Writing in Your Major

Tips From Tutors


Professor Tips: Writing About Literature

Here are some tips straight from the professors!

*Please keep in mind that these are not meant to be comprehensive guidelines for all political science papers! Rather, these are trends that professors have identified from years of experience with student writing. While these trends can be applied to most writing, always make sure to check with the professor that you are writing the essay for in order to learn what their personal writing preferences are.

What is one thing that students must never forget about writing papers about literature for English classes?
  • A lot of students aren’t aware that there is an argument guiding their work. The most important thing is, “Do I have an argument?” What constitutes a literary argument? How do I generate an argument? A lot depends on the assignment. Be clear about what the assignment is. A typical course assignment will involve some analysis of a literary text – maybe not the meaning of a literary text, but the meaningfulness of a literary text.
     – Professor Barnaby
  • For a literature paper, you have to have an argument. It’s not enough to describe or summarize a text. We are looking for a thesis statement that someone might take issue with, a claim that is supported by evidence, is clearly articulated. And not just an observation, but some account of why it’s important.
     – Professor Fenton
What makes you go “Wow” when reading papers? -in a good way?
  • A really clear argument, where the student is making a discernible claim about the text, and then tells me why it’s so important. The other thing that really impresses me is when students integrate their evidence into their own prose seamlessly. When a student does a kind of brilliant, close analysis of the text and really explains to me why the evidence they are using is the best evidence for their claim and what the link is between the quote they are showing me and the argument they are making: That gets me happy!
     – Professor Fenton
  • What impresses me is 3 things, taken from Quintilian, the famous Roman rhetorician of expository writing, or argumentative writing: First, from the Latin is inventio, or discovery, the argument that is really interesting. Second, dispositio, the ordering of things or construction of the argument. It’s the hardest part of writing. What is going to count as evidence for the argument? What do you look at? How do you break it down? Third, elocutio, the writing mechanics or nice writing. Not too many passive verbs, an interesting blending of complex and simple sentences, paragraphs woven together in interesting ways with clear transitions between ideas and paragraphs.
     – Professor Barnaby
What makes you go “Wow” when reading papers? -in a bad way?
  • Students usually have the hardest time organizing their argument in a paper. It’s the hardest part of writing, generally. In some ways it’s the least fun. It’s hard work. They have a great idea, but are not sure how to get from point a, to point b, to point z.
     – Professor Barnaby
  • Plagiarism. Nothing makes me madder than plagiarism. And it’s not as hard to detect as students might imagine.
     – Professor Fenton
  • Long block quotes without an explanation. Your analysis should always be longer than the text you’re citing; otherwise your reader could just read the primary material.
     – Professor Fenton
  • One of the biggest mistakes students make is to write a warm-up paragraph to get started, and then leave it as the introduction. Writing two pages of irrelevant information about the author or historical context … creates distance between the reader, the argument, and the text the student is writing about.
     – Professor Fenton

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What can turn a good paper into a great paper?
  • Revision! It’s very hard, in any context, to write a really great paper in one draft. Even if it’s just talking through the paper with the faculty member, you’ll almost always do better. Revision is not just correcting writing mistakes. Revision literally means to see again; to think about it in a different context. You really learn how to write by revising. There is no formula for writing a great paper.
     – Professor Barnaby
  • In the revision process,
    • Work on the thesis statement. A good paper will highlight an important part of the text or context; that is a good observation. The hard thing is to figure out what that important thing is; a great observation will tell us why it’s important.
    • [Pay] very close attention to the evidence. A great paper will show you examples in the text that are thoroughly analyzed.
    • A strong conclusion is important. A lot of students tend to write summary paragraphs for the conclusion. For shorter undergraduate papers (8-15 pages), your reader does not need to be reminded where you have been. So either a strong conclusion that draws the argument to a logical close and finishes on a high note, or after all your hard intellectual work is done, to push the paper in a new direction that’s more speculative.

     – Professor Fenton
What is your favorite database for online research?
  • Hands down, the MLA International Bibliography. Many students like to use JSTOR and Project MUSE. But students don’t realize that the MLA database links to JSTOR and MUSE. In addition, MLA often includes book chapters as well as the oldest information to the newest available. It’s the broadest and deepest database for literary studies. I also think that sometimes checking out a physical book is the best thing you can do.
     – Professor Fenton
Any last advice for writing papers about literature, whether for the intro courses or upper levels?
  • Students do not go to office hours nearly enough. Office hours are part of the course. If you’re confused about what the assignment is at all, don’t talk to other students, go to the teacher.
     – Professor Barnaby
  • Make sure that you understand the assignment and be clear on what the expectations are. Talk to the professor if you are not sure-professors often leave room for a range of writing styles and approaches to be acceptable and that can leave students unmoored.
     – Professor Fenton
  • The best advice is to start early. It takes time and thinking to craft a thesis statement and write an argument. Start with the evidence you want to use. It doesn’t work to come up with a thesis statement and then try and make the evidence fit the argument. Analyze the text first and see what it’s telling you. Evidence produces a thesis.
     – Professor Fenton
  • Concluding paragraphs are not nearly as important as introductory paragraphs. Most students sum up what they have done in their essay at the end, because they realize what their argument has been, but they should switch this to their intro to tell us what argument they are going to make.
     – Professor Barnaby
  • Proofreading is also a good idea. You have spellcheck, but grammarcheck does not work.
     – Professor Barnaby

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Links to the full interviews with:

Professor Andrew Barnaby

Professor Elizabeth Fenton