Writing Essays about Literature

1. Like any essay, a literature paper should have an introduction which includes at some point a thesis. The introduction should, however, be more than just a thesis; it should grab at the readers and make them want to read on. Mechanical statements (“I am going to…”) are not especially interesting.
The thesis is a statement of purpose or direction, an opinion about interpreting the text which your essay will develop and support. “William Wordsworth uses nature imagery” is not a thesis: it states a fact, not an opinion. “Wordsworth’s nature imagery reflects a dissatisfaction with industrial, urban life” is an opinion about why or how he uses this imagery, hence, a thesis.

2. A conclusion should hark back to the introduction and tie together the threads of argument which have developed the thesis. Generally, this process will take several sentences.

3. You should use quotations from the text to illustrate the points you want to make. A short paper (less than 6 pages) dictates using short quotes. Do not expect the quotes to be self-explanatory – explanation of their meaning and relevance to your ideas is your job. Every time you quote, follow the quotation with an explanation of how that quoted material is relevant to your point. A general rule of thumb is not more than one-quarter of your paper should be quotations. Incorporating short phrases of quotation within a sentence is often as effective, or more so, as using a quote several lines long.
Generalizations (“This stanza develops the theme of lost innocence”) need to be supported by details, and those details will often be quotations. Vary your use of paraphrase and quotation to give variety to your style.
Both direct quotations and paraphrased ideas need to be cited with page or line numbers.  Failure to cite ideas from others is plagiarism, and plagiarism is NOT acceptable; in fact, it is a reason for your paper to fail. [See the documentation handout for citation hints.]

4. Use background information wisely: any facts about an author’s life or other work should be relevant to the points you are developing. A brief mention of dates, literary movement, etc., may be appropriate in an introduction or conclusion, but generally you should presume your audience is aware of the basic information.
Cause/effect types of connections between an author’s life and his/her work are risky, unless you’ve done an extensive study on the author yourself.
Remember that any information beyond dates and general facts that you acquire from library sources or text introductions needs to be cited. This especially includes other critics’ ideas about interpreting the text. Generally, however, the papers I assign are asking you to do your own interpreting.
Use proper MLA parenthetical citation and bibliography form (the MLA Handbook is available in the reference room and the same information is included in many composition textbooks).  Use the most recent MLA style book.  Online, consult the Online Writing Lab from Purdue [OWL]: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/01/

5. Title your paper – be creative, but identify the purpose you develop. A reader should be able to identify the paper’s direction from the title. Example: “Dylan Thomas” announces the paper’s broad subject, but not its direction. “Dylan Thomas and the Images of Childhood” tells something about what ideas are developed in the paper. “Colors of Childhood: A Look at Dylan Thomas’ Imagery” is a more creative version. Don’t put your own title in quotation marks.

6. While content is obviously important, incorrect grammar and mechanics are distracting and annoying (as well as occasionally confusing), as are typographical and spelling errors. DO NOT trust a spell-checker to catch everything. It will not tell you if you’ve typed “in” instead of “is” or “there” instead of “their.”  Final proofreading and correction (neatly in pen or pencil) is your responsibility, not the computer’s.

7. Unlike a journal or informal writing, a paper should present itself formally. This does not mean stilted and unnatural (do you ever say “one can see…”?), but chatty colloquial language and haphazard organization are out. “You” should be avoided – use “we” instead:  not “you can see” but “we can see.”  An occasional “I” is acceptable.

8. I prefer papers simply stapled (upper left corner), no fancy folders. Number your pages. A separate title page is not needed – put your name and the class ID at the top corner of the first page. All papers must be typed or word-processed, with a READABLE printer output. Use 1″ margins on all sides, 10- or 12-point font, double-spaced.

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