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Old Friday, July 08, 2011
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Default how to write an esaay

Preparing yourself

Students who think essay writing is an easy task and they think they can write a good essay in a first attempt while sitting in the examination hall without prior practice are at mistake; a mistake which usually costs them their carrier. The whole book endeavors at explaining and preparing the students for the crucial day of examination by explaining the whole process step by step. Later the essays based on the suggestions and tips given in part A will help the students to understand the process of essay writing

Step one is to train yourself. Practice makes a man perfect. So an intensive pre-exam approach would most certainly help the student gain good marks.

Though, the examples in the essay refer pre dominantly to English literature. Yet the basic idea remains the same, which is to train the students for a good performance. Same techniques used for the essays concerning English literature are to be used for the other essays, no matter student picks an essay from political science, current affairs, economics, or from some other area.

Remember; English essay is not a task to write about Factual calculations, it’s not a paper about jotting down mathematical data, neither does it revolve around Islamic studies. Apparently, the topic may seem to be one asking about economic conditions of Pakistan, pollution, Globalization, Terrorism and Islam, yet student has to bear in mind that its a paper that would be assessing student’s critical approach towards a topic, multiple techniques, and most importantly knowledge about the language of the paper , i.e., English would be the examiner’s actual concern.
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Old Friday, July 08, 2011
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Default sitting in an examination hall

After all the training at home, when the student is put to test:

Your wrist watch should be in front of you. Remember by this time you have done your home work and you know you are confident about the topic you are about to attempt.

Yet take time and select a topic which you think would reveal you hard work in front of the examiner.

Don’t’ rush.

Think about all the possible dimensions abut the topic and jot them down on the last page.

Think about the introduction by adding all the points from the outline.

Keep on adding more points to the rough outline as they come to you while you are writing the essay.

There is always chance you forget a crucial point or reference so always jot them down on the last rough page.

Keep on marking the points you have elaborated so that at the end you don’t get lost in the ones you have already discussed and the ones that need your attention.

After half the time is over, do analyze what you have written and how much time is left. Assesses the outline from the rough page and carefully divide you time in what is to be elaborated and strong concluding last paragraph.

While reaching the end you can go through some points without going into much depth. But remember you have to save time for a powerful ending.

Never leave an essay without its ending. Skip a few points if you have to but always end your essay properly.

Save last 5 minutes or so for revision. Cross out the rough outline, attach your extra sheets properly, recheck your roll number.
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Facing the question
This chapter will be of most use when you have been given a specific question to answer. But even when you have been asked simply to 'write an essay on…', you should find help here. Some passages- will prove suggestive, as you try to think of issues that may be worth raising. Others will show you how these can then be further defined and developed.
Decode the question systematically
If you just glance at a set question: and then immediately start to wonder how you will answer it, you are unlikely to produce an interesting essay, let alone a strictly relevant one. To write interesting criticism you need to read well. That means, among many other things, noticing words, exploring their précis implications, and weighing their usefulness in a particular context. You may as well get in some early practice by analyzing your title. There are self-evident advantages in being sure that you do understand a demand before you put effort into trying to fulfill it.
Faced by any question of substantial length, you should make the first entry in your notes a restatement in your own words, of what your essay is required to do. To this you should constantly refer throughout the process of assembling material planning your answer's structure, and writing the essay. Since the sole aim of this reformulation is to assist your own understanding and memory, you can adopt whatever method seems to you most clarifying. Here is one:
Write out at the top of the first page of your notes the full question exactly as set.
2) Circle the words that seem to you essential.
3) Write above each of the words or phrases which you have circled either a capital 'S' for 'Subject' or a capital' A' for 'Approach'.
4) Place in square brackets any of the still unmarked words which, though not absolutely essential to an understanding of the title's major demands, seem to you potentially helpful in thinking towards your essay.
5) Cross out any word or phrase which, after prudently patient thought, still strikes you as mere grammar or decoration or padding.
Here is an example from English literature that is to be applied to essays from other areas;
'We all of us, grave or light, get our thoughts entangled in metaphors and act fatally on the strength of them (Middlemarch). Discuss the function of metaphor in George Eliot's work.
This might become:
['We all] of us, grave or light, get our [thoughts] [entangled] in metaphors [act) [fatally] on the strength at them [(Middlemarch)]. Discuss the function of metaphor in George Eliot’s work.
The choices I have made here are, of course, debatable.
For instance, some of the words that I have crossed out may strike you as just useful enough to be allowed to survive within square brackets.
Deciding how to mark a title will not just discipline you in noticing what it demands. It should reassure you, at least the case of such relatively long questions, that you can already identify issues which deserve further investigation. It thus prevents that sterile panic in which you doubt your ability to think of anything at all to say in your essay. If you tend to suffer from such doubts, make a few further notes immediately after you have reformulated the question. The essential need is to record some of the crucial issues while you had them in mind. Your immediate jottings to counter future writer's block might in this case include some of the following points, though you could, of course, quite legitimately make wholly different ones.
These notes may look dauntingly numerous and full, considering that they are meant to represent first thoughts on reviewing the title. Of course, I have not been able to use as economically abbreviated notes as you could safely write when only you need to understand them. Nevertheless, you could obviously not write as much as this unless you already knew some of the texts. Even if you are in that fortunate position when first given a title, you may not want, or feel able, to write so much at this very first stage of the essay-preparation process. Nevertheless, you should always be able to find some issues worth raising at the outset so that, when you embark on your research, you have already jotted down some points that may be worth pursuing.
You may later decide - as you read and think more - that some of the problems that first occurred to you should not be discussed in your essay. Even those confirmed as relevant by growing knowledge of the texts will need to be defined far more precisely and fully before you think about composing paragraphs.
Notice too that in a number of cases the issues have emerged through wondering whether any of the question's terms might have more than one meaning. Investigation of ambiguity can often stir the blank mind into discovering relevant questions.
Terms of Approach
You may spot easily enough the keywords in which a title defines your subject-matter but terms prescribing how this is to be approached may prove harder to find. Often they are simply not there. Essay-writing should, after all, exercise your own skills in designing some appropriate style and form in which to define and explore a given literary problem.
Even where a title's grammar is imperative rather than interrogative, you will usually have to decide for yourself how the topic should be tackled. The title may tell you to 'Describe', 'Discuss', 'Debate', 'Analyze', 'Interpret', 'Compare' or 'Evaluate' or for that matter might just put some phrase in front of you to analyze it in your very own terms. In all these cases, you are still being asked questions: what do you think are the most relevant issues here? What is the most appropriate evidence which needs to be weighed in investigating them? How should that evidence be presented and on what premises should it be evaluated?
When your essay title uses one of the above imperatives, you must not assume that the demands represented by the others can be ignored. Many students are, for instance, misled by titles which tell them merely to 'Describe' some feature of a topic. They think this sounds a less intellectually strenuous assignment than one which requires them to 'Discuss' or 'Debate'. They may offer a mere recital of facts rather than an argument about their significance. But the text which you are to describe often is one which your reader already knows intimately. How you approach and assess even its most obvious features may be of interest to your examiner. The mere fact that these features exist will not. Description in a critical essay must initiate and contribute to debate. To 'Describe' is in fact to 'Discuss'. To discuss intelligently is to be specific, to observe details, to identify the various parts which together determine a work's overall impact. So you must' Analyze' even where the title's imperatives do not explicitly include that demand.
Interpretation must, of course, expose its ethical, religious or political value systems which a text implicitly reinforces or subverts. Yet these exist- only in the architecture of its form and in the building materials of in language. What Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, for instance, encouraging us to believe cannot be shown by a superficial summary of its plot. Such a summary might be almost identical with that of the original prose version of the story which Shakespeare found in North's translation of Plutarch.
Where Shakespeare's Julius Caesar does subtly deviate from its source, it suppresses some of the basic narrative's latent implications and foregrounds others. So interpretation of just how a particular work seeks to manipulate our definitions of what is true or desirable may also require you to make comparisons. You can hardly have sufficient sense of direction know where one text is pushing you if your map of literature has no landmarks, and includes no texts which outline some alternative path. Thus, even where an essay title does not explicitly require you to approach one set text by reference to another, you are almost 'certain to find comparison useful.
'Compare' - even where it is not immediately followed by 'and contrast' - does not mean that you should simply find common ground between two texts. You must look for dissimilarities as well as similarities. The more shrewdly discriminating your reading of both texts has been, the more your comparison will reveal points at which there is a difference of degree, if not of kind.
Nevertheless, you must wonder what the relatively few works which are regarded as literature do have in common. Your essay is bound to imply some theory as to why these should be studied and what distinguishes them from the vast majority of printed texts.
Student essays sometimes suggest that literature is composed of fictional and imaginative texts, and excludes those which aim to be directly factual or polemical. An English Literature syllabus, however, may include Shakespeare's plays about political history and Donne's sermons while excluding those often highly imaginative works which most of your fellow citizens prefer to read: science fiction, for instance, or historical romances or spy stories. In your essay you should feel free to use references from any source that you may feel relevant.
Alternatively, the focus of your essay may imply that the works which can be discussed profitably in critical prose share alertness to language; that we can recognize a literary work because it appears at least as interested in the style through which it speaks as in the meaning which it conveys. Yet many of the texts which criticism scornfully ignores - the lyrics of popular songs, advertising slogans, journalistic essays - often play games with words and draw as much attention to signifier as to signified. There is now vigorous controversy as to which of the many available rationales - if any - does stand up to rational examination. Recognize the view which each critical method implicitly supports, and choose accordingly.
'Evaluate' may also-be already implicit in each of the other imperatives which tend to recur in essay titles. Description without any sense of priorities would be shapeless and never-ending. Discussion must be based on some sense of what matters. Analysis may involve a search for the significant among the relatively trivial. Interpretation of a text, and even more obviously comparison of it with another, tends to work-however tentatively - towards some judgment as to the relative importance of what it has to say and the degree of skill with which it says it.
Conversely, evaluative judgments only become criticism when they are grounded upon accurate description of the work which is being praised or condemned. If such judgments are to be sufficiently precise to be clear and sufficiently well supported to be convincing, they must be seen to derive from observant analysis of the work's components. They must also show sufficient knowledge of other texts to demonstrate by comparison exactly what about this one seems to you relatively impressive or unimpressive. So, too, they must be based on an energetic curiosity about the overall ideologist pressure which a text exerts as the cumulative result of its more localized effects. You cannot decide whether to admire a text as an illuminating resource or to condemn it as s mystifying obstruction until you have worked out what ways of thinking it is trying to expand or contain. To evaluate, you must interpret.
These interrelated concepts of evaluation and interpretation as the next section explains are more intriguingly problematical than some critics acknowledge.

Short titles may require long and complex answers
Systematic discrimination between a title's crucial terms and its irrelevantly decorative verbiage should allow you to spot the lengthy questions which are merely long-winded and the succinct ones which actually make as great, or greater, demands. Consider, for example, ‘The idea that media is there to educate us, or to inform us, is ridiculous because that's about tenth or eleventh on their list’
Titles may tell you how much you need to read
The essay, ‘"O, it is excellent / To have a giant's strength, but it is tyrannous / To use it like a giant" and "But man, proud man’ may pose the following questions about your reading: have you found any other works illuminating assessing Measure for Measure? Did any other plays by Shakespeare or the contemporaries prove helpful as comparisons? Did any literal work of some other period or genre seem relevant? What critical books or essays stimulated your own thoughts?
At the opposite extreme you might be asked to write a critical appreciation of just one poem like Shelly’s , ‘when winter comes can spring be far behind’ Even when however, you must think out how much reading will be necessary. Some poems cannot be sensibly treated in isolated from others. There are, for instance, poems which were written and published as matching pairs. Browning's enthusiastically erotic 'Meeting at Night' belongs with his cynical sexist 'Parting at Morning' in a carefully wrought confrontation. Even more obviously, a parody can only be evaluated by reference to its target. The notes in a good edition, sufficiently detailed works of criticism, should alert you what else you may need to read.
Even when you have made sure that the named poem des not demand knowledge of others, check that the terms of the question do allow you to concentrate exclusively on the specified work. If, for instance, you are asked to show how 'typical' it is of verse written in its time or how 'characteristic' is of its author, you must clearly demonstrate that you have read enough other poems.
No points, of course, can be scored for having read works which are unrelated to the set topic. You may indeed lose marks because irrelevant knowledge wastes time and muffles clarity. Nevertheless, examiner are bound to favor a student who is sufficiently enthusiastic and interested to have read widely. So where you cannot decide whether a text is sufficiently relevant, come down on the side of discussing it. On balance it is better to be suspected of gratuitous showing off than of laziness.
Remember, anyway, that breadth of reading is only one of the many qualities that your essay may need to demonstrate. Some, misleadingly phrased, questions may sound interested only in what you know. All answers will still need to show how much you have thought, read.
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Default B-researching an answer

Before you begin to think about the overall shape of essay, you must gather information and ideas.
Read the whole of each set text
The absolute priority is to investigate any work while essay title specifies as your subject. You must read every possible detail of it. However long it is and however tedious some part may seem at first glance, there can be no skip-reading. If you feel that you have been day-dreaming for a few pages, or few lines, go back and read them properly.
On some rare and regrettable occasions, other commitments or sheer incompetence in organizing your time may interfere.
Whenever possible, read a work more than once. If your essay is to be devoted to a single topic, you must read it slowly and thoughtfully at least three times before you begin to plan an answer.
If you are reading verse, listen as well as look. Read aloud as much as you can. Alertness to specifics can be aroused by this method when you are studying many prose works too, and not just plays or novels that rely on dialogue.
When you are going to recite some passage out loud, think what pace or tone seems appropriate. Try to hear the voice prescribed by the printed page, to articulate its meaning and to do justice to its emotive potential. Observe how often a passage exploits sound effects. The more it does so, the more necessary it will be to read it aloud if you are to notice what you are reading.
You must possess a dictionary as an essential tool of the trade. Do not try to skip any word which you do not fully understand. Pause to explore the context. If that does not decisively reveal what the word must mean, consult your dictionary. The dictionary you own will be relatively small. It has to be easy to handle.
Likewise, a thesaurus can be as helpful as an ordinary dictionary. For the words that occur consistently refer to your thesaurus and locate some high frequency words for them. Repetition of those words along with revision of their alternative would automatically improve your vocabulary.
If you pause at the end of one act of a play or a chapter of novel or one poem in a collection, do not close your mind as you close the book. While you are making a cup of coffee or putting on your coat to go out, recite to yourself a line or phrase from the text which you have just been reading. Each time, you should acquire some fragment of the text's own texture even if the extract is no more than three or four words long. What you have learnt by heart you can carry around in your head.
Pondering, even in the oddest places, such unofficial acorn can often nurture them into intellectual oaks of extraordinary strength and complexity.
Make notes
Do not just start turning the pages of a specified text, hoping that insight will seep up through your fingertips. Read with pen in hand and a determination to make frequent notes, unless you are constantly looking for points worth recording you will discover few and remember less.
Some of your notes should be exposing such localize details that you may want to add or underline the relevant page of the printed text. Such annotations are unlikely to muffle the text's own chosen chronology since that remains visibly present among your own comments. When later you consult your running commentary you still have the appropriate passage of the text before you and can discover more than you had first registered: You may find it helpful to aim to compose your own index inside the back cover of a book, assembling references to all the contexts in which a particular character appears or some recurrent theme is explored or some crucial word is deployed. Of course, you may be among those who regard the marking of books as sacrilegious. Even if you are not, the copy that you are reading may not be your own but the library's or a friend's, and then there can be no question of adding even the most lightly penciled comment.
Obviously you will anyway need to make fuller notes else where. Design a system for these that concentrate your particular kind of mind and bully yourself into using it. Do check, as your notes grow, that you are not just producing a paraphrase. The risk of this is greatest when you are handling a long work. You may be tempted, after reading another chapter of a novel and jotting down a summary of the main plot events that it contains, to stop writing and proceed immediately to read the next chapter. Such notes will prove almost useless when you come to write your essay. Of course, in some contexts, narrative structure can be a relevant, and indeed, fascinating issue; but to discuss it sensibly you will need to have noticed and remembered far more than simply the number of a chapter in which some incident occurs.
The most helpful entries in your notes will be those that record your own thoughts about the significance of the passage that your reading has then reached. Many of these will define issues which you cannot hope to resolve until, at the very least, you have read the entire text. Meanwhile, to read alertly means to read questioningly. You should begin to be suspicious if, as your notes grow, they are not including many suggestions that end in question marks.
Another danger sign is a steady consistency in the length of notes that each chapter of a novel or each scene of a play has inspired. This will almost certainly mean that you are not thinking hard enough to make even provisional decisions as to which parts of the text matter more than others, and which issues are so unusually complex that you need to use more words if you are to remember what you thought.
Worry, too, if notes on later portions of a long work do not include references to earlier ones. You cannot be thinking about the impact of what you are reading if you do not notice some emerging patterns of anticipation and echo, or some potentially interesting points of comparison and contrast, which your essay can eventually investigate.
Finally, do check that you are including verbatim quotations, however brief some of these may be. If you are being sufficiently alert to the ways in which style determines substance, you will find yourself recording examples to remind yourself of exactly what you did notice about the text's own use of language. The actual process of copying out extracts may jog you into registering more about their phrasing or their precise implications. Do accompany each quotation by a reminder as to why it strikes you as significant. Even if the reason now seems to you self-evident, do trouble to spell it out for the sake of your future self.
When you are reading a text for the first time, you will have to settle initially for a simple, chronological arrangement of notes following the text's own sequence. In other cases you may choose to organize some, or even all, of your notes into separate sections on particular topics. If so, be sure that you do still notice the text's own choice of the order in which readers must meet its manipulative devices of language or its puzzles and revelations in thought and plot. Some of your headings could invite notes about, for instance, narrative structure. All of your entries should be accompanied by exact references. Fail to do this and you will not just underestimate the significance of the text's timing; you may also waste an infuriating amount of time later in finding some quotation whose accuracy you need to check.
Allow your growing experience of the text to correct or expand your sense of what the significant issues are. Expect to delete or rephrase some headings and to add many more. Even if you have not been asked simply to 'write an essay on' some named text but are faced by a far more specific question, do try to prevent its exerting an undue influence on what your notes discover in the text. Your fast guesses as to what will prove relevant are likely to be too narrow. You anyway want to gain much more from your reading than just one essay. How you define your loftier or more hedonistic purposes will depend on your own view of the uses of literature. However, you will want these notes to have value long after you have written your essay. Ensure that their range and depth will still be an adequate resource when quite different issues are raised by an examiner or by your own maturing curiosity.
You may think it worth while to accumulate, at the same time as your full notes on the text, a separate and far more selective series of jottings in response to the demands of a set question. The inevitable duplication need not cost too much time and effort if you use sufficient cross-references from your essay notes to fully written-out quotations and ideas in your resource notes. Demarcation lines will often be hard to draw but any conscious difficulty here can be useful in forcing you, from the outset of your reading, to start thinking about what your essay should include to be a sufficiently thoughtful and detailed answer and. what it may have to exclude if it is to define a clear sense of priorities. If you do decide to make separate essay notes, these must at first be highly provisional. No decisions about what subjects deserve whole paragraphs or how these should be ordered can be made until, at the very least, you have finished reading all the relevant texts.
Secondary sources and some problems in literary theory
We learn about the past largely through reading texts written in our own time. These constructions of the past, composed by modern historians, cannot of course have influenced the seventeenth-century readers whose experience you may seek to recapture. Yet you cannot forget such constructions or all the other more recent texts, whether literary or not, which have significantly shaped your own beliefs and feelings. Moreover, partly under the influence of these texts, many of the verbal styles that seemed natural to at least some seventeenth-century readers have now come to sound quaintly old-fashioned. They have been replaced by new discourses reflecting the ideology of modem society. So the idioms in which we speak to each other or write literary criticism may force us to decode past verbalizations in a new way. However diligently you consult a glossary, old words will still sound old. However often you quote from an early text, your surrounding prose will still pose it in a context which would sound distinctly odd to its original readers.
Imagine that a group of suddenly resurrected Elizabethans appear round your desk while you are composing your next critical essay. As they begin to read over your shoulder, how much guidance would they need before they could begin to make sense of what you are doing? Remember that they come from a time when the vast majority of their fellow citizens had not been taught how to read anything at all, and that, for the educated few who could read and write, the texts which were thought most worth studying were in Latin or Ancient Greek. Your baffled visitors lived three centuries before some universities accepted the idea that texts written in one's own language could deserve serious study as literature. F. R. Leavis was among the first students on the Cambridge English Tripos, which, after a fairly ferocious controversy, was finally allowed to start in 1917. At about the same surprisingly late date, Cambridge at last decided that some women might be sufficiently intelligent to be allowed a chance at a university degree.
A text's import and worth may be subject to constant redefinition as the conditions in which it is read. To take a fairly obvious example, Shakespeare's history plays were reinterpreted at the time of the Second World War when national survival seemed to depend on acceptance of strong central government, and on a conspiracy to ignore, if only temporarily, those conflicts of interest which had been making domestic politics so vigorous. E. M. W. Tillyard's book on the plays (Shakespeare's History Plays, London, 1944) and Olivier's rousingly patriotic film interpretation of Henry V were not seen as propaganda but merely as practical attempts to make interesting sense of old texts for a modem audience. It is extremely hard to recognize contemporary productions of literary texts as localized, temporary and manipulative adaptations. One of the advantages of studying the history of literary reputations and the critical rationales by which these have been promoted or challenged is that distance of time exposes the creativity which may be involved in all readings.
Many writers, of course, still work on the assumption that such problems are slight and should be overcome. The greatest texts supposedly encapsulate truths which are, and always will be, as relevant as when they were first defined. The finest authors are seen as having been transcendentally superior to the people among whom they lived. Largely unaffected by contemporary habits of thought and patterns of language, they discovered original meanings which they then crystallized into new verbalizations. Centuries later, unless we are too distracted by merely superficial aspects of modern life, we can still decode the author's intended message and see how it remains just as applicable today.
There is a paradox here. Is the text to be admired for its universality or its uniqueness? To the traditionalist critic, the author is essentially an individual, valued for rarity of vision and novelty of insight. Genius invents its own style, constructing a hitherto unavailable experience in a previously unknown pattern of signs. Yet, if the text is also to be valued for communicating recognizable truth, it may need to tell readers what they already know. Your essay may suggest that we can evaluate the accuracy of a landscape poet by remembering the literal appearances of the natural world itself; or that we can measure the subtlety of a novelist's characterization by comparing the fictional personages with our prior knowledge of how real people behave. The text's language has somehow to be the original creation of an extraordinary person and a precise echo of what many generations of ordinary readers have always believed.
The paradox may be explicable in terms of 'What oft was thought but never so well expressed'. The implicit premise here is that reality exists quite independently from the vocabulary in which we may sometimes choose to describe it. The mind can supposedly look at the world, or experience its own movements, without recourse to words. It mayor may not then decide to seek out verbal equivalents for what it has already understood.
Many modem critics now work on the contrary hypothesis. They suggest that it is language itself which allows us to form a view of human experience. We see things distinct from one another only because we have a vocabulary in which literally to tell them apart. In the beginning was not 'thought' but 'the word'. When a text proposes one construction of experience as peculiarly 'well expressed' we judge its claim by reference to other, equally verbal constructions through which we have hitherto shaped our thoughts.
What our language allows to sound sensible will seem true, and even our most private thoughts may derive - however unconsciously - from language. Perhaps we discover what sense we are making of things only by talking to ourselves and listening to the words in which we define our experience. If what our vocabulary cannot name remains literally unthinkable, language is the name of all the games which our minds can play.
Some modern theorists thus advance serious reasons for approaching literature playfully. A text should be prevented from persuading us that it can refer to some reality beyond language. When Burns assures us that his girl-friend is 'like a red, red rose. That's newly sprung in June', we should perhaps notice how often we have 'read' this way of talking about women in the highly sexist discourse of our love-poetry.
Most of the distinctions between men and women that we take for granted have been written in by our language. Where other languages draw different lines between the genders, love functions differently. For instance, in a society where physically demanding labor with crops and livestock is regarded as women's work, cultural tradition may more often have celebrated a beloved girl's body for its functional strength and less often for its decorative delicacy.
Male readers may feel moved here by a poignant suggestion that female beauty - which they seek to possess and retain - all too quickly disappears. A feminist reader, if she, too, takes 'My love' to mean the poet's girl-friend, is not likely to admire the text's implication that adolescent girls do briefly fascinate but all too soon mature into irrelevance. She may feel able to evaluate the poem more highly if she interprets 'My Love' as referring to the poet's own emotion: like all constructions of feeling - including all those ways in which women have been read - it will eventually be dismantled.
Some student essays - and not necessarily the worst - still concentrate exclusively on internal evidence from the primary text and resolutely ignore the existence of any secondary sources which may have determined its origins, its initial reception and its current reputation. In so doing, whether they recognize what they are up to or not, they imply their support for one theory of how literature should be read, and their rejection of many others. If, on the other hand, you do design a pattern of secondary sources as an illuminating context in which to appreciate the primary text, your choice and presentation of supporting material will obviously reveal your principles. So do use some of your reading time for essays in literary theory. Curiosity about what you are trying to achieve in writing criticism must increase your chances of success. Moreover, even those students who feel intimidated by the prospect of studying literary theory usually find in practice that discovering a wider range of approaches can be fun.
Literary history and biography
A firm line is often drawn between scholarship as facts and criticism as opinions. The information offered by a competent literary historian or biographer is supposedly true even if of debatable relevance. By contrast, criticism, the argument runs, admits to making only partial and partisan contributions to a continuing debate; so you should read it critically, feeling skeptical and even downright suspicious about what it wishes you to believe.
Yet even a textual editor, whom you at fast take to be fastidiously neutral and motivated solely by a wish to give you the exact words of the text as its author intended, has to make choices. The most elaborate variorum edition may still demote some versions to a lowly and ghostly existence at the foot of the page while privileging others above in a larger print as if these form the only true text. Certainly some commentators would now argue that literary history, like all history, is inevitably partisan. Its author may never explicitly define - let alone rationally defend - any theoretical premises. Yet limited space will force selectivity. Many authors and texts will not be openly attacked but just silently condemned as not even deserving to be mentioned. The few that are judged admissible will be related to each other in a patterned sequence: some systems of connection and distinction will be given priority; others will be quietly rejected. An implicit hierarchy of values will also emerge in the varying amounts of space awarded to different texts. More specifically, what aspects of anyone text are fore grounded and which ways of reading it are recommended will depend on the expert's own convictions as to what a culture should create or conserve.
The converse process by which certain emphases and interpretations are censored is potentially even more costly. Of course, a politically radical interpretation of Paradise Lost or The Prelude need not be explicitly forbidden as wickedly subversive. The scholar's approach can just bypass it as ignorantly tangential: a cul-de-sac fit only for the ill-informed or the simple-minded. The English Civil War may be briefly acknowledged as contemporary with Milton's epic. The French Revolution may be mentioned as close in time to Wordsworth's verse autobiography. Yet, in a guide to the origins of Paradise Lost, Virgil and Dante might still be given overwhelmingly more space than contemporary politics. An account of how The Prelude discovered its substance and style may devote far more pages to Wordsworth's study of earlier poets (particularly Milton himself, as it happens) than to his experience of revolution in Paris or his later fears that England itself might become unrecognizably democratic.
You may think that texts simply do not have that kind of power; you may think that they mirror, rather than create, the beliefs which determine behavior. Certainly, to seem comprehensible to their contemporary readers, texts do have to work within a given vocabulary. The parameters of that vocabulary do perhaps reflect the prevailing political climate. A text's language must acknowledge those distinctions between the meaningfully important and the meaninglessly trivial which are accepted by the dominant culture. Nevertheless, within these limits, an energetic work of literature may still make itself sufficient room for maneuver to redefine its readers' assumptions about what is conceivable or desirable. 'Poets', as Shelley argues in his preface to Prometheus Unbound, 'are in one sense the creations and in another the creators of their age'.
So, too, are scholars and critics. Their preferences among texts can be both cause and effect of what modern society values in its past history. Shelley himself, for instance, wrote a poem called 'England in 1819' about a major political event of that year. Unarmed and peaceful demonstrators in Manchester had been listening to speeches in favor of ordinary people being allowed the vote. Cavalry with drawn sabers were sent in to disperse them. Many men and women were injured. Some were killed. Shelley in that year wrote more than one poem which might have made the massacre an unforgettable martyrdom to be remembered by any reader who values freedom. The poems, like those whom they seek to commemorate, are in fact now largely forgotten. Yet as an attentive student of literary history, for the sake of comparison and contrast in an essay, you may still learn to remember 1819 as a crucial year because it was then that Keats wrote odes to a nightingale and to a piece of ancient Greek pottery.
Moreover, personalizing a text as the product of some interestingly individualistic intellect often leads to its content being structured around other supposed individuals. A novel’s characterization may be assumed to matter more than its support for, or challenge to, the values of a given society. If a playwright's own idiosyncrasies of behavior are emphasized, then the voices of the dramatic text are likely to be explored as interestingly deviant from, rather than typical of, a particular social group or economic class.
The alliance of literary historians and biographers can be exemplified by the reported superiority of Elizabethan to medieval drama. Dr Faustus is often described as an advance on Everyman less because it offers a subtler analysis of its society than because it explores the idiosyncratic thoughts and feelings of its individualistic characters.
Published criticism
Some students find that the wider their wanderings among the critics the more they can discover in the text itself. They return to the text alerted to the range of ways in which it can be enjoyed and curious about their own sense of priorities. It helps them in fact to read more thoughtfully and observantly.
Others find published criticism distracting or inhibiting. They tend to be overwhelmed by memories of someone else's emphases. They feel nervous about their own interest in issues which published critics have ignored. They may even find that they have simply spent so much time reading critical articles that they have too little left to gain a confident knowledge of the text itself.
Provided that you explore other people's opinions to stimulate yourself into discovering and defining your own, reading published criticism is bound to improve your essays. But so many students seem to have difficulty in nerving themselves to criticize the critics that it seems worth risking a few simple rules.
Do ask your teachers - and your fellow students - about published essays they have found useful. Encourage them to remember which specific aspects of a text or topic seemed to be illuminated by a given book or article.
Always read more than one critic's account of any primary text that you are investigating. Notice where the critics disagree: not just in their more explicit conclusions but in less obvious ways too. Notice, for instance, the different parts of the text that each selects as worth any consideration at all. Try to spot any premises about literature or life which one seems to assume with more confidence than the other. Noticing where they differ from each other should help you to define where your views disagree with theirs.
Notice also what critics have in common. Do take an interest in when a piece of criticism was first published. Try to observe how fashions for certain kinds of approach have occurred at certain stages.
There is, of course, no guarantee that criticism in any ultimate sense makes progress. So beware of patronizing works that you discover were written long ago. On the other hand, do always try to find some articles which have been written recently and which your hard-pressed examiner may not find too familiar.
Try to approach a published essay of criticism not just as a set of opinions which could equally well be paraphrased, but as a carefully composed exercise in rhetoric. Observe how its prose-style claims a given personality for its author and constructs one for its reader. There are, for instance, critics who make assumptions about the social class and even the gender of the people who will read their essays. Notice the relative weighting of different stages of the argument and the sequence in which these have been arranged. Observing techniques of style and structure will save you from mistaking one person's effort for the word of God. It should also give you useful tips as to how you can make your own criticism more persuasive or amusing.
Sample only a few pages of a critical essay and then make a decision as to whether it will prove useful. In some cases, just a few paragraphs may convince you that the author's topic or approach is too remote from your own and that you must move on to try another essay if you are. to find enough genuinely thought-provoking material in the time available.
On those that do prove worth reading in full, you must make notes or you will soon forget what you have learnt. Do not just write down a paraphrase of or quotations from, the critic's views. Record as frequently as possible your own reactions. Reservations - including reference to any textual evidence that the critic seems to be forgetting or undervaluing may prove particularly useful. Record your observations not only of what is argued but also of how that argument is presented.
What you will value most highly afterwards is your record of your own new ideas which have just been stimulated by your reading. Make sure that you identify unmistakably the precise point at which your summary of the critic gives way to your own thoughts, and that at which your observations about the text cease and a summary of the critic's begins once more. Use a system of square brackets or separate columns or different colored inks: anything provided that it is absolutely clear. Your notes must remind you of what is, and is not, your own to avoid any risk of accidental plagiarism in your essay. There is anyway a more immediate gain: you can see by a glance at your notes whether the published essay is provoking you to many noteworthy thoughts of your own or is producing no more than an uninterrupted summary of its own propositions. If long uninterrupted, they are almost certainly being accepted unquestioningly. Wake up and start thinking. Alternatively, decide that this piece of criticism is not capable of interesting you into thinking for yourself and abandon it. Try another instead.
Discuss your essay subject with friends or relatives
Students too often work alone. Lonely minds get lazy, lose concentration and feel bored. So talk about the literary problems which you are tackling. Listen to other people's understanding of them. Discuss their proposed solutions. Informal teamwork can often make progress where the isolated intellect is stationary or fruitlessly circling.
If you explain to someone else what you think about a book, you will have a far clearer grasp of your own thoughts. If you listen to other people chatting about what they have noticed in a text or how they respond to some feature of it, you are almost bound to gain new ways of reading, thinking and eventually writing.
Of course, the person you like talking to most may know little or nothing about the relevant text. Yet discussion could still help you. Show someone a particular passage which fascinates or puzzles you. Even on the basis of only the haziest understanding of the overall context, he or she may notice specifics which you have missed, and may query premises which you have unconsciously taken for granted.
Where friends fail, and you are living with parents or spouse or reasonably mature siblings or offspring, try one of these. Some relative must like you enough to be interested in your interests. Explain where you need help in deciding what you think of a book or how best to design an answer to your essay's question. Spell out your feelings of pleasure or bafflement or anger at what a text seems to be doing and saying. Discover whether others understand your response, and do your best to understand theirs.
If at a late stage of preparing for a particular essay you still feel you have nothing to say which could interest a friend or relative, start worrying. Perhaps you have still not bullied yourself into finding sufficiently interesting ideas. Then you must be at risk of perpetrating the offence of producing an essay which merely states the drearily obvious. Perhaps, even though you are full of latently entertaining thoughts, you are still so vague about them that you cannot verbalize them adequately. If so, you are far from being ready to write your essay. What you cannot yet explain to someone who knows you well will make no sense to your tutor.
The grimmest explanation would be that you yourself are not sufficiently interested in how literature works to enjoy discussing it in your free time. In that case you should transfer to a different course. Find some subject about which you can care enough to think hard and do well.
If, on the other hand, literary texts are what you want to understand and yet you are still trying to make sense of them alone, you must be mismanaging your social life. Change it. Just possibly you should be trying to make new contacts but it is far more likely .that you merely need to nerve yourself to make better use of your present ones. Work out what fear is inhibiting you and overcome it. Remember that others too may be hiding their own fears of being thought foolish or ignorant or over-earnest or simply interfering. Help them to help you. You are unlikely to write well about literature unless you can hear how you and others talk about it
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Old Friday, July 08, 2011
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Default c-planning an argument

A critical essay should not just express an opinion. It must advance an argument.
Often you will have been offered by a title - or discovered in your research - some crucial proposition on which you can centre the entire structure of your essay, examining the relevance and accuracy of that one claim. Your essay may eventually come to a concluding sentence which says little more than 'Yes, I do agree' or 'No, I do not'. Which of these destinations you choose to reach, though it should concern you, may not matter much to your reader. The route, however, certainly will.
Notice the sleeping metaphors of a journey in clauses like 'advancing an argument exploring an issue', 'arriving at a judgment'. You should conduct your reader along a carefully planned path. The route must take in all the most interesting points and yet maintain an overall sense of direction. Good essays make progress.
Sensible essay-writers, like all competent guides, are properly equipped before they embark. They have clear priorities, and have allocated the time available to the different landmarks so that the more 'puzzling can be adequately explained, and the most interesting sufficiently explored. They have chosen the order in which these points will be reached, and the linking passages which can best connect them into a demonstrably logical itinerary. They also, of course, know the conclusion to which they will finally lead the reader; but they remember that to travel illuminatingly is more important than to arrive.
These strategic issues must all have been examined and resolved before you set out upon your first sentence. There you will be accompanied by your reader who will already be expecting guidance as to what is worth noticing and why. You must have a plan.
All critics do, of course, discover more about the text and their own thoughts as they write. While you are striving to find the best words with which to explain one point, you will often be alerted to some new idea. Then you may quite rightly decide to adapt your original structure so that your latest thoughts can be included. However, the more thought provoking you find the actual process of writing, the more essential it is to have already committed yourself to an overall design. You can then see whether what has just occurred to you does belong in the paragraph which you then happen to be writing. It may belong in a much earlier or later one. It may even deserve a paragraph to itself. If so, you must have a planned sequence so that you can see where the new paragraph can most logically be inserted.
Before you begin to compose any part of your essay, write out in note form the main points you mean to make. Add cross-references to relevant passages in your full notes: to passages that offer more detailed evidence with which to define and support each proposition or those which offer more extended summaries of the arguments involved. Revise your ordering of your main points until you are satisfied that you have found the most illuminating and persuasive sequence in which to lead your reader through them.
If this process proves so difficult that it threatens to consume a great deal of time, ask yourself whether you are ready to design a plan and to write your essay. It may be that you still need to do more reading, thinking and note taking.
Throughout that earlier stage of researching an answer, you should have been wondering how many issues your essay can explore, and how they relate to each other. As your reading led you to ask one question, you will have been trying to see whether an answer to it must depend on other problems which need to be resolved first. Conversely, you will have been wondering, once you have decided on how a given issue should be resolved, whether that answer in itself provokes other questions. You will also have been curious, as more and more topics and ideas occur to you, as to whether each of will, in the last resort, matter more or less than others. So, the time you come to write out a plan, many of the relevant policies should already have emerged, and only need to be recorded in a sufficiently centralized and economical format.
Writing out such a summary should certainly clarify your scale of priorities and may usefully trigger some additional ideas. However, its main use at this stage is to allow you to see all the insights and arguments that you have produced earlier and to order them into a suitable structure.
Your plan will, of course, codify the distinguishable topic that you mean to investigate, and outline the kinds of information that you intend to deploy. You obviously need to clear about what and how much you can probe in the available space. You do need to commit yourself to sounding we informed, which here will usually mean sounding well-read. However, not all those who are well-read read well. Check that it does not just list subjects but also summarize your opinions. Where it notes passages of the text that you intend to cite, make sure there is some note as to the significance you intend to claim for them. Anticipate a reader who whenever you observe some specific feature of a work, will as 'So what?' The propositions that your essay will advance need to be spelt out in the bald note form of your plan. Then you seize this last chance to check that they do reflect your beliefs or, at the very least, that they still seem to you both tenable and interesting.
Narrowing the scope
You may find that your first version of a plan is committing your essay to attempting more of the available tasks than can be performed well in the space available. Many essay titles ask too much. They allude to so much literature in such vague terms that an answer could grow to book length without distressing. You will often have to limit the range of your own relatively brief essay.
This process of selection will, of course, have been in your mind from the moment that you first began to read and make notes. Now you must make your final decisions, and some may seem bitterly wasteful. Whole areas of debate which you have pondered may have to be excluded. Whole texts on which you had made notes may, after all, have to remain unmentioned. A large idea or localized observation which had seemed to you so innately interesting that you looked forward to including it in your essay may turn out to be irrelevant to your planned argument and have to be discarded.
The relationship between this selection of your material and your strategy for arranging and ordering it needs to be flexibly reciprocal. If you find that many of your favorite quotations or shrewdest comments are having to be excluded because your intended structure provides no logical place for them, ask yourself whether your plan is right. Perhaps it should be adapted or expanded.
Remember, however, that a shapeless essay, however generously packed with bright ideas and interesting quotations, will confuse and bore your reader. If you try to mention too many works, or even too many specific portions of one relatively long work, you may find that there is space only to mention them. That, of course, is useless. The mere assertion that you have read, however hastily, thirty relevant works will not impress. The demonstration that you have thoroughly explored three will.
Be ruthless. What your essay has room to discuss must be decided rationally now. It must not be randomly imposed later by your simply discovering that you have run out of space and time in which to go on writing.
Weighing the proportions
Some titles and topics may require you to tackle so many different texts and distinguishable techniques that the need for selection has been self-evident from the outset and you have produced a plan which lists your chosen items. You may still have problems in deciding how much space each should be allowed.
There is no right or wrong answer to the question of how many texts or topics should receive sustained treatment and how many must be discussed more briefly. The thoughtful critic is simply the one who sees the problem at the planning stage, and chooses a strategy which is defensible as the least of available evils.
Each of your paragraphs must of course be centered on a particular issue which is raised by the set title. Each paragraph must be recognizable as a logical next step in a coherently developing argument that directly answers the set question. Nevertheless, in debating the value of including a particular paragraph, you should also ask yourself the following questions:
Will this paragraph prove that I have read one or more specific texts which are demonstrably relevant?
Will it show that I have read observantly? Will it contain specifics which only an attentive reader would have noticed?
Will it explain clearly that I have thought about the implications of what I have read and their effect upon judgment of the major set text(s)?
If you doubt its ability to perform all these tasks, at least consider cutting the paragraph on the grounds that it might dilute your answer.
You may think that these three questions conspire to enforce, a limiting emphasis on close reading of particular texts. What of the larger issues about literature, and indeed society, which many essay topics raise, if only implicitly? An essay for Critical Theory course, for instance, may need to risk a paragraph which does not even name a single work of literature criticism, let alone demonstrate any close knowledge of it: localized effects. Specific examples may indeed overemphasize the exceptional, and evade important and interesting questions about what all texts in a particular genre or written a particular time have in common. Even on these larger issues, my own prejudice would be to hope for clarifying examples. Nevertheless you - or your teacher - may think that trio of questions are too constricting. If so, you could usefully try to compose one more extra questions to represent other demands which you’ll think an acceptable paragraph might fulfill.

Your essay plan should go to sufficient detail to save you from false strategies in good time. For instance, you may decide that you have titter all, so few interesting points to make about vocabulary and syntax that they should become a single paragraph labeled 'simplicity'. Conversely you might now recognize that the material intended for paragraph 5 is in fact so thought provoking that it can usefully be expanded and divided into two paragraphs: one now labeled 'concrete detail, lists of objects, descriptions of physical gestures and clothes', and another summarized in 'recurrent fascination with economic terms, literal calculations of cash in hand or in prospect and metaphorical use of "profit" and "loss" etc.
Each paragraph must not only have cleanly identified topic. It must also advance at least one major idea. Check that you now understand - and will later, when writing your essay, be able to explain - the precise relevance of each paragraph. Ask not only 'What is this paragraph to be about?' but also 'What am I going to say here and what will that prove in answer to the title's specified question?' Being clear about how each point supports your overall argument will often show you where it must be positioned for maximal effect.
As you begin to make provisional decisions about which paragraphs belong together, check that in a pair which you intend to make adjacent each does make a clearly distinct point. Points may deserve separate paragraphs because they concern different, if related, issues:
Paragraph (a): the portrayal of God in Paradise, Lost Paragraph (b): the portrayal of Satan in Paradise Lost.
These characters are active opponents in the work's narrative structure and direct contrasts in its dramatized ideology. They are thus sufficiently distinct and yet so mutually defining as to deserve separate but adjacent paragraphs. .
Conflicting views of the same issue can deserve separate paragraphs too. You will usually be able to see that some paragraphs might be grouped together as aspects of the same broad topic. But thinking in terms of "Vaguely defined large divisions can do more harm than good. It provides the false security of thinking you have planned an argument when you have actually done nothing more intellectually strenuous than slicing a cake. You may, at worst, think terms only of the fit: lf of your essay and the second.
To turn mere grouping into persuasively logical argument, try to rephrase your noted heading for each group of paragraphs so that an inert description of subject is enlivened into an assertion of opinion.
Ideally, each group, like each of its component paragraphs, should be a necessary prerequisite of the next. By establishing one point you earn the right to proceed immediately to the next.
Systems for sequence
The most effective order will almost always emerge through thought about the particular problems which have occurred to you during your research on each essay's specific topic. If, however, you cannot think of an appropriate structure, some version of one of the following systems may serve. Be sure to adapt it thoughtfully both to the precise demands of any set question and to your own judgment as to what criticism should seek to achieve.
Sometimes your essay can be ordered into a debate between two potentially accurate readings. You can consider the case for and against an author or text whose importance is disputable. You can investigate the evidence for two rival interpretations. You can weigh the relative advantages of two divergent approaches to see whether, for instance, an evaluative historical analysis is most helpful in what it reveals and leas costly in what it suppresses.
A judicious weighing of the arguments on both sides will usually lead to some new way of defining their relationship. Instead of a simplistic choice between mutually exclusively opposites you may at least be able to recommend a balance view which can combine the most illuminating aspects of both ideas. At best you may be able to construct a quite distinct third notion which redefines both.
An answer which conducts a debate should not simply divide into two halves where a single proposition is defended remorselessly until a midway switch to equally consistent attack. The case for and the case against should recur after enough space to ensure that your reader remains aware of both possibilities. On the other hand, if they alternate too rapidly each point will be made so briefly before giving way to some counter-argument that it will sound superficial.
One compromise is to subdivide an essay into three or foul sections each of which offers its own thesis/antithesis/synthesis pattern. You deploy this pattern for each section of an argument rather than just once for the essay as a whole.
If you are weighing so many controversial issues, the desirability of regular attempts at synthesis is uncertain. To follow the pros and cons in each case with a summary which merely reiterates some already established balance is useless. Do not indulge in: 'Thus it can be seen that sometimes Dickens chooses a setting because of its potential for humor and sometimes because landscape or architecture can be used for serious, symbolic purposes.' Such a method will merely impose a whole series of flaccidly vague conclusions throughout your essay. The final paragraph's inherent risk of imposing just one is quite sufficient.
A merely summarizing synthesis is not worth a sentence. You should rely upon your detailed arguments to have implicitly made clear where the balance of probability lies. But a complicating synthesis which establishes some new relationship between thesis and antithesis can maintain progress and may be worth a whole paragraph.
You may believe so strongly in some thesis about how all author or work should be read that you cannot argue the antithesis with any honesty. The unconvinced sound unconvincing; so sometimes both integrity and expediency may require you to plead for one side throughout your essay. The opposition must of course be demonstrably considered; however, you perhaps regard its arguments as so feeble that you cannot devote to them an equal share of your essay. To do so might waste too much effort on mere demolition work, and you may think that constructive criticism is most helpful to you and your reader. It will usually be the texts and not misleading or irrelevant accounts of them.' that your essay means to expose.
Any assertion which you have found in the title and which seems to you overwhelmingly true can form the backbone of your essay. So can any view which you yourself have defined in researching an answer. Whatever its origins you must redefine and complicate the proposition that you intend to support. Your structure must separate it into a number of more specific possibilities. One of these should have been offered before the end of your first paragraph. Establish its exact implications, its relevance and its credibility. Then use it to raise the next possibility and set about confirming that.
Ask yourself in each case: would this paragraph make any less sense, or be any less persuasive, if its argument did not follow the point made in the previous paragraph? Does the previous paragraph establish a view which I need the reader to have understood and conceded before I can explain and prove my present claim? If the answer is 'No', try again.
You may some time be faced by an essay title which forces you to structure your entire answer according to the chronology in which a series of texts was composed. Far more often you will meet titles which merely seem to do so.
The danger of ordering your material around the order of composition is that it is, so soothingly easy. It may distract you from the effort of deciding your own priorities. It may sap curiosity as to what is the most convincing sequence in which to explain your ideas. Where the question explicitly demands an interest in such chronology you must, of course, ensure that your essay constantly examines the relevance of that factor. Its significance, however, can seldom be lucidly debated in an essay whose own structure slavishly follows the order reported by literary historians. Their facts must be used to stimulate and support your own ideas.
Beginnings and endings
Someone may have told you that essay structure can rely on the simple formula of 'introduction, middle and conclusion. In practice this leads some students to concoct a first paragraph which just announces their intention of writing an essay, and last which merely claims that they have done so. The entire, task of answering the set question and saying anything useful about the appropriate text is thus left to the intervening paragraphs. If these have been assembled according to the subtler principle than that enigmatic concept of a 'middle' they will be as shapeless and inert as a stranded jellyfish.
Forget 'introduction' and 'conclusion' until you have worked out a rational sequence for the main body of your essay. It is here that you will have the most interestingly difficult problems of discrimination and sequence. How do you keep each major topic or idea sufficiently distinct for the reader to any given moment just what is being examined or advanced? How do you, while keeping that present subject clear, ensure that the reader understands its dependence on what has been established earlier and its purpose in relation to what is yet to come?
If you solve these problems with sufficient care and cunning, you may find that you have designed a structure not just for the so-called 'main body' of your argument but for the entire essay: to add an introduction and conclusion would be superfluous. Of course, there are legitimate uses to be made of introductory and concluding paragraphs. Faced by an unusually complex topic or an ambiguously phrased title, it may be necessary to devote a first paragraph to identifying problems and clarifying issues. So, too, there may be cases in which you feel it would be too frustrating to abandon your essay without a suggestive final paragraph to indicate how, if you had space and time to explore more texts or other controversies your argument might develop.
Opening paragraphs seem particularly prone to platitudes and irrelevances, so it may be that you should force yourself to begin with a firmly stated idea which forms the first stage of your argument. You may, instead, be in the habit of offering information about a text's historical period, or the life of its author, or the new taken of it by some famous critic. The effectiveness of a factual opening will depend on your motives. It may be that you are merely trying to postpone facing the real challenge. You just feel nervous. Ideas feel risky. Facts, however irrelevant to the set question's specific demands or your eventual answer’s chosen strategy seem relatively safe. If you are merely doodling your way into an appropriately courageous state of mind, doodle on a separate sheet of paper, not n the first sentences of your essay.
You can test whether your introductory facts are just doodles by asking yourself these questions. Has the fact which I am about to offer been chosen carefully from a sufficient range of candidates? Do I understand how it is relevant to the title and why it is itself unusually throughout provoking? Will my prose immediately explain what that relevance and those thoughts are?
Of course, texts do exist in contexts. Facts about the society that produced them or the ways in which they have been subsequently processed to color the modern reader's approach may by crucial. Nevertheless, you cannot yet hope to be as well informed on some areas as your teacher is. So a factual opening may have the inherent disadvantage of stating only what your reader already knows. If so, it will delay however momentarily, you’re offering something which the reader does not find tediously familiar: the first of your own original thoughts. Another popular ritual for limbering up before the essay makes any pretence of performing its specific task, is a generalized claim to be thinking:
The statement made in the first essay title certainly raises some important issues.
In order to discuss whether this quotation is appropriate or not it is necessary first to decide exactly what it means can only be resolved after careful consideration of some specific passages.
There is no quick and easy answer to this question which truly considerate critics keep such musings to themselves. At an early stage of reparation, they start thinking in more precise terms, defining exactly what the 'Important issues' in this case are, and choosing the' specific passages' which will be most illuminating. What they later share with the reader in an opening sentence is a stimulating idea about just one of these issues or passages. Their essays begin not by asserting thoughtfulness but by demonstrating it in the careful definition of a particular thought.
You can usefully aim for an opening idea that is so peculiarly apt to the set question's demands that, unlike the weak examples above, it could only be used to introduce the specified topic. But first sentences which just restates the title are useless. That is the one piece of information which your reader indisputably has in mind already, having just read it at the top of the page. Here is a question followed by the opening of a feeble answer:
What is there in the poetry of the 1914-18 War besides decent human feelings of outrage horror?
To suggest that first World War poetry is merely used a vehicle to express outrage about the long-drawn-out war and to depict with horror the anguish of battlefield limits the works to being little more than protest poetry and anti-war propaganda.
Here the title's concepts are regurgitated rather than discussed. Some terms are simply repeated ('outrage', 'horror'). Others are translated by synonyms which may sound like variations but actually add no clarification or challenge ('1914-18 War' into 'First World War'). There is no attempt to probe the precise implications of the title's own chosen terms; to expose any hidden premises which these may contain; or to identify problems raised, but not explicitly stated, by the question itself.
Wasting even a portion of your opening statement on re-statement makes a poor first impression. If asked 'What is William Morris's view of the role of literature in political reform?' do not begin: 'In determining William Morris's view of the role of literature in political reform, it is imperative that we should remember'. Do not repeat the title's demands. Begin your response.
Perhaps the most popular of the exercises which may warm up the shivering writer, but eventually chill the reader, is a statement of intent. Here the first paragraph is devoted to summarizing what the rest of the essay will seek to prove. Thus views which may later be interestingly and convincingly argued are at first just asserted. Generalizations which later paragraphs could be going to test and qualify by analysis of specific evidence are first offered as glib banalities. Texts which the essay might eventually explore in detail and discriminate thoughtfully are merely listed; this reveals little more of the writer's ability than knowledge of their titles.
First impressions must influence the reader's response in a critical essay as in any other text: Still, you may have fond memories of some novel even if you warn your friends that it makes a rather slow start. So make a special effort over your opening but do not fret about it disproportionately. Do try to find an immediately interesting point to make at the outset and do take extra trouble over its phrasing. Nevertheless, concentrate most of your efforts upon most of your answer. If that answer maintains a high enough quality of substance and structure, throughout the lack of a dazzlingly perceptive opening will not much trouble your reader or diminish what you have taught yourself by writing the essay.
Endings, with a few obvious adaptations, should be constructed on the same principles as those which I have just outlined for beginnings. Merely winding yourself down and out of the intellectual effort should be as private as the preliminary winding yourself up and into that properly productive mood. The general claim that you have been thinking like the claim that you will be can be no substitute for specific thoughts. Reminding the reader of the essay title should be even more superfluous by the end of your answer than it was at the beginning.
A merely summarizing conclusion is likely to be repetitive and reductive. Like any paraphrase, it is likely to do an injustice to the subtlety and complexity of the text which it seeks to abridge. You will often find that what you had planned as your penultimate paragraph should in fact be the last. If it establishes the final point of your argument, it will probably make a decisively detailed resolution which some more broadly-based summing up would only dissipate.
Admittedly, the position of your closing sentences gives them unfair advantage in any struggle to change your reader's mind. What has been most recently read tends to be most vividly remembered. So an undisciplined examiner may be excessively impressed by a final flourish or give a disproportionately low mark to an essay which falters right at the end into uncharacteristic clumsiness. Most examiners, on most occasions, however, can be relied on to read well. That means reading all of a work with equal attentiveness. Do end as wittily or thought provokingly as you can. Remember, however, that no localized spit and polish here will put a shine on an otherwise dull essay. If in doubt, begin your essay no earlier than the beginning of your argument and, as soon as that argument is complete, stop writing.
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You might now, however, be faced by a question which sounds more generalized. Do not be misled. Admittedly, as an advanced student, you should be gradually learning how to offer more sophisticated thoughts about a wider range of literature; but you will also be expected to support those ideas by more skilful use of specific evidence. Sometimes a title's phrasing will be deliberately vague in the hope of provoking you into thinking and writing more exactly. Choosing - and using - the most localized moments in a text may now matter more than ever. So acquire the habit of chanting to yourself, at every stage of essay composition, 'Specify; specify; specify'.
Clarification or proof
To make evident is to reveal. References to particular episodes, lines or words show your reader the text as you see it. By citing examples you explain just what the patterns are that you have spotted.
Evidence can also suggest the means of persuasion, the facts and factors by which a case can be proved. You need not only to explain what your contentions are but to demonstrate that they are rational. Evidence proves that you are not guessing at a distance but responding to words that all can find on the printed page. What your own prose suggests must be shown to be at least tenable.
Should you go further? Should you organize the evidence into proving that your view is not just reasonable but right? Perhaps striving to change your examiner’s mind is good exercise for your own.
There are various conventions which operate here and their relationship is problematical. Most examiners will want you to develop and express your own opinions but many will still deal harshly with an essay which sounds opinionated. An objective survey of available approaches is often welcomed as one ingredient of a student essay. Yet those students who devote the whole of their answer to reporting the views of others are likely to be condemned for failing to think for themselves.
You can present your case as if you were some honestly polemical barrister consistently arguing for one side in an imaginary court of cultural law. Many essays derive. a useful clarity and vigor from trying to convince their readers that one conclusion is true and the alternative false.
You can, by contrast, attempt the objectivity supposedly achieved by a judge when summing up the conflicting evidence. Here all the relevant facts are recalled and discussed. Contrary views of their significance are explained as neutrally as possible. You can try to give some hypothesized jury of reasonable readers the materials on which to base their own decision.
Your own handling of evidence should probably adopt some compromise between candidly partial advocacy and meticulously impartial judiciousness. Any minimally competent barrister understands that simply to ignore the opposing evidence would be counter-productive. It must be acknowledged and weighed with perceptible fairness before being found wanting. Otherwise, the selectivity will be recognized as grossly misleading and the argument rejected. Conversely, the way in which a judge sums up the rival bodies of evidence must in practice reveal some presence. The relative prominence given to particular tact or the certain ways of interpreting them, will hint advice as to which verdict could seem slightly, but measurably, more appropriate.
Extremes are best avoided. Beware of devoting too much of your essay's energy to persuasion as distinct from exposition. You need to reveal the text and to offer sufficient contradictory examples from it. Suppressing all evidence which embarrasses your present contention could blind you to the more fertile complexities and ambiguities which the texts contain. It may thus deprive your reader of what might have been your most interesting observations.
Excessive diffidence can be just as damaging. The neutral balancing act in which you sustain patterns of opposed but equally convincing evidence may seem graceful to you but could strike your reader as frustrating cowardice.
It may anyway be not just undesirable but simply impossible to disguise all your own beliefs about the deeper issues and murkier problems. Limits of space obviously prevent your reproducing every relevant text in its entirety. Yet such transcription would be the only strategy which could achieve strict accuracy. The episodes which your chosen allusions recall and the localized effects which your selected quotations emphasize will inevitably reveal some of your own priorities. Be conscious of this as you wonder what evidence to include. You can thus identify in time the sillier prejudices which must not be allowed, even through such discreet imputation, to infiltrate your essay. Discriminate these from the more thoughtful principles which can be defended and which your essay should more frankly and systematically support.
Literature tutors, when asked how often a student essay should quote, are likely to wriggle. They may retreat behind some version of that maddening, if honest, non-answer of ‘it all depends.’
If you are in doubt as to whether your essay is in danger of offering too few or too many quotations, err on the side of excess. Most tutors will be less resentful at having to read superfluous extracts from the text than at being required to decode your own prose where, lack of examples has left it bafflingly obscure.
Moreover, copying out quotations, even if some are not strictly necessary to your argument, at least gives you the chance to notice more about their chosen terms and possible implications. So there may well be long-term intellectual gains to compensate for any slightly lower mark on this particular essay. By contrast, composing sentences which are culpably uninterested in a literary work's own choice of language will just reinforce the bad habits of your mind's laziest ramblings.
An essay is an argument, not an anthology. There is no generosity in distributing quotations evenly throughout your essay.
Once you have thus triggered some larger ideas, the process can thenceforward work in the more usual sequence: knowing what you mean to convey, you choose the most useful quotation to clarify and support each point.
A lengthy extract whose significance could be interpreted in numerous different ways may sometimes be essential. You could be arguing that a text's multiplicity of implication often depends on passages where ambiguities proliferate and the reader is compelled to think in many different directions at once. Nevertheless, there will be plenty of other moments where your essay is advancing just one, fairly simple, proposition. Then a short quotation which does not provoke too many other, distractingly irrelevant, ideas is best.
Since quotations should be positioned where they have a precise role to play in advancing your argument, the length of those that you do use must be appropriate. You need to give your reader as many words from the text as are strictly relevant to your present point: no more and no less.
Choosing relevant quotations is not enough. You must explain their relevance.
Your introductory sentence must not be wasted on repetitive waffle ('Here is another highly interesting example of much the same technique') nor on imprecise praise ('The following lines seem to me intensely moving). What the reader must know, before tackling each extract, is the precise point which it is meant to demonstrate.
Do not let your introduction and your quotation become a single, unpronounceably massive sentence. Only the briefest quotations can be understood if they are lodged as mere components within your own grammar. It is usually safest to end your own sentence with a colon before writing out the quotation and then to begin a new sentence after the quotation is completed.
Follow each quotation with some comment upon its, detailed means and effects. Allow the reader to look first at the passage and reach his or her own conclusions as to whether it does broadly confirm your preceding assertion. Then draw attention to some feature whose significance may have been missed.
Extremely short quotations may, of course, be self-explanatory. If they have been lodged at precisely the right stage of your developing argument, the applicability of the few words that they contain will often need no further demonstration. Most of your quotations will, however, be long enough to admit of varying views as to which words matter most. Your own opinion on this should be clear. Invite the reader to notice some specific choice or arrangement of words. Explain why it interests you and how it clarifies the question at issue.
Few students make the mistake of hurrying straight on from a quotation without any comment whatsoever. Many do, however, tend to make a remark which is too brief and too vague.
Similarly, the precise use of date should be used with great caution. The date of Pope's birth 'in 1688' might have been cut as wholly irrelevant to his works in an essay from his works. Would any poem have had to alter its stance or style in anticipation of a significantly different audience if its author had been born a few years earlier or later?
Alternatively, the date should have been used:
Pope was born in 1688: that pivotal year in British history which seems oddly apt to the poet's later, ambivalent stance. The verse is at once deviant in its protests against, and conformist in its compliments to, the values of the English establishment. In 1688, seven bishops of the Church of England were tried for daring to criticize James II's policy of toleration towards Catholics. Yet 1688 later ushered in 'The Glorious Revolution' when the fleeing James was replaced by the confident Protestantism of William III. Pope, the religiously deviant Roman Catholic and yet politically conservative monarchist, creates verse which commutes uneasily between the almost blasphemous subversiveness of 'Eloise to Abelard' and the virtually propagandist reverence of 'Windsor Forest'.
Neither of these expansions has yet arrived at a quotation from any of Pope's poems. Yet each uses specifics (such as titles, for instance) to turn biographical fragments into the beginnings of a critical argument.
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Remember the reader
Never forget that what you are now writing will have to make sense to someone else. If that reader is however indirectly your examiner, you will score points not for what you had in mind but only for what your prose manages to say. Inefficient prose simply fails to communicate. Unless your style speaks clearly, no other virtues or skills which you may possess can be recognized.
Of course all readers need to be motivated. Examiners, too want to be interested. They may even hope to be amused. So try also to inject some vigor into your style. You can raise your reader's hopes with a first sentence which is phrased arrestingly. You can leave behind a good impression with a last sentence which is phrased memorably. The more of the intervening sentences which seem well-written and even witty the better. Alertness to any ambiguities and playfulness which may lurk in the language of your own prose should anyway help you to notice and enjoy more on the verbal games that literary texts are themselves playing.
But an over-ambitiously original style may stumble into pretentiousness or wander away into mere eccentricity. Posturing and whimsicality infuriate some exxaminers, and all resent word-play where it is irrelevant. Ensure that any imaginative expression is indeed designed to express rather than merely impress. If it defines your meaning more precisely or conveys it more economically, use it. If not, settle for a simpler, more direct, phrasing. Some tutors may welcome verbal wit as a bonus. What all insist upon is a style which shows them how much you know and what you think.
Good criticism of literature does not itself strain to sound literary. If you try to use unfamiliar words merely to sound sophisticated, you will just distract yourself from the task of making your meaning clear. Such pretentiousness may even tempt you to use words whose precise meaning you do not know. Then you risk writing gibberish.
Of course, you should aim for a gradually broadening vocabulary: the wider the range of terms from which you can choose, the more likely you are to find those that will define your point with maximal economy, clarity and precision. Moreover, a relatively complex language may be necessary even to think certain ideas. Nevertheless, longer, less familiar words chosen just for their length or obtrusive learnedness will merely slow pace and muffle thought. Compare these alternative versions of the same point:
The play commences by making manifest the ruminations of its hero.
The play starts by telling us what its hero thinks.
The latter is far more likely to help writer and reader into a real curiosity about whether the claim is accurate and relevant. Here are two more examples of pompous circumlocution, each followed by a more direct paraphrase:
Shakespeare desires in the first scene of A Winter's Tale to demonstrate that Leontes is perusing his wife's social gestures towards their guest with close attention and some alarm at the possibility of sexual impropriety.
Shakespeare means in the first scene of A Winter's Tale to show 'that Leontes .is anxiously watching his wife's behavior towards their guest. Already he suspects an affair.
Such a point, however straightforward may still seem Important enough to be included in your essay. However you must eliminate the verbal elaboration before you can decide whether the idea is sensibly unprepretentious or damagingly naïve.
Criticism is addressed to readers now. It is not aimed at the first readers of an eighteenth-century poem or even at the original audience of an Edwardian play. You should use modem English unless quotation marks make clear that you are offering a verbatim extract from some text written at an earlier stage of the language's development.
So good literature should be 'praised' not 'lauded'. Ill tempered characters should be credited with 'anger' not 'ire'. Fast-moving prose may still have 'speed' but no longer 'celerity', and, even at its most efficient, should not now be described as 'efficacious'. Satirists no longer 'mercilessly vilify' those whom they 'abhor' even if they still 'repeatedly attack' those whom they' dislike'.
In your own prose, find modern equivalents for the text’s archaisms and more remotely literary terms. You will then sound properly curious as to what these do in fact mean. You must, however, balance the advantages of a modern style against the need to evoke a text's own, perhaps outmoded, texture. The main mechanism for maintaining this balance is quotation: your own contemporary English introduces the reader to verbatim examples of the text's earlier usages. However, in some cases where it is not appropriate to use quotation marks you may still need to reproduce loyally the text's own archaic terms, It is no use referring to what a Restoration comedy calls a 'serving-woman' as an 'au pair' or a 'daily'. Texts often use a different vocabulary because they reflect a different society.
Write shorter sentences wherever you can. A sentence which you cannot pronounce aloud without pausing for breath is almost certainly too long. Split it in two (or three). Doing so will force you to think more precisely about the various points which your unwieldy construction had tried to combine. Discriminate between these ideas. Work out exactly how they are related. Then express them in a rational sequence of far briefer sentences. Your prose will be at less risk of sounding clumsy or pompous. More importantly, it will make immediate sense.
Sometimes, of course, you may discover that a lung burstingly protracted sentence has not grown as a result of having so many ideas to express. Instead, it is making only one point, but at inordinate length. Then prune accordingly.
Sentences have various purposes. However, each sentence can only be asked to perform one main task if it is to do it well. Ask yourself what each of your sentences means to achieve. If it seems to have more than one function, be suspicious. Consider dividing it into shorter statements.
Here are three of the many tasks that a sentence might be performing. It could be an assertion about how a text (or some part of a text) should be interpreted. It could be a description of what kind of literature or literary device can be recognized in a text. It could be a judgement on how successful a text is. A single sentence can hardly ever contain interpretative, descriptive and evaluative thoughts without muddling them;
Hamlet is essentially about the hero' s struggle for sanity in a world of baffling contradictions but, being a typical tragic drama of its period, it tries to enlist the audience support for an act of revenge and the play is thus often distracted from its subtle characterization of the Prince’s distracted processes by a clumsy pursuit of melodramatic plot.
Clearer though this draft is, it may still ask each sentence to do too much. In the last sentence, for instance, there are two judgments - one positive ('subtle') and one negative ('clumsy'). Perhaps each deserves a sentence to itself.
Moreover, the division into more sentences reveals how many large, ill-defined and unsupported claims are being made here. Perhaps each needs to be followed by extra sentences which offer further definition and supply some specific evidence to show how tenable the idea is. Shorter sentences will not just make your argument clearer to the reader. They may reveal to you in time that the point you were about to make is too bald to be convincing.
You will often have to compose a sentence whose job is to define more precisely the claims made in the previous one. For instance, the suggestion that the play is 'about the hero's struggle for sanity' might be expanded by the following sentences:
Hamlet strives to make sense of contradictions which could drive him mad. There is Claudius, an honored king who has committed a squalid murder. Almost as baffling is Ophelia, a prudish young girl who is willing to prostitute herself as a spy. The hero wrestles with such paradoxes in bewildering isolation, resorting to soliloquy because he is deprived of dialogue. His one surviving parent is in love with his father's murderer and the friends of his student days are now his enemies.
Design a prose-style which pauses frequently to begin a fresh sentence. It will encourage you to move on from a generalized premise and advance to specific points.
Beware of compressing both an idea and the evidence which supports it into a single sentence. The result is usually in elegant and obscure:
It is not so much Hamlet's dark clothing and bitter remarks in the opening scenes as some of his almost reckless behavior in later scenes (his wild gestures towards Ophelia, his rash killing of Polonius) which make us wonder about his sanity (although, of course, it is possible to interpret his apparent madness as feigned for purposes of political prudence until the very end of the play).
The student should have spotted when drafting this sentence that it attempts to use too many different moments in the play. Unless your point is to compare or contrast, a sentence which is about more than one passage is likely to be over-ambitious. Divide it.
Another warning sign in the example above is the use of brackets. Do not interrupt or extend a statement with some parenthetical addition which deserves a sentence in its own right.
The ratio of one sentence to one idea is a guideline not a rule. There are contexts in which each of your sentences may need to encompass a pair of points. Then there may be a risk of monotony and you must consider another guideline: sentences should vary in structure and in length.
In answering 'Compare and contrast' essay titles, your prose may get stuck in a recurring structure. You may repeatedly deploy some formula such as 'On the one hand in X... but, on the other hand in Y', or 'Whereas in X we find A, in Y we find B' . A sequence of sentences where each begins 'Whereas' can be tedious to read. Try to vary your syntax.
The content of the following sentences is meant to offer helpful advice. Their structure, however, should demonstrate the difficulties of reading prose whose grammar is repetitive:
Whereas the dull sentence tends to be long, the interesting sentence is often short. Whereas the dull sentence tends to vagueness and repetitiveness of terminology, the interesting sentence usually deploys precise words each of which is used only once. Whereas the dull sentence tends to offer generalizations which might apply to almost any text, the interesting sentence frequently offers close observation and verbatim quotation. Whereas the dull pattern of unvarying syntax tends to drive one barmy, imaginative variation in the ways that each sentence begins, proceeds and ends may keep a reader awake.
Arousing interest is, however, a secondary consideration. Your first must be the clear and precise communication of your thoughts. If your prose is flexible enough to keep matching its style to its substance, your sentence length and syntax will vary.
The rule requires 'Beowulf achieves [not 'achieved') more than most Anglo-Saxon poems'. 'Romeo loves Juliet' is acceptable; 'Antony loved Cleopatra' is not. You should write 'Jane Austen here means [not 'meant') to be funny'. These are not arbitrary conventions. They are rational practices on which criticism's commitment to precise accuracy depends.
The text which your essay is discussing cannot be recalled as a past event. To do so would imply that it has become a permanently dosed book. In fact, the very existence of your own essay proves that the text can still be constantly reopened, reread and reinterpreted. It is a resource whose present availability is indisputable.
Each reader of a story, even a reader who has read the whole of that story before, begins the first line in imagined doubt as to what the last will reveal. Whenever you are describing some particular episode within a narrative, you should report its events in the present tense. Only this can reflect the tension then present in the mind of the imaginatively curious reader.
There are, of course, remarks about books which do require the past tense: 'I first tried to read Robinson Crusoe when I was still at primary school and did not understand a word of it.' This statement could be a wholly proper one to make in conversation; but you should not write it in your essay. There you must concentrate on what you still understand and value in Robinson Crusoe - however long it may have been since you last read it. The present tense of critical prose helps you to focus on those ways in which a text is still alive, still able to stimulate and modify thought. Such surviving powers - as far as they are discoverable and describable - do belong in your essay. Points where the text is now dead to you should stay buried.
The characters in plays, novels, short stories and narrative poems are similarly only worth discussing because they come to life in minds now. Of course, some of these modem minds may be sufficiently informed and sophisticated to use fictional characters as a means of structuring images of past cultures. Modern readers may use the characters of an Elizabethan play or of a Victorian novel to understand the attitudes of some long-dead generation, and criticism is properly interested in how the first audience of Julius Caesar, or the first readers to buy a copy of Oliver Twist, are likely to have responded. However, your main task in considering characterization is to define the precise way in which a printed text available today still compels its fictive personages to act, and the exact signals by which it still manipulates the reader into a particular view of human nature.
The convention of the present tense discourages sentimental confusion between artificially constructed, literary personages and actual people who once lived as autonomous individuals but are now dead. Fictional characters spring to new life each time a fresh reader opens the text. They are ready to perform the same actions within the same verbal pattern in any passage which a reader may care to find. They are creations, still being produced by the text's choice and arrangement of language. They are thus at once more enduringly dynamic and more repetitively static than human beings. We must eventually die; but until then we can change. They always live to fight another day for some new audience or readership; yet they are confined still within the same lines of recurring signals.
Some modern critical theorists might argue that this exaggerates the difference. Perhaps the supposedly independent and unpredictable lives which we ourselves lead are also preordained by linguistic structures even if these are far more various than those which restrict literary characters. Our vaunted individuality may not be a liberty which we seize but a license which words grant. Perhaps only through words do we become sufficiently discriminating to identify ourselves and sufficiently audible to be recognized by others. Without personal pronouns and personal names, could we tell ourselves apart?
Some critics would now argue that it is the English language that speaks us rather than we who deign to speak it. You may have no individual intellectual existence beyond the innumerable texts which have ordered your thoughts. You will not yourself have directly read most of these texts. Yet their vocabulary and usage may have influenced the phrasing of some speech that you have heard, or contributed to the style of some book that you did once read. They may thus have indirectly determined how you will decode the next of those relatively few works which you will read for yourself.
Perhaps there is a never-ending interdependence through which understanding of one text is programmed by knowledge drawn - however unconsciously - from others. Such interaction may mean that even a work which is now scarcely ever read is still influencing the language in which we shape our ideas. These views - just as much as traditionalist ones - suggest that describing any work in the past tense as if it is a spent force must be misleading.
For not unrelated reasons, authors as interesting, historical personalities who once led idiosyncratic lives seem unimportant to many modem critics. You may still believe that the purpose which a work was designed to serve is discoverable; you may consequently wish to write in terms of its author's apparent intentions. If you do leave the secure grounds of the text to enter the danger zone of literary biography, tread warily. Return as soon as possible to observing only those authorial choices which can still be seen at work in the text. These must be reported in the present tense. Those ideas or actions of an author which are not recorded within the work under discussion may tempt you to use the past tense, but they are likely to be irrelevant. By contrast, where you do instinctively feel that the present tense is appropriate, you are probably responding to what the text's own voice still presents.
Try anyway to reduce the frequency with which you refer to an author and to increase your references to a text: wherever you are about to use a writer's name as the grammatical subject of a sentence, consider substituting the title of a relevant work.
Some tutors specify a minimum number of pages which the essay must reach. Such demands must be met by finding enough to say: not by saying little at excessive length. At every stage use only as many words as are needed to advance your argument, or to make it more comprehensible, or to render it more convincing. Any word which does none of these wastes both your own and your reader's time. It also makes it harder for you both to notice the words that do matter. After composing one verbose paragraph you may be unable to spot, among the mist of superfluous verbiage, the relatively few points which it has made. If so, you will begin the next paragraph with a hazy sense of direction. You may lurch off at a tangent; or repeat a stage of the argument which has already been sufficiently explained.
Your reader, too, wearied by struggling through redundant or repetitive phrases, may be tempted into skip-reading. There is no guarantee that the skipping mind will consistently leap over the meaningless froth, and keep landing on the meaningful stepping-stones. It may do precisely the opposite. Then your essay will not just be criticized for taking too long to say what you think. It will be condemned as failing to demonstrate any thought at all.

Do not begin a sentence with 'I think' or 'I feel' or 'I am not unaware' or 'I hold the view that' or 'It is my own opinion that'. Use your first words for a thought. Do not waste them in announcing that, when you do get around to offering a thought, it will be your own. Your reader is not likely to mistake it for the word of God, or a report by the Arts Council, or some involuntary burp from the collective unconscious.
Similarly, there is no point in writing 'I would argue that' or 'I would maintain that' if you are about to do so. Nor is it helpful to preface your ideas with 'I believe that' or 'I am persuaded that' - unless you have the reputation of a liar. Other wasteful announcements that you are still alive and well and living somewhere in your essay's argument are: 'in my view', 'in my opinion', 'for me', 'as I see it' and 'it occurs to me'. So long as you are arguing and offering evidence - rather than merely making undefended assertions - you will sound sufficiently modest. Labored use of the first-person singular pronoun can in fact make your essay sound self-centered where it should be centering on the text.
Using 'one' or 'we' instead of 'I' might seem less egotistical. Yet these can sound presumptuous in some contexts and evasive in others. They should certainly not be deployed with 'I' to concoct chaos:
One could argue that the individual lyrics of ‘In Memoriam’ are components in a unified artistic whole especially if we, as I do, take Tennyson's overall theme to be, not grief at the loss of a friend, but panic at the loss of religious faith.
There are two escape routes from this dizzying oscillation between self-assertion and passing the buck. The essay could have specified some published critic who advances the view, and then, offering reasons for skepticism, dissociated itself.
Alternatively, the approach should have been phrased as implicitly the student's own:
The individual lyrics of ‘In Memoriam’ are not isolated fragments evoking grief at the loss of a friend. They are components of a unified artistic whole whose theme is panic at the loss of religious faith.
Wherever you feel tempted to use' one', ask whether it represents your own view or that of someone else who deserves specific acknowledgement. When you are about to write 'we', ask who else's agreement you are assuming and how well founded that assumption is. Are you lazily taking your reader's support for granted rather than going to the trouble to argue your case?
At the very least, spare your reader either of these clichés: 'One may therefore conclude that', 'Thus we see that'. Conclusions drawn, and views held, by your essay are known to be your own. If they are feeble, the reader will not be persuaded that the blame lies with some third-party 'one' and will resent being included in a conspiratorial 'we'. If what you 'conclude' or 'see' turns out to be interesting, you should not interpose such empty gestures but allow your reader to reach it immediately.
Perhaps the commonest source of uneconomic writing is a compulsion to say the same thing twice. Repetition rears its ugly heads in such Hydra-like profusion that I can only identify one or two of the most popular formulas below. You must therefore defend yourself by asking, throughout the writing of your essay: have I said this before?
Nervous writers prefer to dress each concept in at least two words as if one on its own might fail to prevent indecent exposure. This belt-and-braces strategy praises the 'emotion and feeling' of some texts while condemning others as 'shocking and horrifying', It describes virginal characters as 'pure and unspotted' or 'blameless and innocent', It describes tougher types as incapable of 'love and affection'. They may even be 'ruthless and unrelenting' in their 'cruelty and viciousness'.
In this idiom, satirists treat unjustifiable 'pride and self-esteem' to 'ridicule and mockery'; or rebuke it, in a 'grave and serious' tone of 'didacticism and moralizing'. They have to protest 'strongly and forcefully' since 'collapsing standards and moral sickness' are 'increasing and expanding'. Indeed the 'adequacy and effectiveness' of 'values and principles' are being 'challenged and questioned'. At the more 'crucial and significant' moments of literary history, saying everything twice may not be enough: after all, 'the Romantics who favored imagination and fantasy' were, according to one student's essay, outgunned by a three-pronged attack from , Augustans who prized knowledge, information and facts'.
The emptiness of such treble-talk, and even of the more common doublings, may look relaxingly obvious when so many examples are removed from their original contexts and juxtaposed. Be warned. Pairs of virtual synonyms can infiltrate even the most vigilant first draft. When revising it, look specifically for every phrase in which 'and' yokes two nouns, adjectives, verbs or adverbs. When you find one, ask yourself: what is the difference between the connotations of these two terms? Has that distinction been explained? Or could both words be suspected of saying the same thing? Of course, if they do turn out to offer almost identical meanings, you must retain the more apt or vigorous term and cut the other.
In trying to eliminate this particular kind of redundancy from your essays, you may have to resist the blandishments of alliteration. Surrender to them will not make you sound 'cunning and calculating', though they too often cause 'fear and foreboding', or even 'torture and torment' in students' essays and tutors' minds. Alliterative redundancies like 'pathos and poignancy' will not meet a 'sensitive and sympathetic' response. Two words which share the same initial letter may sound to you as if they belong together. They do not, if the context allows them to mean much the same.
To avoid another frequent source of repetition, do check your longer sentences to ensure that all are making progress and none is circling back to its starting-point. Beware the kind of sentence which begins 'Hardy is a pessimist' and concludes that 'his novels do not sound hopeful'. Even if intervening clauses between the two halves of such a repetition are full of interesting movement, the surrounding stasis will still bore.
Whatever kind of inattention has led you into a repetition, do at least avoid any labored confession. To tell the reader that your next words will add nothing new is hardly diplomatic and yet versions of the following are frequently sprinkled through students' essays: 'We have already seen that', 'As explained before', 'As I have said earlier', 'It seems worth repeating here that'. To a demanding reader nothing will seem 'worth repeating'. The admission that you know your structure has led you into redundancy but that you cannot be bothered to revise it may seem rudely inconsiderate. Ideally eliminate all repetition. If some does remain, at least be discreet and then, however undeservedly, you may escape censure.
Precision in literary criticism is both a commitment to strict truthfulness and the means by which that is achieved: dose observation. You must, of course, observe precisely what words the text itself chooses and exactly how it deploys them. Only then can you form a sufficiently accurate view of how it works. To express that view dearly and fully, however, you will need to be just as precise in selecting and arranging your own terminology.
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Rough draft into fair copy
If time allows, you should write out your essay in a two-stage process. First, compose a provisional, but complete, draft of all that you intend to say. Think of this not as a 'rough copy' but as a 'working draft'. Do work at it, making additions, deletions and corrections as you write. Add relevant ideas. Cut obscurities and padding. Substitute clearer terms in which to convey your meaning.
A first draft allows you to make as many alterations as spring to mind without your being inhibited by the growing messiness. However inelegant this version may start to look as you cross out some words and squeeze in others, it will still be decipherable by you and only you need to see it.
When you have written out the last sentence of this working draft, read it all through from the beginning. Thoughtfully review and thoroughly revise. Try to find a friend or relative who is prepared to listen while you read it aloud, to ask questions where puzzled, and to offer constructive advice. At least try reading it aloud to yourself. Then you will be able to hear where it sounds confusing in structure or clumsy in style. When you can find no more opportunities for improvement or when there is simply no more time, write out the essay again as a fair copy.
Think of the adjective 'fair' here as a pun. Good-looking work may find favor. An essay which looks beautiful will not, of course, be forgiven for talking nonsense. Yet an ugly one may be thought to contain less sense than it in fact does.
Troubling to produce a fair copy also shows your sense of fair play. You are asking someone to help you. You want your criticism to be carefully studied. You want detailed advice on how it can be improved. So there is simple justice in being courteously considerate and providing an easily accessible route into your work.
In circumstances where there cannot be time for both a fun rough draft and a fair copy - examinations, for instance, - at least ensure that every word of the essay is legible.
Leave space for comments
Conventions of precisely how much space you should offer, and where, do vary. Find out what practice your tutor prefers. In all cases, there must be ample room for your reader to offer two different kinds of advice.
You should welcome specific comments about the more localized means and effects of your essay. So provide an extra margin throughout. If the paper which you are using has a printed margin, you could double it so that there is twice as much space on the left-hand side. Alternatively you could offer an extra margin on the right by stopping early on each line. Also, leave a space equivalent to two, or even three, lines at the foot of every page. This can then be used for lengthier comments on the material above.
At the end of the entire essay leave room for response to the work as a whole. Be optimistic. Allow one-third or even half of a page so that the tutor can easily offer as much constructive advice as time allows.
Titles of literary works
The title of any published book should be underlined. This is the hand-written equivalent of the printer's italics. So what you must write out as The Mill on the Floss, a printed essay would present as The Mill on the Floss. The rule applies not only to novels but also to any play, any work of discursive prose, any long poem or collection of shorter ones which, on its first publication, constituted a single, printed book.
Where a shorter work first appeared along with others as only one component of a volume, its title should not be underlined. Instead, it should be placed in single quotation marks. So the title of Blake's song about London is distinguished from the name of the city itself by being written as 'London'. In this case, the title which you should underline is Songs of Experience, the collection of poems among which 'London' was first printed.
Failure to underline the title of a major work can seriously mislead. Where you write of Hamlet or Robinson Crusoe or Don Juan, your reader must assume you to mean that fictional character. Only when underlined as Hamlet, Robinson Crusoe and Don Juan will they be seen as referring' to entire texts.
Place names too can confuse. If you mention Middlemarch, your reader will think that you mean the town in which George Eliot sets her novel. The novel itself is written as Middlemarch. So, too, Wuthering Heights and Bleak House are the names of houses. The texts which describe those houses are called Wuthering Heights and Bleak House.
To avoid confusion with underlined titles, you must not underline any of your own words or phrases for emphasis. Instead, indicate which should carry most weight by redesigning the syntax of your sentence.
For similar reasons, only the title of a short work or an actual quotation should be enclosed in quotation marks. These must not be used to apologize for any of your own terminology. If you are in doubt as to whether a word that you want to include is correct English or strictly accurate, pause. First try to find some expression which is undoubtedly appropriate and use that instead. If you cannot think of one and must settle for the dubious term, do not add quotation marks. Their defensiveness will merely draw attention to the vulnerable phrasing and virtually guarantee its being attacked.
Titles of scholarly and critical works
Titles of book-length works should again be underlined. So should the titles of periodicals. Titles of shorter essays and reviews which together compose a book or a periodical should not be underlined. They should be preceded and followed by a single quotation mark. So Marilyn Butler's book (on English literature and its background in the period 1760-1830) should be described as Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries. Her two-page review article (about books on Wordsworth) should, on the other hand, have its title placed in quotation marks: 'Three feet on the ground', London Review of Books, 14-20 April 1983. Note that the title of the journal in which the essay was published is underlined.
Make sure that all your quotations are copied out with strict accuracy.
Sometimes, to increase economy and help your reader to concentrate upon what is most relevant to your present point, you may want to omit some portion of the original passage. If so, hesitate. Ensure that no significant misrepresentations will be involved. Where you decide to go ahead and make the omission, indicate it clearly with an ellipsis: three full stops preceded and followed by a space (...).
Try to be meticulous about punctuation, capital letters and spelling. The correct spelling is, of course, that adopted by the text, regardless of modern practice.
Accuracy is more important than any of the other rules about quotations which are given below. Where you break any of the following conventions about where and how to set out extracts on the page, you may seem ignorant of, or careless about, the formalities of literary criticism. But if you misquote, you will sound casual about literature itself. At worst, your reader may begin to wonder whether you are interested in discovering and expressing the truth.
There are two different formats by which to indicate that you are ceasing to write your own prose and are now reproducing an extract from a text. One is for a brief quotation: no more than twenty words of prose or two complete lines of verse. The other is for more substantial extracts.
Shorter quotations should be distinguished from your own prose simply by being enclosed in single quotation marks. In extracts from poems, line endings must be identified by an oblique stroke:
Byron's journals suggest impatience with modern poetry. Keats's verse, for instance, is disdained as 'a sort of mental masturbation' (Letters and Journals, Vol. VII, p. 225). Wordsworth, however, is a less dismissible enigma: a 'stupendous genius' if also a 'damned fool' (Vol. V, p. 13). In Childe Harolde, Byron himself tries out a word-sworthian pantheism: 'Are not the mountains, waves and skies, a part/Of me...?' (Canto BI, stanza 75). The question, however, may not be merely rhetorical. The Alpine landscape, only a few stanzas earlier, has been' said 'to show/How earth may pierce to Heaven, yet leave vain man below' (BI, 62).
A longer quotation is set clearly apart from your own sentences. The correct layout is that which I have just used above in quoting from an essay on Byron. The sentence which introduces the quotation should end in a colon. Then your pen should move down to a new line and write the first word of the quotation at least one inch further to the right than the margin you are using for your own prose. Every ensuing line of the quotation should be indented to this same extent. Each line should also end earlier than lines of your own prose. The quotation is thus framed by additional margins on both sides. Note that the first line of the above extract is no more indented than those that follow. This signals that the quotation does not begin at the point where the original text starts a new paragraph. Had.1 written the quotation's first word a little more to the right than the first word of the following lines, would have been claiming that the extract begins where the original text begins a fresh paragraph.
Where your substantial extract is from a work in verse, the lines will normally be short enough to create the extra space required on the right-hand side. Where they are not, maintain the space by writing out the last few words of each line just below:
As the husband is, the wife is: thou art mated with a clown,
And the grossness of his nature will have weight to drag thee down.
He will hold thee, when his passion shall have spent its novel force,
Something better than his dog, a1ittle dearer than his horse.
(Tennyson, 'Locksley Hall', II. 47-50)
You must reproduce the text's own typography as far as possible. In the example above, for instance, the poem inserts an extra space between each pair of rhyming lines. This may advise the reader on how to shape the poem, interpreting it as a series of couplets rather than some more seamless fabric. So, in quoting the four lines, I have reproduced the extra space between the second and third.
Reproduce the varying degrees of indentation which the text chooses to allocate to different lines:
"How strange is human pride!
I tell thee that those living things, To whom the fragile blade of grass, That springeth in the morn
And perisheth ere noon,
Is an unbounded world;
I tell thee that those viewless beings.
Whose mansion is the smallest particle Of the impassive atmosphere,
Think, feel and live like man;
That their affections and antipathies,
Like his, produce the laws Ruling their moral state; And the minutest throb
That through their frame diffuses The slightest, faintest motion, Is fixed and indispensable As the majestic laws
That rule yon rolling orbs."
(Shelley, Queen Mab, II. 225-43)
The double quotation marks here are reproduced from the text itself where they are used to denote that the lines are direct speech by one of the poem's characters. Never add any quotation marks of your own to extracts which are long enough to be set apart from your prose.
Identify the source of each quotation
Give a clear reference for even the briefest one-word quotation. Then, if the reader should doubt its accuracy or feel curious about its context, there will be precise guidance on where to find the relevant passage in the original text.
The reference for short quotations which are embedded in one of your own sentences can be placed either immediately after the quotation or at the end of the sentence. Enclose it in brackets. .
The reference for long, indented quotations must be given at the end of each extract. It should be bracketed and placed on a line of its own to the right-hand end.
In neither case are there any universally accepted, rigid rules about how full these references should be. However, the guidelines are these. Be accurate. Be clear. Be brief. Where you have not referred to a text before in the essay and it is not a well-known work, you may need to describe it almost as fully as is required for your formal bibliography. Far more often, you can provide sufficient guidance by just giving the number of a chapter, page or line.
If you look back to the above extract from an essay on Byron, you will see that the first quotation from Childe Harolde spells out what the numerals represent: 'Canto III, stanza 75'. This may be necessary as otherwise the reader might momentarily think that you mean line numbers. The second reference, however, can afford to gain the brevity of 'III, 62', relying on the reader to have understood that the roman numerals refer to cantos and the Arabic ones to stanzas.
Notice, too, that neither reference gives the title of the poem. This should always be included where there could be any doubt. Here there is none because, the first quotation is offered in a sentence beginning 'In Childe Harolde'. By' contrast in offering the quotation from Shelley's Queen Mab, I could not reasonably expect you to deduce from my context what work, or even what author, I would be quoting. My reference therefore supplies both, as well as identifying the passage's position in the text by line numbers.
For extracts from plays, it is safest to give the numbers of act, scene and lines. The act is identified first in large roman numerals (I, II, III, IV, V); then the scene in small roman numerals (i, ii, iii, iv, v, vi, vii, etc.) finally the line numbers in Arabic numerals: 'Lear himself has described the division of the kingdom as a "darker purpose" (I. ii. 36)'. Where your context leaves no possibility of doubt about which scene you mean, you can just identify the relevant line: 'In the very first scene of the play, Lear calls the division a "darker purpose" (36)'. If either of these sentences appears in an essay whose topic is clearly King Lear, the play's title need not be repeated within the reference.
You might, however, momentarily need to quote King Lear in an essay on some quite different work. Then the title, too, would need to be included in the reference:
Hardy's characters sometimes seem like the victims of some cosmic, practical joker. Tess of the D'Urbervilles remorselessly teases and tortures its heroine until the very last page. It is only in the closing paragraph that 'The President of the Immortals' is said to have finished his 'sport' with Tess. She has at last escaped further torment by being killed. Hardy's zestfully bitter image recalls some of Shakespeare's bleakest lines: 'As flies to wanton boys, are we to th' Gods;/They kill us for their sport' (King Lear, IV. i. 36-7).
Note that the quotation from Hardy's own text is here given no reference. The context guides the reader unmistakably to Tess of the D'Urbervilles and to that novel's 'last paragraph'
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