Writing about literature [Archives:2005/838/Education]

May 2 2005

By Dr. P.A.Abraham
Professor of English
Faculty of Education
University of Sana'a
[email protected]

Literature students are often asked to write a research paper on a given topic from literature courses. Here are some guidelines for the aspiring literature students who intend to write a research paper.

When you write an essay about literature, you develop an idea about a literary work or works- an analysis of the point of view of a story, a discussion of the theme of a poem, an examination of a character in a play, a comparison between two works etc. Before you begin your writing, you should make certain that you understand your assignment. Ask yourself the following questions:

– How much time do I have to complete my essay?

– Am I expected to depend on my own ideas, or am I supposed to consult reference materials in the library?

– Should the essay focus on a specific work or on a particular element in literature?

– Do I have to write on an assigned topic, or am I free to choose a topic?

– What should be the approximate length of my essay?

– Do I understand exactly what type of assignment I am supposed to do?

Sometimes your assignment limits your options by telling you what you are to discuss. For example, topics like “Write a short essay on Robert Frost's use of imagery in his poems” or “Discuss Hawthorne's use of allegory in The Scarlet Letter” can be asked. Sometimes, however, your teacher will give you no specific guidelines other than a paper's length and format. In such situations, where you must choose a topic on your own, you can find a topic by brainstorming or by writing journal entries. As you engage in such activities, you must keep in mind that you have many options for writing papers about literature. For instance:

– Compare two works of literature

– Compare two characters or some attributes of those characters.

– Try to find a common theme-jealousy, revenge, and repression, coming of age-in different literary works.

– Consider how a common subject-war, love, nature – treated in different works.

– Examine a single element in one or more works- for instance, plot, point of view, or figurative language.

Focus on a single aspect of that element, such as the use of flashback, the effects of a shifting narrative perspective, or the use of metaphors.

Think of analyzing a work of literature using a critical theory like feminism, Marxism, Structuralism, Post structuralism, Modernism, Post modernism etc.

Examine some aspects of history or biography and consider its impact on a literary work-for instance, the influence of Hemingway's World War experiences on his fiction. Some of these options may lead you to an interesting topic. Remember, however, that you will still have to narrow the scope of your topic so that it fits within the limits of your assignment.

Once you have decided on a topic, the next step is to say something about it. The information that you have already collected will help you to formulate the statement that will be the central idea of your essay and lead you to ideas that can support that statement. Besides, you may discuss ideas with your friends, classmates or teachers. You may try to get more information from your college/university library. You may freewrite – that is, keep writing on your topic for a given period of time without pausing to consider style, structure or content. Brainstorming, keeping a journal, and listing are also helpful. When you brainstorm, you jot down ideas-single words, phrases, or sentences; statements or questions; quotations, paraphrases, summaries, or your own ideas- as they occur to you, moving as quickly as possible. Your starting point may be a general assignment, particular literary work (or works), a specific topic, or even a thesis statement; in fact, you can repeat this activity, as often a you like.

Similarly, keeping a journal can help you to find a topic or a thesis. In a journal you can expand your marginal annotations and go on record your responses to works you have read, note questions, explore emerging ideas, experiment with possible paper topics, try to paraphrase or summarize difficult concepts or speculate about the ambiguities of a work. You can use a journal to try out new ideas that may seem trivial or unimportant, which may come handy later on. You can also use your journal as a convenient place to collect your brainstorming notes and later, your lists of related ideas.

Listing is the process of examining the notes you collected through brainstorming, journal entries etc. Here you decide the relevant materials and arrange them into categories so that you can determine a direction for your essay. As you prepare to list, review your information and consider the categories your notes suggest. Then after writing down these categories, list specific information under each heading. As you list information, you will discover new ideas and new connections among ideas. Listing will enable you to see repeated images, similar characters, recurring words and phrases and interrelated themes or ideas. Identifying these patterns will help you to decide which points to make in your paper and what information you will use to support these points. As your ideas become more focused, you will add, delete and rearrange material.

After completing your listing, you should try to express the direction of your thinking in a tentative thesis- a statement, often expressed in a single sentence, that the rest of your essay supports. This idea, which you will develop as you write, should emerge out of your highlighting, annotations, brainstorming notes, journal entries, and lists of related points.

An effective thesis tells readers what your essay will discuss and how you will approach your material. Consequently, it should be precisely worded, making its point clear to your reader. As you organize your ideas and as you write, you will probably modify and sharpen your tentative thesis. Sometimes you will even begin your essay with one idea about a work and end it with an entirely different idea. If this happens, be sure to revise your support paragraphs so that they are consistent with your changes and so that the points you include support your new thesis. If you find that your thoughts about your topic are changing, remember that this is how the writing process works. As you write you will discover new ideas, and your essay will become better.

Once you have decided on a tentative topic and have some idea of how you will support it, you can begin to plan your essay's structure. Quite often, an outline can help you to shape your essay. Not all writers prepare outline, but many do at some point in the writing process because it helps them to clarify their ideas and the relationship of these ideas to one another. Realizing, however, that they will discover many new ideas as they write, even these writers seldom use a detailed formal outline, preferring a scratch outline that lists just the major points that they plan to make.

A scratch outline is an informal list of the main points you will discuss in your essay in the order in which they will be introduced. As its name implies, a scratch outline is rough, lacking the detail and the degree of organization of a more formal outline. The main purpose of a scratch outline is to give a shape and order to your paper and thus enable you to begin writing. Once this outline is complete, the student is ready to write the first draft.

The first draft is not a finished product but a preliminary version of your paper, something to react and revise. Still, before you begin to write, you should be familiar with one of the most common ways of arranging information: thesis and support. In a thesis and support paper you present your thesis in your introduction, support your thesis in the body paragraphs of your essay, and restate your thesis or summarize your points in your conclusion. Knowing this basic method of organizing information will not only help you to write your first draft, but also help you with the revision that you do later. Before you daft your paper, you should review the material you have collected to support your thesis.

First make sure that you have collected enough information to support your thesis. The judgments you make are only as convincing as the evidence you present to support them. As you read and took notes, you collected examples from the work or works about which you are writing.- summaries, paragraphs, or quoted lines of narrative, verse, or dialogue- to back up your assertions. Just how many of these examples you need to use in your draft depends on the nature of your thesis and how skeptical you believe your audience to be.

After you have carefully evaluated your supporting material, you can begin drafting your essay, using our scratch outline as your guide. Your goal is to get your ideas down on paper, so you should write quickly. Your first draft is naturally going to be rough and will probably not achieve the clarity of thought that you want; still, it enables you to see the ideas that you have outlined begin to take shape.

The next step is to revise your draft, may be several times, using your own responses as well as those of your classmates and your teacher. Go through your essay carefully, step by step, the thesis and the supporting ideas. See that in the introduction, you have specifically identified the works to be discussed and indicated the emphasis of the paper to follow. The introduction should create an interest in your topic and include a clear statement of the essay's thesis.

In the conclusion you restate your thesis or sum up your essay's main points and also make a graceful exit.

When you have revised your introduction and conclusion, you should begin to focus on your body paragraphs. Be sure you have communicated your ideas properly with clearly worded topic sentences, statements that present the main ideas of your paragraph.

Next, focus on the special stylistic conventions that govern essays about works of literature. For instance, use present tense verbs when discussing literary works (Santiago is a major character in Hemingway's novel The Old Man and the Sea). Use past tense verbs only when discussing historical events (Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage deals with a battle that took place during the American Civil War), presenting biographical data (Samuel Taylor Cole ridge was a close friend of William Wordsworth's), or referring to events that took place before the time of the work's main action (Hamlet's father was murdered by Claudius, his mother's new husband). In addition, do not use subjective expressions like, I think, in my opinion, I believe, it seems to me, I feel etc.

Then, see that all references to sources are integrated smoothly and documented properly:

– Acknowledge all sources, including the work or works under discussion, using a standard documentation style like Modern Language Association (MLA)

– Use quotations only when something vital would be lost if you did not reproduce the author's exact words.

– Integrate quotations shorter than four lines smoothly into your paper. Make sure that you set off quotations with quotation marks.

– Set off quotations of more than four lines by indenting ten spaces from the margin. Double space, and do not use quotation marks. If you are quoting a single paragraph, do not indent the first line.

– Use the correct reference formats for fiction, poetry, and drama. When citing a part of a short story or novel, supply the page number (123); for a poem, give the line numbers (3-5); for a play, include the act, scene, and line numbers (II,ii.17-25).

Once you have finished revising, edit your paper to make certain that grammar, punctuation, spelling, and mechanics are correct. As you edit, give particular attention to the mechanical conventions of literary essays. For example, titles of short works and titles of parts of long works- short stories, short poems, and magazine or journal articles- should be in quotation marks (“The Diamond Necklace”); titles of long works- books, long poems, plays, and newspapers and journals, for example- should be underlined or set in italics (Man and Superman; The Yemen Times).

Moreover, refer to authors of literary works by their full names in your first reference to them and by their last names in subsequent references. Never refer to them by their first names, and never use titles that indicate marital status (Virginia Woolf or Woolf, not Virginia or Miss Woolf). You must also be careful to avoid confusing narrator or speaker with author; feelings or opinions expressed by a narrator or character do not necessarily represent those of the author. For example, do not say, “In the poem 'Patterns' Amy Lowell expresses her anger” when you mean that the persona- the speaker in the poem, who may or may not be the poet-expresses anger.

Once the editing is complete, go through the entire paper once again word-by-word, line-by-line and when you are wholly satisfied, your paper is ready for submission.