English Writing Guidelines

  • I. What should my essay include? What are the parts of a literary-critical essay?

    1. Title

    A clear phrase setting out what text your essay treats and what about that text your essay considers. Briefer is almost always better. A title should offer a sense of the essay’s purpose in a way that makes the reader want to read it.

    2. Thesis

    A coherent, controvertible statement that is worth arguing. The thesis should take on a problem that matters to people who want to understand the text fully.

    3. Motive

    A sense of why your argument is worth making. Convey the import of your argument and situate it in context. Some common motives include variations of the following: the truth about the text is different from what is initially apparent; other critics have read the text wrongly; the text presents a question that has an answer in the text itself; something about the text that seems unimportant is actually important; the form of a work (language, etc.) contradicts the ostensible content of a work.

    4. Introduction

    A brief paragraph that sets up your argument and makes your reader want to keep reading. Avoid overly vague or grandiose introductions (“Human emotion in times of grief...”) and clichéd introductions (e.g. “The dictionary defines x as…”)

    5. Evidence

    Material from the text that you cite to prove your contentions.

    7. Analysis

    Explanations of what your evidence means and how. Point out how a quotation or other evidence bears on your argument. A quotation is never self-explanatory. As a critic, you must explain what the quotation signifies.

    8. Paragraphs

    Organization clarifying the various sub-arguments that make up your main argument. Each paragraph should include an argument/topic statement, evidence for the argument/topic statement, and an explanation of how the evidence proves or explains your argument/topic statement. (There are exceptions, but this is the basic template.)

    9. Overall Organization

    Direction for your essay. Your paragraphs should move in a logical order that develops your argument progressively, adding richness and complication.

    10. Anticipation of objections or complications

    Proof of your critical awareness. Your essay should imagine and refute objections to your argument, if they are obvious, and should acknowledge complications within your argument.

    11. Conclusion

    A graceful ending for your essay. Do more in your conclusion than restate everything you have argued. Here, you can suggest more plainly why your argument matters or you can open your argument to broader questions. Be careful, though, not to change your argument or digress in the conclusion.

    13. Works Cited Section

    Documentation of your sources. Every essay must have a works cited section, even if the works cited section contains only one entry. Use MLA citation style. See Part VI of the writing guidelines for more information.

  • II. How do I write a close reading essay?

    A close reading essay relates meaning (what the text says) and form (how the text says it).

    In a close reading, do not write about what the author/creator intended to do. Do not write about what a reader/viewer will feel when experiencing the text. Instead, speak about what the text is doing. Your arguments must be about the text; your evidence must come from the text.

    Here’s a good way to go about writing this essay:

    1. Gather Data

    Re-read or re-watch the primary source. If the text is written, read it aloud. If the text is a film, watch the relevant portion multiple times. Make sure you understand every word, image, and reference. Look up unfamiliar terms.

    Think about the main ideas or general area of thought. What does the text say or argue? What is it trying to figure out? What are its preoccupations?

    Consider the formal choices of the text. Ask questions such as: How does the text begin and end? What is noteworthy about its language? What is noteworthy about its structure? What about point of view or speaker? What about occasion and audience? What patterns or repetitions do you notice? Are there any important instances of allusion or figuration? In the case of poetry, what about lineation, meter, rhyme? In the case of prose, what about structure, characterization, emplotment? In the case of theater, what about stage direction and setting? In the case of film, what about camera angles, cuts, scene construction, and music?

    Imagine the text otherwise. How would the text be different if it didn’t do X, Y, or Z? This is often a good way of figuring out what X, Y, or Z contributes.

    As you do this thinking, mark up your text. Circle, underline, etc. Make notes.

    2. Assemble ideas.

    Take stock of your observations about form and meaning. Note how most of them (or the best of them) come together or relate. Not everything that you noticed will necessarily be a part of your essay. Figure out the main insight that you wish to convey and which evidence you will use.

    3. Draft a working thesis statement

    Make a clear, controvertible argument about how some aspect of form creates meaning in your text.

    4. Figure out the sequence and organization of your argument

    What are your argument’s key components and how should they be arranged? You may want to consider an outline. Or you may want to write a less formal series of notes. However you do it, make sure that you have a plan for your essay overall before you begin to write.

    Then, draft an opening paragraph which includes your thesis statement.

    5. Compose a draft

    After you do so, put your draft away—for a few hours, at least, or for a few days, at best. Distance will help you to see your draft more objectively.

    6. Revise

    For revision strategies, look at “Reorganizing Drafts, “Revising Drafts,” and “Reverse Outlining” on this Writing Center page.

    Look carefully at your thesis statement, especially. Does it match your essay as a whole? Remember that writing is thinking. As you write your draft, your thinking can—should—develop and change. Your opening might need revision by the time you write your conclusion.

    7. Make necessary changes to create your final draft

  • III. How do I write a literary-critical essay that engages with other critics (i.e. a scholarly article)?

    A scholarly article is longer than a close-reading essay and makes a more complex argument. Close reading is still essential. It helps you to discover your thesis and provides evidence for your claims. But in a scholarly article, you also situate your ideas in a scholarly conversation of other critics who have spoken about the same topic. In addition, you use theoretical texts to illuminate or clarify issues in your primary text(s).

    1. Finding a Subject

    Think about what issues you want to address and/or what texts you want to analyze. Your goal is to determine a question worth asking about a text/issue, and then to frame an answer. (The answer will be your working thesis.) Your answer must matter to other people who want to understand the text or issue in question and to other scholars who have written about the text or issue in question.

    2. Why and How of Research

    Research will help you to discover, refine, and deepen your argument. It will then help you to set your argument in conversation with other critics.

    Remember that research and writing are recursive. You will research, begin writing, research more, write more, etc.

    Remember that you should pursue different forms of research simultaneously: close reading and searching for critical articles, for example.

    3. Kinds of research

    Besides the main primary text, you may need additional primary source materials that offer evidence, background, contextualization, and amplification. Remember that the choice of primary materials can be part of your argument.

    Think about how you wish to frame your discussion. What theoretical or methodological approach will serve your purposes? You may need scholarly/theoretical articles that explain your theoretical lens or methodological approach. Here again, your choice of material is part of your argument. Combining aspects of two theories or methods, for example, may allow you to say something new and important about a text.

    Find what other literary critics have said about your topic and/or main primary source. This knowledge will help you to show why your idea matters and to refine your topic. In choosing these critics, you are assembling a critical conversation. When you include certain sources in your bibliography (and then, later, in your essay), you are arguing that these sources have something to say to each other and that you are part of their conversation.

    4. Finding and Evaluating Sources

    Use the skills that you have learned in CALM lab to find and evaluate sources.

    Be sure that you engage with the most important (influential) scholars who have written on your topic. Don’t waste time refuting sources that seem negligible or that have had no influence.

    How do you know what is important? The best way is to see what critics other critics mention and engage.

    You can also tell what is reputable and worth considering by looking at the source/venue of publication. In general, books published by presses affiliated with major universities (Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Chicago, Stanford, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Berkeley, Rutgers, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, etc.) are reputable and worth considering. Journals affiliated with major university presses (Chicago, Hopkins, Duke, Oxford, Cambridge) are reputable and worth considering. The name of the journal will not always tell you whether or not the journal is published by a major university press. Check the publication information. Journals affiliated with major scholarly organizations (PMLA is the most important for literary studies) are also reputable and important. Most journals affiliated with author societies (The Emily Dickinson Journal) are fairly reputable, too, though this rule is more case by case.

    You can always ask your professor whether a source seems reputable.

    As you research, remember that what you don’t find can be as important as what you do. If you identify gaps in criticism, you can describe how your analysis fills those gaps.

    5. Engaging with Other Literary Critics

    Other critics’ opinions about the text you analyze are not evidence for your claims. Material from primary sources is evidence for your claims. Do not cite other critics as backup. Cite them to describe the conversation in which your essay takes part.

    Often, this description helps you to form the motive of your essay. Your thesis matters because it takes up a question that critics have been arguing about already, and answers it in a new (better) way. Your thesis matters because it notices something that other critics have missed. Your thesis matters because it revises something that most critics assume.

    There are three basic moves that you can make regarding other critics: extend, modify, or counter. Extending agrees with a position, but takes it further. Modifying agrees with some of a position, but shifts the focus or argument somewhat. Opposing disagrees with a position, and suggests why an alternative argument is better.

    Your description of the critical conversation, along with your explanation of how your thesis changes this conversation, should only be as long as is necessary for your paper. In one standard model, this comes as a paragraph after the opening paragraph. Describe your thesis, then describe the critical conversation, then describe your method, then begin proving your thesis while using your method. There are other ways to do it, but this model is a good place to start.

    6. Drafting and Revision

    Especially when writing a long piece of work, try to give yourself space between composition and revision.

    For revision strategies, look at “Reorganizing Drafts, “Revising Drafts,” and “Reverse Outlining” on this Writing Center page.

    When revising, look carefully at your thesis statement, especially. Does it match your essay as a whole? Remember that writing is thinking. As you write your draft, your thinking can—should—develop and change. This means that your opening might need revision by the time you write your conclusion.

  • IV. What should a prospectus and working bibliography include?

    Your prospectus should be in organized paragraphs, written for a scholarly audience. It should include:

    1. a working title;
    2. a guiding question or questions (if you have more than one, make sure they are related) and a sense of why these questions are important;
    3. a working thesis, which is a provisional answer to your guiding question, and which should be clear, controvertible, and worth arguing;
    4. clear indication of which primary texts you are using as well as a sense of why you are using these and not others;
    5. clear indication of which passages within the texts you will closely read and a summary of what your close reading so far has found;
    6. description of your methodology, which may include mention of the secondary theoretical texts that you will use in your essay;
    7. description of how your argument fits into the scholarly conversation about your topic/primary source, according to what you have found in your preliminary research of secondary critical texts.

    Your working bibliography should follow the prospectus. It should list sources (your professor will tell you how many are required) with full citation information in MLA format. After each source, write a brief paragraph of one to three sentences describing the source and saying how and why you will use this source. For scholarly articles: identify the critic’s main methodology and argument. State how and why you will engage this argument. For theoretical articles: describe how the terms, priorities, and/or concepts of the theorist help you to think through your argument. Why are these ideas relevant? For primary sources: Describe what work the primary source will do or what context it provides.

  • V. What are some dos and don’ts of literary-critical prose?
    1. Craft your sentences from clear nouns and active verbs.
    2. Don’t rely on the passive voice or the verb “to be.” Activate your syntax.
    3. Don’t use too many adverbs and adjectives. Keep your prose concise and authoritative.
    4. Don’t use overly long subject phrases. Make sure the agent of your sentence is clear.
    5. Don’t use overly long dependent clauses, especially at the start of several successive sentences.
    6. Avoid using “the fact that” at the start of sentences.
    7. Don’t state that something is interesting, noteworthy, significant, telling, etc. Simply state the interest or significance.
    8. Avoid descriptions of what “the reader” or “a reader” (or “the viewer” or “a viewer”) will think or feel. If you are using a reader-response methodology, this phrasing may be appropriate. Often, however, this construction appears (mistakenly) in sections of close reading and analysis. In that case, edit out this construction. Argue about what the text is doing rather than what the reader will do. You have evidence for the first and (probably) no evidence for the second.
    9. Don’t use “I feel” or “I think” at the start of arguments. Use “I” to position yourself among other critics or to clarify what you intend to do. “I feel” or “I think” is unnecessary and weakens your authority.
    10. Imagine your reader as an intelligent, generally-educated person who has read the primary text in question but may not remember all of its details. You do not need to teach this reader basic information (“Shakespeare was a playwright...”) but you may need to remind him/her of pertinent specifics (“Many Shakespeare comedies invoke a green world....”).

    For more sentence-level tips, check out this page at the Writing Center.

  • VI. How should I cite sources? What do I need to cite?

    Please consult the Dickinson College library website’s excellent and thorough guide to citing, this Writing Center presentation on “how not to plagiarize,” and the examples of citation at Purdue OWL.

  • VII. How should I format my essay?

    Please follow this document [pdf] for all questions of format.