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Hints for Writing About Literature

(modified from http://polaris.acast.nova.edu/~alford/writelit.html)

I. Organization
  1. Every paper must have a thesis that is clearly stated somewhere in the first paragraph, most likely in the final sentence of the paragraph.

    DEFINITION: A thesis is the anchor for the entire argument. It must be stated in the form of an interpretive conclusion (based on your reading), a conclusion the paper will defend. Pretend you're the attorney for the prosecution (or defense). The thesis is the statement of the "guilt" or "innocence" of the defendant. You can't wait until the summation (after all the evidence has been presented) to spring your verdict on the jury!

    The thesis cannot be open-ended, allowing you to be a tour guide through the text, pointing out to the reader what interests you. An essay is not a tour through your own reading processes, but a summation of the discoveries your reading has led you to. Your thesis must, therefore, make an assertion about the text and not merely describe its characters, plot or theme. Every paper will by necessity require some minimal use of description to orient the reader. But description ALWAYS supports analysis. Assume that your reader has read the text and ensure that your argument and not the plot guides your organization.

  2. Every paragraph in the paper must begin with a topic sentence, one that structures the argument of the particular paragraph and follows logically from the previous paragraph.

    DEFINITION: Each topic sentence is a building-block of the argument that explicates and supports the thesis. Each topic sentence is intimately connected with the thesis, not a wandering away from it.

  3. A good test of whether your argument is working is the following:

    When you've completed your rough draft (sometime before the day the paper is due--papers written "full blown" on the days before being submitted are by definition rough drafts and not completed assignments), extract from it, in the order presented in your draft, a schematic paragraph that begins with the thesis sentence, followed by each topic sentence, and ends with your concluding sentence. If this schematic paragraph reads like a fully developed paragraph of an argument, then your paper is doing what it should do. If not, rearrange the internal elements or come up with a better thesis.

  4. Every paper must have a concluding paragraph.

    DEFINITION: The conclusion is not a restatement (however cleverly disguised) of the thesis. In fact, the thesis should lead to a conclusion that might not be entirely evident from the starting point of the argument. At best, it both sums up and offers possibilities for further reading and interpretation. At worst, it generalizes from a position already exhaustively outlined.

    Save your best piece of evidence for the final paragraphs. This means don't use your best quotations on pages one and two of the paper.

 
II. Arguing the Case
  1. Handling the evidence

    Quotations neither carry the gist of the argument by themselves nor are they incidental to the argument of the paper. They are integrated into the argument you are presenting and should not in any way interrupt or digress from that narrative. They should not overbalance a sentence or paragraph and should be chosen because they are the exact words necessary to advance your argument, not to pass over the responsibility to the text you are elucidating.

    It is your responsibility to interpret, elucidate and explicate every quotation you use, if the quotation is more than a handful of words.

  2. Every quotation must be introduced in terms of context (to your argument and from the text in which it is taken). In advance of the first usage, you must name the author and work (preferably somewhere in your first paragraph).

    Every quotation should be introduced with a lead-in phrase or clause:

    Demonstrating his acute powers of observation, Sammy describes Big Tall Goony-Goony as "a tall one, with black hair that hadn't quite frizzed right, and one of these sunburns right across under the eyes, and a chin that was too long" (12).

    Don't dump the quotation in the reader's lap:

    Sammy recognizes the consequences of his decision. "His face was dark gray and his back was stiff . . . and my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter" (16).

    Don't use the repetitious "tell 'em, quote, tell 'em what you've quoted" technique:

    Sammy demonstrates dissatisfaction with his job in his references to the customers. "The sheep pushing their carts down the aisle . . . were pretty hilarious" (13). This is another reason why Sammy dislikes his job.

  3. Every quotation must also be followed by at least one sentence in your own words that analyzes the quotation and demonstrates its relevance to your thesis:

    Demonstrating his acute powers of observation, Sammy describes Big Tall Goony-Goony as "a tall one, with black hair that hadn't quite frizzed right, and one of these sunburns right across under the eyes, and a chin that was too long" (12). He dissects her physical appearance, coldly focusing on each of her flaws.

    Sammy demonstrates dissatisfaction with his job in his references to the customers. He claims, "The sheep pushing their carts down the aisle . . . were pretty hilarious" (13). Condescendingly, he refers to the customers as "sheep," implying that they resemble farm animals meekly following their leader while roaming the pastures of the A&P.

 
III. Comparative Analysis
  1. Integrated Structures

    Creating a seamless analysis means that no part of the essay can break apart from the integrated development of the larger argument. Transitions between paragraphs are essential to creating an integrated whole, but they should be subtle and relatively unobtrusive. The "joints" are there, but they shouldn't "show."

  2. Confrontations

    When comparing or contrasting two or more positions as part of your argument, you MUST keep an active relationship between those texts at all times. If you choose to compare Full Metal Jacket and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, you are not allowed to talk for half the paper about the film and for the second half of the paper about the novel. The two texts must "play" with each other at all times. Structuring this interplay will demand great ingenuity, even genius, on your part--but since you have outlined your argument analytically rather than descriptively, you at least have the formula for such parallel analysis.

 
IV. Style

Analytic papers must demonstrate a mastery of written English. That means: no one-sentence paragraphs, no sentence fragments, no run-on sentences, no comma splices, no agreement problems, no punctuation problems, no colloquial language, no cliches, and other basic grammatical and mechanical errors.

Form and content cannot be separated. If you cannot clearly express your ideas in writing then you exhibit no proof that you in fact hold them. Your instructor is not a detective searching for clues to what you "really meant to say" or a psychoanalyst listening for symptoms of what you can't "express." It is your responsibility to present your ideas clearly, not only in college but in the "outside" world.

 
Phrases and Words to Avoid

Expository essays place a premium on coherence, clarity, logical ordering and correct usage. They should be free of the following errors: one-sentence paragraphs, contractions, sentence fragments, run-on sentences, agreement problems, punctuation problems, colloquial language, cliches, and other basic grammatical and mechanical errors. They should also avoid vague, tired and wordy expressions.

Needlessly wordy constructions fill up the page but do not add anything to your thought. Eliminate the following and find a more concise substitute:

  • due to the fact that
  • in order to
  • in view of the fact that
  • in the event of (that)
  • despite the fact that
  • during the time that
  • in point of fact
  • with reference to
  • in many cases
  • make contact with
  • in most cases
  • for the purpose of
  • in this case
  • at the present time
  • in all cases
  • at this point in time
  • in the near future
  • without further delay
 

Tired expressions and vague words allow you the luxury of continuing to write without having to think. Omit these words from your vocabulary and find more vivid, specific substitutes:

  • in today's society
  • people
  • in my opinion
  • today's youth
  • things
  • it seems to me that
  • I think/feel/believe
  • a lot
  • very different
  • aspect
  • lots of
  • really
  • interesting
  • situation
  • many
  • extremely
  • nice
  • much
  • truly
  • pretty/ugly
  • deal with
  • several
  • quite
  • happy/sad
  • handle
  • various
  • pretty
  • good/bad
  • figure out
  • enjoyable
  • incredible
  • utilize
  • intense
  • wonderful
  • timeframe
  • awful
  • spectacular
  • interface
  • awesome
  • great
  • extraordinary
  • great
  • outstanding
  • gross
  • fascinating