English 120/121/122/123

Dr. Russell A. Potter
 

A brief guide to preparing your essay for this class


1. Subject of your Essay

Your essay may be based upon an analysis of any of the texts or films which we have read or viewed in our class during the period covered by the paper.  You may, if you wish, address issues raised by more than one text or film, though in that case I would caution you that you will need to carefully limit the terms of your comparison so as to make it manageable in this short essay form.  I know that, for many of you, five to seven pages seems a long essay, but in terms of the kind of issues and sources which this paper needs to cover -- as well as in terms of the academic essay as a form -- space is limited.

2. Your Essay Should Have an Original Thesis, supported by relevant quotations from the book(s) or film(s) in question.

What is a thesis?  It's hard to do better than to follow Aristotle's old rule, which is that, if a reasonable person would agree to it without being persuaded, it is not a thesis.  Things we all agree on are statements of fact, and a thesis must be a statement of opinion.  Furthermore, the opinion must be linked to supporting evidence. Examples of statements which are not theses:

• Graham Swift writes a lot about the landscape.

• Shakespeare's Tempest is about a clever magician named Prospero and his daughter Miranda.

• Pleasantville isn't a very pleasant film.

A thesis can be based upon statements such as these, but it must go one to offer both a) A sense of what your criteria are for greatness, humorousness, or strangeness, and passages from the text which embody it; and b) Your opinion as to how this quality affects your reading of the text, laid forth in such a way as to urge your readers to consider, and possibly accept your view.  Rewritten in this way, the above statements might look like this:

• Graham Swift's sense of how the landscape shapes human lives reveals an uncomfortable truth about people: we are where we are from.

• Shakespeare's Tempest is a play which is filled with magic, but underneath all the spells and spirits, it's basically a family drama.

Pleasantville pretends to be a light-hearted parody of the sanitized world of 1950's sitcoms, but grows darker even as it grows more colorful.

3. Omit Needless Summary

As a corollary of rule two above, merely summarizing the plot does not a paper make.  Papers with more than a minimal amount of summary will be returned ungraded for revision. How much is too much?  If there's more than a paragraph of summary, you probably have too much.  Use summary only when absolutely necessary to place an example from the text in its necessary context, e.g. "In the section of The Tempest where Prospero gives the history of the island, he seems relieved that his daughter can't remember much about her upbringing This seems strange, because . . . " The writer in this passage gives us just enough context to recall the section of the story relevant to making her or his argument.

4. Old "Rules" that you should be sure to ignore

You may have heard it said, "Never use 'I' in a paper, because you're not an authority on anything."  This foolish piece of advice is often handed out by high-school English teachers who, rather than wishing to teach people something, prefer to humiliate them, crush their self esteem, and ensure their future boredom by eliminating all traces of independent thinking.  I implore you to ignore this wearisome injunction -- to write a critical essay, you MUST use the pronoun "I," and use it forcefully!

"The thesis statement must be the last (or first) sentence of your first paragraph . . . " Your thesis statement need not be at any particular place -- instead, it depends on how you approach your subject. With a deductive essay, one which states the conclusion and then sets off to prove it, your thesis should be explicit and stated somewhere early on; however, with an inductive essay, one which first makes observations and then gradually weaves about to its conclusions, your thesis may be in the last paragraph of the whole essay.

"Your second paragraph should be a concession to an opposing view," "Your last paragraph should repeat or recapitulate your argument," "A good essay should be eight paragraphs in length," "Writing well simply means following a formula." Kindly ignore all rules of this sort, as they only produce essays which are as tedious to read as they were to write.

5. If you're having trouble thinking of ideas for your essay . . .

Sometimes the best way to get a paper started is to come up with a list of questions.  Begin with asking yourself what aspect of the reading most fascinated (or frustrated) you, and why -- but ask other questions as well.  Try to come up with at least six or seven.  Then, see if these questions relate to one another -- try "distilling" your longer list into one or two *most important* questions.  Then begin to see where you might find evidence with which to answer these questions -- you can use a highlighting marker to note them in the text.  Read these passages over with care -- try to put the finger on the precise reasons why you felt as you did about the book.

In the case of a film, try renting the film for yourself, and playing the scenes which most affected you over a few times (use slow-motion if you have it).  Examine the technical aspects of the scenes -- what is the role of light, of color, or background music or scenery?  What about the camera angles, the editing, the special effects?

From this structure, you should be able to come up with a working outline, which will involve stating your questions, giving the evidence, and ultimately deciding what your answer(s) may be.  List you main points, and under each one, your supporting evidence.  Flesh out your observations, using as detailed and specific language as possible.