Archives: Backlog: Advice on Writing, from a Frustrated Teacher
I always have a few more projects going at any one time than I’m really able to complete. This is generally a good way for me to work- if something just isn’t working, I’ll figure it out as it goes further and further down the list and gradually gets crowded out by other projects. But this also means that from time to time, I’ll go searching through my hard drive for old forgotten projects to take a second crack at, and sometimes I make discoveries. It is in this spirit that I present an old handout I made for one of the first upper-division English classes I ever taught at a university. Teaching upper-division students was fun in some respects, because everyone was passionate about reading and writing, but that passion made it all the more difficult for me to break it to them that sometimes what they wrote wasn’t very good. It also made things more frustrating for me, and I’m afraid that sometimes that anger leaked out in unproductive ways, but I did my best to channel my energies toward helping my students in a productive fashion.
The first paper my students had to write for their upper-division class was something I thought would be easy- a 2-page analysis of two different works we had read for class. When I finally finished reading the results, I had gone through three red pens’ worth of ink and was on the brink of despair, and this two-page missive to my class was the result of that emotion. Despite the sometimes-too-angry tone, I think it’s a pretty useful document to check a rough draft.
Problem Areas in the First Round of Essays
I have just finished grading your first essays for this class, and while I found several interesting interpretive approaches and a wide variety of takes on each text, there were a few problem areas that persisted across multiple papers. Some were simple formatting errors that didn’t affect the paper’s grade, while others created serious problems for the essays in which they were committed. Because most of these mistakes have more to do with forgetting the basic principles of composition than simply misunderstanding the assignment, I felt it would be helpful to point out the most common errors, so that you may check for them in the future.
- Unnecessary Works Cited page: For this class, essays should consist of straight textual analysis with no outside sources. As such, a Works Cited page is unnecessary. Simply follow any direct quotation of a text with the line number (if it is verse) or the Norton Anthology page number (if it is prose), and only include the title or author’s name if you do not make explicit who you are quoting in that particular instance. And in the spirit of pure textual analysis, do not quote from the Norton Anthology’s introduction to the text. Those introductions contain the opinions and textual interpretations of W.W. Norton & Co.’s editors, and you should attempt to create non-derivative analysis in these essays.
- Formatting/MLA errors: These are mostly self-explanatory. Make sure your essay meets all the requirements for margins, spacing, and font, and complies with MLA standards regarding headings, citation, and formatting. Because these essays are short, you have the option to single-space your headings and title. And if you need 1-2 more lines, you might want to disable the standard format for Word 2010, which places a little extra space between paragraphs.
- Avoid paraphrase: In a 2-page essay, space is important, and you shouldn’t use it recounting the plot points of a work that both you and I have read. What goes on is not nearly as important to your essay as why it does, or how it shows up in the text.
- Structure paragraphs by ideas, not texts: Imagine that you chose to write on the tension between Christianity and Paganism in Judith and Beowulf. If you spend one paragraph on Christianity in Judith, another on Christianity in Beowulf, a third on Paganism in Judith, and a fourth on Paganism in Beowulf, you will likely have a hard time fitting everything into 2 pages, and your analysis of the actual presence of Paganism and Christianity in the two texts will suffer from your continual shifting between texts and ideas. But if you can find one element of Paganism central to both texts (and even better, possibly find how this element works to a different end in either text), you can structure a whole paragraph around that idea while discussing both texts, and do the same thing with a Christian element in your second paragraph. Not only does this cut down on the amount of words you have to use in transition between paragraphs, it ensures that your essay stay rooted in the why and the how of the text rather than the what.
- Essays that discuss 2 works are implicitly comparative: Even if your prompt told you to “discuss” a common element between two works rather than “compare” it, an essay that goes off in two completely separate directions has limited potential to examine the texts in question. This is not to say that you shouldn’t highlight the ways in which texts deal with common elements differently- you absolutely should do that- but you need to explain why this difference is important in some deeper sense. If I asked you to write an essay in which you discuss the characteristics of apples and apple pie, and your thesis boils down to “one grows on trees and the other has a flaky crust,” then you’re not taking the extra step necessary for literary analysis.
- Throughout history, “funnel introductions” have annoyed teachers: Many introductions to English papers seek to place the work under examination in a larger context than the rest of the essay will attempt. This is a standard rhetorical move, and useful for demonstrating the general interest that one’s paper may possess. That said, essays that begin with a stale, warmed-over phrase like “One important aspect of poetry…” or “A common element in many literary works…” or “Throughout [history, the ages, the Renaissance, the English literary tradition, pretty much ‘throughout’ anything]” are perpetrating an academic cliché equivalent to beginning a short story with “It was a dark and stormy night.” At some point in a distant past now lost to history, these formulations may have seemed original or interesting, but they have since been beaten to death by generation upon generation of “blocked” students who use them to start off their rough drafts and forget to edit them out later. I understand all too well how difficult introductions can be, but please do your best to use an opening phrase that does not actively suppress my desire to read the rest of your essay.
- Beware the vague or non-existent thesis: I was a little surprised this was as prevalent as it was, but coming up with a concise yet specific thesis is a necessary part of any essay in any subject. So remember: your essay needs to have a sentence (it should only be one sentence in a 2-page paper) that summarizes the basic claim you will attempt to prove. Generalizations should be kept at a minimum: If you are covering heroism in Beowulf and The Wife of Bath’s Tale, it is not enough for your thesis to claim that “heroism in Beowulf and The Wife of Bath’s Tale work in different ways.” You need to explain how they work, and why the difference is important.
- Limit quotations to what is necessary: For the same reasons that you should eliminate all unnecessary paraphrase (and paraphrase is almost always unnecessary), you want your direct quotations to take up as little space as possible. A 2-page paper should never have to set off a quotation from the rest of the paragraph in which it appears. Integrate quotations into your sentences whenever possible to save space, and use ellipses and brackets to reduce the quote to its essential elements. Do not use ellipses and brackets to change the essential meaning of the quotation you are using.
- Cut, cut, cut: In the same spirit as the last rule, shorten everything that you can. If you can make a point equally well with fewer words, do so. Look for instances of the verb “to be” throughout your paper- most of them may be replaced with a different verb that is more direct have more concise substitutes.
- Double-check grammar and usage: One of the most inconvenient things about majoring in English or Creative Writing is the assumption that, because your area of study deals directly with the English language, you are familiar with the basic conventions of grammar and use words correctly. Unfortunately, it’s a fair assumption. Don’t turn in papers riddled with basic errors.