WRITING ABOUT LITERATURE
William A. Stephany
Except for the specific subject matter, writing about literature is not substantially different from writing about anything else in an objective or analytical way. Much of what I say here, therefore, may seem familiar to you, a reminder of what you may have learned elsewhere in writing courses or in writing units (or at least I hope so). Furthermore, most of what I say will be relevant to your writing in courses that do not deal with literature and to your writing in non-academic contexts as well. The central assumption that all of these suggestions are based upon is that writing about literature presents you with two objectives: to communicate clearly to someone else what you know, and to discover for yourself just what it is that you do know.
The distinction sometimes surprises students who think good writing simply involves finding the grammatically correct way to express their ideas. Their attitude is that the language of their paper is simply the clothing with which they should dress up their ideas to make them look attractive, and that revising and proofreading, therefore, are essentially cosmetic changes, added at the last moment to mask superficial blemishes that might be particularly conspicuous. Not so! A traditional distinction would have it that, of the three steps involved in the writing process, pre-writing, writing, and re-writing, writing is the least likely of the three to affect the final product. More important is the thoroughness with which you have gathered and evaluated your evidence in advance of writing your paper, and the scrupulousness with which you have challenged and questioned your assertions afterwards. So understood, writing becomes not just the communication of what you think you know on first reaction, but the means by which you can discover what you really do know about something at a more profound level. We are all of us more or less perceptive when it comes to detecting the cliche, the posturing, the sham, the half truth in others, and more or less tolerant in allowing ourselves to fool ourselves in many of the same ways. Learning to be a good writer in large part means learning to be tough on yourself, so that you can search for your perception of the truth in an honest way, not only so that you can communicate it to others, but so that you can articulate it for yourselves.
The suggestions that follow are intended to help you ask of your writing the tough questions that will lead you closer to the truth. Copy editing is important, to be sure. If you make errors in spelling, punctuation, sentence structure and the like, people will judge your work (and perhaps your intelligence as well) on the basis of these mechanical flaws. The following "rules," however, aim beyond the cosmetic to suggestions that should help you in the use of writing as a tool for discovery.
1. Your paper should have a thesis. Usually this will be explicitly expressed in your paper in a sentence, more rarely in a full paragraph. On those even rarer occasions when it seems more appropriate not to express the thesis in your paper, be sure you have expressed it--explicitly--for yourself. Please note that a thesis does not arise in a vacuum; it does not exist in your mind divorced from the literature you are writing about.
2. Rather, your thesis should rise naturally from your reading of the works in question and from the notes you take upon them. Take voluminous notes, many more than you can possibly include in a limited paper. As a rule, it is only when you try to make sense of these notes that your thesis will emerge; it is only in the light of these notes that you will intelligently modify your initial gropings toward a thesis statement. Having elaborate notes at hand will allow you to select the most telling detail when you need it, rather than settling for the first one to pop into your mind.
These first two suggestions are so closely related that their order could easily be reversed. Sometimes you will approach a paper with a sense of your topic already in mind and you will gather evidence to refine it into a thesis; at other times you will gather notes with no real sense of topic, only to have that topic emerge as you catalogue and classify the evidence.
The important point is that you go through the process of refining your insights, and I know of no better way to do this than by talking to yourself. In an argument with friends, we have the opportunity to refine our ideas on the basis of their insights or of their questioning of ours. One friend might make an assertion and another might snarl in good humored disagreement, "Oh yeah, says who?" or "so what? I mean what's your point?" or even "so, who cares?" In response to questions of this sort, we might supply specific examples to clarify obscure assertions, we might redefine terms, we might spell out underlying assumptions that we had thought were self-evident, we might try to foresee the consequences of our assertions. In doing so, we would come closer to finding what we really think about the subject, not what we thought we thought to begin with.
In writing, and especially in formulating a thesis, we must learn to talk to ourselves, to play for ourselves the role of those friends. We make an assertion on paper and with no friend to look puzzled or bored or eager, with no friend to ask for clarification ("Now wait a minute, do you mean this or that?"), with no friend to tell us we're all wet, we assume, hearing and seeing no objection, that we should press forward with our argument. The most helpful knack I know of that a writer can develop is the ability to internalize this dissenting voice and in revising a paper to put its assertions through the third degree, asking of them those tough, demanding, embarrassing questions: "how do you plan to prove that? are you sure? says who? so what's your point? who cares?" If you don't ask those questions of your preliminary drafts, chances are pretty good that someone will ask them of your final one.
In general, your thesis statement will most effectively go in your paper's first paragraph. People sometimes assume that the thesis statement should go at the end of a paper, either for the sake of suspense or to recreate for their readers the chain of reasoning by which they came to draw their conclusion. Rather, your thesis should come early in the paper, challenging your reader with an assertion of your main point so that he or she knows just what it is that you are trying to prove. If your thesis is withheld until the end, your reader will have to reread your entire paper to see whether you have proved it, whereas if it appears early, your reader will be able to determine at each paragraph whether you are in fact substantiating your main point.
3. As the body of your paper takes form, check it against your thesis to be sure that everything "belongs." If some aspect of it is not implied in your thesis, then you should either revise your thesis to accommodate this previously unforeseen development or (by far the harder task) face up to the fact that this aspect, however valid it may seem, simply may not belong in this particular paper.
4. Make the paragraph the unit of composition, i.e., make each paragraph focused on one topic and one topic only and provide sufficient evidence to prove the point. Be suspicious of any one- or two-sentence paragraph. Usually this is a sign of an idea that is not sufficiently developed, or of a sentence that logically belongs within the preceding or subsequent paragraph. You may be assured that it will call unnecessary and unfavorable attention to itself, so you may as well get used to noticing such things for yourself. Most paragraphs are, you will find, four to eight sentences long if they are properly developed.
You should think of paragraphs as compositions in small. Just as your essay should have a thesis, your paragraph should have a topic sentence, an explicit statement that unifies the whole, and, as with your thesis, the most typically effective position for it will be at the beginning of the paragraph. The rhythm of your essay should be a series of leaps to rather more abstract assertions that summarize your evidence and draw conclusions from it (your topic sentences), each followed by the specific evidence or argumentation that makes the assertion seem reasonable or persuasive (the body of each paragraph). When you finish your paper, you should be able to ask of each sentence whether it helps substantiate that paragraph's topic sentence, and of each paragraph whether it helps substantiate the essay's thesis.
5. Use transitions sufficiently to connect your ideas together. This will help you establish the unity of your vision and help provide the smoothness that will keep you from clumsiness or mechanical sterility.
6. Make your point; don't just imply it. This means that you should avoid unsubstantiated assertions. Learn to sympathize with your reader who does not necessarily see what you see and who needs to have your point of view explained. Your conclusions, presented without the evidence that led you to that conclusion, will not often be very persuasive. Often you will find yourself instinctively or intuitively coming to a conclusion that is not self-evident. Then you will be faced with the difficult prospect of undoing your intuition to try to figure out why it seems "right" to you and how you can make it persuasive to others. Finally, when you cite specific evidence from some literary text, avoid simply quoting it and leaving it to your reader to puzzle out its significance. If you cite it, you have some responsibility to interpret it so its function in your argument is clear. (Be sure to cite only as much of a given passage as is absolutely necessary. If you really want to talk about a single word, don't quote a whole paragraph lest you be accused of padding.)
7. Avoid meaningless plot summary. Assume that your reader knows what has happened. Your purpose is to tell what that action means. It is often helpful to begin your paper from any point in a given work of art except its beginning. This will help you keep focused on your thesis and help keep you from being trapped into mere plot summary.
These next three suggestions may seem at first glance to be picky and superficial, but I intend them as aids in reasoning, in forcing yourself to stay focused on your subject and in forcing yourself to find out what you really mean about it.
8. Avoid using the first person in early drafts. This will keep you from falling into the kind of introduction that says, "In this paper I will do this and that." Don't introduce your laboratory method; introduce your conclusion. Allowing yourself to use the first person is too easy. It lets your concentration waiver and keeps you from making commitments and tough decisions about what you plan to do. (N.B. "This essay will endeavor to show something or other" avoids the first person and hence follows the letter of the law, but is really a variant of this same tendency to avoid focusing on your thesis.)
9. Be conscious of the verb, "to be," and especially of the excessive use of dummy subjects, such as "it is," "there are," "there might have been," etc. Three dangers may arise from the excessive use of this verb: a) excessive repetition of any sentence pattern risks lapsing into boredom; b) the main point of your sentence will often get crowded into unemphatic parts of your sentence if you waste your verb on simply affirming that something exists; c) by allowing yourself to settle for such a minimal commitment in your verb, you might doom yourself to a superficiality from which a more vigorous sentence structure would have rescued you. (Sloppy writing and sloppy thinking nourish each other, as George Orwell so persuasively demonstrates.)
10. Be conscious of the excessive use of prepositional phrases. Such a tendency often works in tandem with number 9 to rob your sentences of crispness or emphasis. (For example, "This is only one of the examples of Chaucer's use of the motif of the argument over sovereignty in the relationship of men and women in the tales usually included in the marriage group, as described by scholars writing from a wide variety of critical perspectives about the literature and culture of the Middle Ages." Ugh!)
One final point: in teaching students to write analytically about literature, English professors are not taking their stand for intellectual sterility and against people's confidence in their own emotional responses. ("I like the poem; I like the way it feels. Isn't that enough?") We don't think of ourselves as high priests of some occult rite to which you are being initiated. ("Today we leave the mysteries of the anapest and turn our attention to the sacred synecdoche.") We don't think of ourselves as impresarios. ("And now, direct from a successful British engagement, we bring you John Keats.") We don't think of ourselves as museum directors. ("Come down this corridor, please. We have an important collection of Shakespearean sonnets you should see.")
We are interested in teaching literature precisely because of its emotional effect, or rather because of the especially honest way that the emotional and intellectual are united in a good work of literature. In asking you to write analytically about literature, we are not asking you to deny your emotions. A good critique transcends mere analysis (something that would leave you isolated from the text) and begins a synthesis or merger into deeper knowledge and understanding which you can carry back into a reading of the work itself at a richer and more delightful level of meaning. A work of literature, well-read, helps you to expand and define your own emotions. Don't use the poem as a springboard for your own emotional meandering, but as a call to give yourself to it with "passionate attention," as one textbook title puts it, so that you are, in a real sense, changed--emotionally and intellectually--by the experience of reading it.
If all of this seems difficult to you, then be assured that honest writing is difficult and frustrating (even though satisfying) even to the accomplished professional. As T. S. Eliot put it in "East Coker," second of the Four Quartets:
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years--
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres--
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate--but there is no competition--
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.