also don’t need you to define basic terminology or approaches to literary study. Assume your reader knows the text you are discussing and that your reader is interested in the topic (I am!). Write in a formal tone that is appropriate to this task (see the General Writing Guidelines for further details on the appropriate tone for formal writing assignments).
The Parts of an Essay
An essay can come in many shapes, but what it absolutely must do is begin with an introduction that includes a clear statement of purpose, called a thesis. A thesis is an idea, or a supposition. In an essay, the thesis is where you explain, in a sentence or two, what it is you intend to argue about the literary text.
You may have a topic assigned to you for the paper. A topic is not a thesis. That topic needs to refined into a particular and precise thesis statement, which is an expression of the stance of this essay on that topic. Do not underestimate the importance of specificity here. Strive for a thesis that is clear and precise, as well as compelling rather than predictable. Compose more than one thesis. Test them out. Which one is the most appealing, the most provocative, the most engaging? Pick the one that is the most exciting to you, rather than the one that seems safe and easy to prove; the more challenging thesis statement will lead to an essay that is so much more rewarding to write.
The thesis should be responsive to the text you are analyzing. Don’t base your thesis in a maxim. For example, while it might be true that “quitters never win” such a declaration says very little about the specific literary work you will analyze and likely actually distorts the complexity of the ideas of that text. Strive for an engaging and debatable thesis. If I were writing on “The House on Mango Street”, I might say the following:
Cisneros critiques a social ideal of what constitutes a “proper” house in “The House on Mango Street”.
This is clearly a debatable rather than absolute statement. It could still be more specific, though. How about this:
Cisneros critiques a social ideal of what constitutes a “proper” house in “The House on Mango Street” in order to show the shame that comes to those who fail to achieve this ideal.
This version is much more precise because it answers why Cisneros explores the issue of housing in a short story rather than protest poverty by marching on the street.
Typically the thesis comes at the end of the first, or introductory paragraph.

The Thesis should:

Refine a topic into an argument

State clearly and precisely what you will prove

Be focuses enough to require detailed analysis

Not be self-evident

Be debatable

Not be reductive
The Introduction
The introduction is an opportunity to invite your reader into the paper by introducing what your paper will argue. Because you have an interested reader already, do not fall into the trap of thinking you need to hook your reader in the first sentence with a clever quote you found on the internet. No quote will be more effective than a first sentence that begins to set out the nature of your analysis. Jump right in from the first sentence. While it is important to welcome your reader into the essay by writing in a generous and slightly general manner, you also do not need to start by stating: The world is round, and then getting progressively more focused over the course of the introduction. You simply cannot afford to waste your reader’s attention with any details that are not directly relevant to your argument. Indeed, think about initiating your reader into the argument with the title so s/he is already prepared for the argument to come. Make every word count and be as precise as possible here. Strive for an introduction that says only what is absolutely necessary. It is quite possible that your introduction could be four sentences or less in length! Longer isn’t necessarily a problem, but make sure every word counts, because that sets a lively and engaged tone for the rest of the paper.
You may also want to highlight your method here. Have you chosen to use a Feminist critical approach to the topic? If you have, let your reader know that in the introduction. You might also want to comment upon the significance of that choice: Why is it particularly salient for this text? this thesis? this topic?
The Introduction should:

Focus from a topic to a thesis

Define key concepts where necessary

Identify the method you will employ, if applicable

Include a thesis

Be short and sweet, with no wasted words

Place a premium on precision and specificity

Make a Plan: aim to make the ideas flow logically and persuasively
Develop an outline that shows you how you will prove your thesis statement. While many of you already know the model of the essay that begins with an introduction, three body paragraphs and then a conclusion, this is not the only model. You might also consider crafting what is called a narrative critical essay. This model suggests the essay tells a kind of story, in this case, the story of your thesis or argument. The idea behind this model is to develop an essay that is less forced than the three paragraph model. The narrative essay is premised upon an idea of development, much like a story: it has a beginning, middle and an end and it would cease to make much sense if you rearranged those parts. For the narrative essay, certain proofs need to come first and by developing those you are then able to tell the next part of your critical story until you reach your climax where you reveal that stunning final piece of evidence that ties it all together and proves your thesis! This model has the significant advantage of not needing a conclusion to tie together the paper. The argument has reached its climax and that is the natural and expected point at which to end.

Argumentation, aka the Body Paragraphs

This is where you prove your thesis by providing textual evidence. This can be done in several ways, but there are two that are particularly common modes of handling evidence and developing analysis:

1. Passage-based analysis

2. Quotation-based analysis

The difference between these two is really only a matter of the scale of the evidence you will employ. Each of these modes begins with a claim, which is what you will prove. You follow the claim with a piece of evidence and then you analyze that evidence in order to show how it proves your thesis. With passage analysis you choose a short passage from a work and “unpack” what it means for your thesis. With quotation-based analysis you choose a single sentence or sometimes even less to prove your point. Passage-based analysis has the advantage of showing that you understand this work so well that you can link an entire passage to your thesis and do so persuasively because it appears less selective (thus it does not look like you are avoiding those passages that might complicate your argument).
It is very important to integrate your evidence into the essay. This needs to be done in two ways:

  1. Integrate your quotations into you own sentences. For example: Cisneros writes that the narrator wanted “a real house that would be ours for always” (93).

  2. Don’t let your evidence do all the work. You need to explain how or why a piece of evidence proves your thesis. Identify what is most important in the evidence you have quoted. For example: Cisneros writes that the narrator wanted “a real house that would be ours for always” (93). Her emphasis on the realness of the house suggests here that the narrator feels that her house does not measure up to the social norm of what a house should be and thus is not really a house at all.

See the General Writing Guidelines for precise information regarding how to follow MLA format regarding the citation of evidence from sources.

The goal of your body paragraphs is not to prove the absolute truth of your thesis statement. Imagine you are a lawyer. What you need to do is make a plausible argument so that the jury believes your version of events. Your goal is to offer a sound defence of your thesis. The jury is your audience and if you don’t believe what you are writing, neither will they.
Making an effective argument can sometimes be a delicate balancing act between too much and too little. Knowing exactly when you have enough to prove your thesis without trying your audience’s patience gets easier with practice. It also helps to finish the essay a couple of days before it is due, leave it for a day, and then re-read it. You may find that what you thought was clearly evident no longer is, or that you really don’t need to keep belabouring a particular point.
A Couple of Tips on Argumentation:

1. Write your argument, don’t try to fill the word count. You can and should edit to make sure the essays falls within the assigned parameters, but meeting a word count does not equal making a persuasive argument.

2. Don’t halt your analysis too soon. Keep asking Why? How? What? until you are satisified you understand what a particular passage means for your argument.

3. Never expect your evidence to prove itself. Do not let evidence hang there without analysis that shows how it proves your thesis.

Ask yourself, Could I say this in front of the class, or would they call me on it? If, in all honesty, you are stretching the bounds of credibility, stop and ask yourself why that is the case. Is there a problem here that could be avoided if your thesis was not forcing you to distort the text? If that is true consider modifying your thesis.
The Body of the Essay Should:

Avoid plot summary

Make claims and prove them using evidence gathered from the text

Be persuasive

Use the tools of literary analysis to prove your overall thesis (use terms like tone, point of view, metaphor, setting, etc.)

Provide analysis of all cited evidence to show how that evidence supports your thesis

Be as concise and specific as possible
Transitions; or how do I get there from here?
It is important to signpost where you are within the essay occasionally and one of the most effective ways of reminding the reader of your trajectory is to include transitions that close one part of your argument and move you into the next phase. Transitions take place between significant stages in the argument and they should announce where the argument is going next, and implicitly offer a sense of why it is going there, rather than somewhere else.
Transition words include:


Further, Furthermore





The goal of successful transitions is not to pepper your essay with these words but to give considerable thought to how the essay unfolds and mark that it has a flow from one idea to the next.


The conclusion should provide a sense of ending. The conclusion need not repeat your thesis statement, though it might return to it in an altered form. The conclusion might be a place to extend the scope of the argument and be a little bit speculative (though it does not have to be). You might decide to raise points in the conclusion that your wonderfully focused paper could not cover but which are worth keeping in mind in reference to your thesis. For example, if I have written a splendid analysis of how Cisneros treats the concept of socio-economic class in “The House on Mango Street,” but I have not considered how race or gender might also shape the lives of the characters, the conclusion could be a place to acknowledge that this is 1) worth doing and 2) might complicate my analysis in the following specific ways. Such a paper does not need to actually complete the analysis it makes reference to in the conclusion. Instead, it seems as though it could, which makes you look smart without having to go to the effort of proving yourself to be so!

The Conclusion Should:

Be economical; this is not the place to develop a new argument

Provide a sense of closure and accomplishment to the essay

Essay Checklist

  • The essay has a thesis that is clear and easy to identify.

  • The thesis is critical and analytical, as well as precise and specific.

  • The introduction is concise and it provides a sense of what the argument is about.

  • The essay has paragraphs and each develops a single idea.

  • Evidence is properly cited and well integrated, and includes appropriate, perceptive, and precise analysis.

  • Plot summary is avoided.

  • Attention is paid to the development and flow of ideas throughout the essay.

  • The essay has a sense of ending.

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