A Guide for Beginners
For many college students, their first English paper can be a daunting task. Being asked to closely analyze a text and pull out a broader meaning presents a unique challenge to those unfamiliar with the task. Often the advice — pick a theoretical approach, do a close reading, avoid over–summarizing — can be counterproductive and confuse writers even more. Below is a beginners’ guide to writing that pesky paper for an introductory English literature class.
Brainstorm: Going against the grain
- Start with how you feel . Did you enjoy the reading? Was it entertaining? Why or why not? Most advanced English majors will tell you to avoid personal statements of like⁄dislike as if they were literary kryptonite. However, when you are trying to get the ball rolling, simply deciding how you feel about the text can be a useful exercise.
- Figure out why you feel it . Was it the imagery? Maybe it was the characters? Try your best to pinpoint specific elements of the text that caused your response to the text. Then go deeper. What words in the elements you singled out were particularly impactful? Again, why? By completing these steps, you are moving nearer to performing a close reading.
- Flip it . Trying to cram your reading into the hour before class just won’t cut it for most of us. Besides rushing yourself (which takes away from actually enjoying the text), you probably will not have enough time to take in the text and think about it critically. This can hurt your ability to participate in class discussions and make connections/arguments that might be useful in a paper.
Writing the essay
- Keep it simple. Remember the five paragraph essay that was drilled into you during high school? You can do that. Start with an introductory paragraph telling the reader where the paper is going. Then follow with three pieces of evidence supporting your thesis. Make sure to make an argument. Your thesis is a claim that must be fought for and proven to be valid. Finally, wrap it all up with a conclusion that summarizes the points you made. But also keep in mind that the five paragraph essay is simply a template. You may have more⁄less pieces evidence and more/less than five paragraphs, but the intro — body — conclusion arrangement is the key.
- Use quotes⁄paraphrases. The text is your friend. Make sure you back your claims up with quotes or paraphrases. If you make a claim that can't be supported by pointing to a paragraph in the text, you should ditch the claim. Also, a good use of quotes shows the professor you actually read the book, which is always a plus.
- Have someone read what you wrote. Hand your essay to a friend, or bring it in to the Writing Center. Having an extra set of eyes look at your work can help avoid errors ranging from typos to unclear argumentation.