Miss June's Tips for Writing a Literary Analysis Essay
Before You Write The Essay Polishing Your Final Draft Examples
Following are some tips to help you complete the writing assignments in this class. Remember that writing about literature isn't that different from what you wrote about in Freshman English. The same basic principles of good writing still apply. You're being asked to write persuasive essays (just as you were in English 1002) where you interpret a set of facts. Your interpretation of the facts should be supported by evidence from the text. If, for example, you're writing that Dracula is a parody of Christ, what evidence in the text can you find that demonstrates the similarities between these two?
Before You Write
BEGIN EARLY!: Begin your assignment as soon as you receive it. If you are writing a standard out of class essay, generally you'll know the questions a month in advance. Begin making notes and perhaps even write a very rough draft. If you are writing an exam, then look over the questions as soon as they're made available to you. Remember that writing is a process, and it is extremely important that you give yourself enough time to think about the material and to write multiple drafts. Writing is more than just a way of putting your ideas into a more permanent format. It's also a method of thinking. You'll discover that as you write, you will also think. At any rate, give yourself time to write multiple drafts, whether you have a month or 24 hours to complete an assignment. Also, space out your writing time to give yourself the opportunity to walk away from your work and view it with fresh eyes. If you are writing an exam question, I suggest you work on and off during the small time allotted to you rather than simply whipping out one draft in a two hour space of time.
AUDIENCE: You can assume that your audience is already familiar with the work(s) under discussion, so it is not necessary to explain the plot. However, do use plot summary and direct quotes from the text(s) to support your assertions. Also, please document any material from the text, whether you've quoted it directly or paraphrased it. If you are unsure about how to document your sources, consult any freshman English grammar handbook (such as the Scott, Foresman Handbook for Writers or the Harbrace College Handbook) or the MLA Manuel of Style or these websites: MLA Citation Machine, MLA Style Manuel for Bibliographies and Parenthetical Citations.
A COMMON MYTH ABOUT WRITING YOU MAY HAVE LEARNED IN HIGH SCHOOL: For some odd reason, many students are taught in high school that an essay consists of five paragraphs: an introduction that tells readers what you're going to tell them, three paragraphs in the body that convey the main information, and a conclusion that tells readers what you told them. This structure may be useful when students are first learning how to write an essay, but is too limiting to accommodate the complex topics considered in college, and is just plain boring. An essay does not have to have five paragraphs. A good essay has as many paragraphs as it needs to contain a thoroughly developed argument.
EXAMINE THE ESSAY QUESTION AND THE GENERAL GUIDELINES: Be sure to go over the essay question you have chosen to answer. Throughout the writing process, you should refer to the question several times to ensure that you haven't veered away from your topic (which is easy to do). Also, familiarize yourself with the general requirements of the essay. What is the length minimum? How must your file be labeled? When is the due date?
TAKE NOTES OF YOUR OWN AND USE OUR CLASS NOTES: While you may or may not take notes during class lectures, I strongly encourage you to at least mark significant passages in the material you read. You might also wish to make notes while we're viewing films so that you can remember significant information. Also view the class notes that I have listed on our web site. Reviewing these resources will make it easier for you to find evidence to support your ideas. Also know that you will be able to use your notes, your books and our class notes during exams.
REVIEW THE TEXT(S) UNDER DISCUSSION: It's also a good idea to review the texts under discussion. Re-read any short stories you are writing about and skim any novels (you probably won't have time to re-read them). Likewise, re-view any films you may write about, as you will find new details with subsequent viewings.
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FIRST PARAGRAPH (INTRODUCTION): The first paragraph must be a thesis paragraph, not an introduction with a one sentence thesis statement. Your first paragraph should contain at least 3-4 sentences summarizing your main points. It should include language from the original question, but also incorporate your own ideas. Below is an example of a thesis paragraph.
Dracula is a parody of Christ. Like Christ, Dracula promises eternal life, and to receive this eternal life, one must drink Dracula's blood. However, whereas the eternal life promised through Christ is one free of the humiliations and limitations of the human body, the eternal life promised by Dracula is a life of eternal bondage to all the worst aspects of the physical world.Do not wait until the end of your paper to summarize your ideas: summarize them at the beginning. In the real world, people have more to read than they have time for, so they want to know up front what you have to say and hence, whether they should bother reading it.
Finally, since your first paragraph introduces the body of your essay, you won't really know what it should say until you are close to writing the final draft. Be sure to re-examine your introductory paragraph from time to time and assess how well it summarized your essay's main points.
Also, your introductory paragraph should not predict what you will do. For example, do not write "In this essay, I will discuss how Dracula is a parody of Christ." Just do what you say you will do.
THE BODY OF THE ESSAY: The first sentence (usually called the topic) of a paragraph should be a thesis sentence. It must assert something specific and definite that the paragraph goes on to prove. The thesis sentence for a paragraph dictates a program for that paragraph.
"Al Bundy is a shoe salesman" is a bad first sentence: almost anything could follow it, and it doesn't tell your readers anything they don't know. "Al Bundy embodies the longings of the common middle-aged American man" is a better first sentence--it asserts something that can be argued rather than merely stating facts your audience is acquainted with.
The last sentence of the paragraph should restate your main point in some fashion, to "lock it up" in the readers' minds.
One note of caution: don't put any new ideas in the middle of your paragraph, or in the middle of your essay, for that matter. However, that doesn't mean that new ideas should be banished when they arrive during the writing process. Instead, revise the paragraph, and the introduction, to include these new ideas where the reader would expect to see them, in prominent places such as the beginning of the paragraph or even the introduction to the essay. (This is one of the fantastic things about writing on a computer--it's so easy to make these changes.) Failure to do so gives readers an annoying "surprise."
FINAL PARAGRAPH (CONCLUSION): A well-written essay should end climactically. Contrary to popular belief, a conclusion shouldn't merely restate your ideas (perhaps in case the reader fell asleep while reading your essay?), but should present the logical conclusion to your line of reasoning.
WRITE MULTIPLE DRAFTS: I said this earlier, but it's extremely important and bears repeating. Write multiple drafts of your essay! Give yourself time to walk away from your work so that you can reconsider it with new eyes and revise!
CONSULT YOUR NOTES AND OUR CLASS NOTES: You should also consult your own notes and our class notes during this part of the writing process. While it is helpful to view these resources before you begin writing, looking at them again is also useful during the more active phase of the composition process.
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Polishing Your Final Draft
DON'T GET TOO ATTACHED TO THAT FIRST VERSION OF THE INTRODUCTION YOU WRITE: When we write, we generally begin at the beginning, but this can be difficult to do when writing an introduction, since an introduction is supposed to summarize the thesis of the essay, and how do you really know what you should say in this part of your essay when you haven't written the other part yet. Sure, you may have a clear idea about what you will say in the body of your essay, but you never really know what you're going to say there until you've actually written and finessed that part. You could do the sensible thing and write the body of your essay first, but you won't. People rarely do this. Remember that irresistible impulse to begin at the beginning? So go ahead and write that introduction that's founded on shaky ground (because you don't quite know what that ground is). It's not a big waste of time.
RE-EXAMINE YOUR CONCLUSION: Go back and look at your conclusion once again. Is it really supported by what you've said in the body of the essay? Would someone reading your introduction expect to see the conclusion you've drawn? Have you done more in your conclusion that simply summarized what you've said earlier? Have you introduced new ideas in your conclusion, ones that the reader would have questions about and would have logically want to have examined in the body of your essay? Remember, your conclusion is no place to bring up new ideas.
PROOFREAD!: After you are relatively satisfied with the big parts of your essay (introduction, body, conclusion), pay attention to smaller things. Remember, God is in the details. Rid your essay of awkward and wordy phrases and errors in grammar and spelling. Try reading your essay aloud to detect those sentences that just sound funny. You'd be surprised at what you can "hear" but not "see" in your work. Check out the following link for help proofreading: Grammar. Also, remember to make sure you spell the names of characters, places and authors correctly. They are right there before you in your book. And if you are writing about a film and aren't sure about the spelling of an actor's or character's name, visit the Internet Movie Database for clarification.
I strongly encourage you to use spell check, but don't think it's a substitute for proofreading. Spell check can tell you if you've misspelled a word, but won't tell if you've misused a word. And don't rely on grammar check. It's useless. English grammar is a complex thing, and computers may be complex, but they're not that smart. The binary logic used by computers at this time doesn't allow for a program to "know" if your grammar is correct, since grammar is often a matter of context. Proofread manually. Some writers find that they can better see their mistakes if they print a copy of the essay, as it can be difficult to find errors on the screen.
WRITE MULTIPLE DRAFTS: Remember that writing is a process of discovery. In a sense you have to "pull" ideas out of your head and put them down on paper (or up on the screen), and the most painful realization of all is that not all of these ideas are good. Some of them are pure crud. However, it's generally difficult to tell genius from crud until it's expressed in writing. Therefore, leave yourself open to discover what ideas are solid, and what ideas just don't work. Don't feel that you've wasted your time, or aren't writing "right" simply because you don't write something letter-perfect the first time. (Hint: professional writers also write many drafts before they get it "right.") Then, when you write the body of your essay, and see that it differs from what you've said in your introduction, don't feel bad about changing your introduction. You haven't wasted your time at all, but have instead engaged in a normal part of the writing process.
GIVE YOURSELF TIME TO ASK FOR HELP IF YOU NEED IT: Remember, if you are in doubt about the quality of your writing and how well you are meeting the requirements of the assignment, it is your responsibility to come see me with a rough draft. One of the purposes of office hours is to consult with students about their written work in progress. I strongly suggest you take advantage of my time (which you have, after all, paid for through your tuition dollars). Also note that it is important to begin your assignment early (preferably as soon as it is given) so you'll have enough time to go through all the steps of the writing process, make any suggested revisions, and to visit the Writing Center when needed. You have been plenty of time to complete your writing assignments in this course. Use that time wisely so you can do a good job. Otherwise, you have no one but yourself to blame if you don't receive the grade you wanted.
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Finally, click on this link to view actual examples of essays written by my past literature students: Examples.