Strategies for essay writing

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Cassandra Nelson

English 168d

February 23, 2012


  1. Read closely and gather evidence

Underline and annotate as you read a text, and keep track of patterns—for instance, a repeated image (e.g., water in Seize the Day), scene (houses/bedrooms/rented spaces in Pnin), or object (peacocks or the sapphire ring in Loving).

Think about form—syntax, figurative language, narration, tone, details included and excluded, and everything else discussed on the close reading handout—in addition to content, and how the two work together.

  1. Review evidence and choose a topic

Take an inductive approach. Start with the instances you’ve gathered of specific images or scenes. If a scene or an object is depicted repeatedly, that’s a good indication that it’s important for the book as a whole. If it interests you, then you’ve got a topic. Ideally, topics are concrete and manageable in size: the idea of family and home in Pnin is too large and nebulous a topic to take on in a 5-page, or even a 15-page, paper; figuring out why it’s so heartbreaking to hear that he won’t get to stay in the house where he hosts the party (perhaps by reference to other rented spaces) may be easier get a handle on.

In most cases, the repeated scene or object that you choose for your topic will be depicted in different ways, which often complicate or conflict with each other. As you consider how kitchens/leaves/the yellow wallpaper are variously represented throughout their respective texts, think about the implications that those representations might have for larger or more abstract themes in the work (family, alienation, displacement, belonging, success, failure, love, war, fulfillment, etc.).

  1. Develop a thesis

As you’re reviewing your evidence and using it to make inferences about larger themes in the text, you are effectively crafting an argument—an argument about the role that birds play in Loving, say, or what water signifies in Seize the Day. Your argument may consist of multiple claims, because the birds/water may serve several functions. If you had to distill the common essence of those claims into one statement (and you do), that would be your thesis.

An effective thesis has a clear, well-defined argument (and thus is not a statement of fact or opinion, and cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”; one way to check for this is to see whether your thesis has a counter-argument). Your thesis should be identifiable and prominent in your introductory paragraph; often but not always it is the last sentence of the first paragraph. Your thesis should tell the reader both what your essay will argue and how you will make that argument. The how part of this equation serves to guide the reader through the essay that follows (e.g., “I will argue that A happens in Novel B by looking at scenes/characters X, Y, and Z”).

  1. Organizing your argument

Avoid plot summary—if the page numbers to the passages you’ve quoted follow one another consecutively, it’s immediately clear to the reader that you’ve conformed your argument to the shape of the plot (another sign: repeatedly using the phrase “and then”). Instead, organize your argument around claims and in the same way you put it together: work inductively, starting with smaller, concrete, and more obvious claims, then moving on to larger, abstract, and less obvious claims.

Back up your claims with evidence from the text. Provide a context for all passages you quote: frame your quote by first telling me what to look for in the passage, then quoting the passage, then doing your analysis/close reading of the passage. Paraphrase (rather than quote) those passages that are important for content alone.
Try to ensure that each paragraph has one main point (can you summarize that paragraph in one sentence? Check to make sure that you can, and also that it is related to what you set out to argue). Look for transitions to move smoothly from one paragraph to the next: a thoughtful hinge or segue helps guide your reader from one claim to another.

  1. Consider counterevidence

A strong argument anticipates the claims that could be made against it. Looking for counterevidence is a good way to establish the limits of your argument. If you’re going to make an argument about the house where Pnin hosts the party, for example, you should check to see whether the thing you think you see happening there also happens at the Clements’ house, and the one with the brothers. If you’re making claims about female characters in a work, see whether the phenomenon in question happens to men too, etc.

  1. Conclusion

The conclusion is often the hardest part. Ideally, in the words of the Writing Center, a conclusion “should offer a sense of completeness and closure, as well as a sense of the lingering possibilities of the topic. It should close the discussion without closing it off.” Had we all the world and time. Realistically, you’ll probably just want to wrap things up as quickly as you can; however, you can at least try some of their tips: (1) link the last paragraph of the paper to the first paragraph, perhaps by reiterating a word or phrase you used at the beginning; (2) consider the wider implications of your argument (e.g., what was at stake in Upton Sinclair’s day may yet be at stake in our own); (3) cleverly redefine one of the key terms of your argument (e.g., if you’re writing about how Marx claims that capitalism is an enterprise of dehumanization, you might end with the observation that Marxist analysis itself is dehumanizing because it construes everything in economic, rather than moral or ethical, terms).

  1. Rewrite your introduction at the end

It can be painful, but try to think of the first introduction you drafted as a warm-up to writing—and then scrap it. Having finished your essay, you now know exactly what your argument is and how it proceeds, and you can tailor your thesis and introduction accordingly, to provide your reader with an accurate roadmap to the essay that follows. If you have extra time or inspiration, you can add a “hook,” that is, an engaging first sentence, closely or tangentially related to your topic and argument, which grabs the reader’s attention and ensures his or her interest in the essay to follow.

And remember! Writing is hard work, and writing about fiction is particularly difficult. Characters and events in novels, poems, and plays aren’t real, so they can be difficult to talk about coherently, and literature is partly defined by its indeterminacy and openness to multiple interpretations. So have heart, and know that if you can write about fiction, writing about almost anything else will seem easy in comparison.
An entertaining guide to usage and common mistakes in undergraduate paper writing can be found here (NB: you don’t always have to agree with everything he says, but all of it is good to be aware of):

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