Writing a Literature Paper
· A few reminders before you write. . .
· Your paper will NOT necessarily answer all the questions in the prompt. These questions are designed to get you THINKING. You must decide what to focus on and what INTERPRETIVE POINT to argue.
· A topic is not a thesis. A series of observations that are true but not debatable may be excellent notes for a paper, but they are not (yet) interpretive analytic writing. Until you say something debatable about the topic which can be supported by textual interpretation, your paper has no interpretive focus (there is no debatable thesis).
· Be sure that your essay conforms to the standards outlined in this handout and Basic Steps in Writing a Literature Paper and on the ESSAY EVALUATION CHECKLIST (which I use when grading written work). PROOFREAD CAREFULLY to ensure that you do NOT make the mechanical or stylistic errors listed on the checklist!
· Your essay should be approximately 1000–1100 words and have a title which suggests the topic/thesis of your paper and should include citations from the literary texts for support. See the “Documentation” section of this document and Basic Steps in Writing a Literature Paper for proper format and information to include.
Choose one question from the list of suggested PAPER TOPICS and use it to formulate a thesis to argue in this paper. (Note: while you should think about all parts of the prompt as you plan your essay, you willnot necessarily answer every part of the question as you construct your argument.) Paper should be 3-4 double-spaced, typed pages in a 12-point font, with 1″ margins on all sides (approximately 800-1000 words). Number pages with a page header. Your paper should NOT be significantly longer than these limits; grades are based in part on how well you adhere to the parameters of the assignment. Beware: I will notice over-sized (or under-sized) fonts and extra-large (or teeny-tiny) margins!!
Follow the guidelines provided here (not what you were asked to do in another class) for correct line spacing, indentation and documentation. Be sure to PROOFREAD for spelling, punctuation, and basic grammatical errors, as well as for clarity (clearly stated thesis; logical development of argument; adequate and relevant textual support; solid conclusion.) Consult the ESSAY EVALUATION CHECKLIST both BEFORE and AFTER completing your first draft, and make sure you do not commit the sort of mechanical and stylistic errors listed on the checklist!
Remember that your paper should be textual analysis, not summary: you will cite carefully chosen examples from the readings in order to support a specific argument about them. The best analogy to writing a good analytic paper is a lawyer arguing a case in court. Both lawyer and paper writer must build a carefully constructed argument to prove the validity of a debatable point. Your client is analogous to your text and/or general topic; your client’s “plea”—guilty or innocent of what specific charges—is analogous to your thesis. Like a good lawyer, you should begin with an opening statement (the introductory paragraph) which fully articulates your thesis and suggests how you will structure your argument. While your opening paragraph should not get into the specific examples you will discuss in the body of your paper, it should indicate what kinds of evidence you will use to make your case. You will support your thesis in the body of your paper (approximately three pages independent of your introduction and conclusion) by citing carefully chosen examples from the primary text(s) to demonstrate the validity of your thesis.
The Introductory Paragraph The first paragraph of your paper should not only identify your topic, it should make clear precisely what you will argue ABOUT that topic. This information is your thesis, the central message of your paper. A thesis is not simply descriptive (a statement of facts)—it takes a position on a debatable point based ontextual interpretation which could conceivably be argued another way. For example: “Maternal imagery in the poetry of Mary Wroth” is a fine TOPIC for a paper. But simply stating that Mary Wroth uses maternal imagery in her poems is descriptive (there is no debatable point, and thus no thesis). To move from atopic to a thesis, you must explain what message that imagery communicates and/or why she may have chosen to use that imagery; this “what” and “why” are the interpretive thesis you will argue in your paper. To account for the “why,” your introductory paragraph should include any background information which is essential to your argument (but do not pad it with random “factoids”—accurate facts that are not directly relevant to what you will argue in your paper).
A good introduction sketches out the parameters (but not the details) of the argument you will make in support of your thesis. (Save specific examples and quotation for the body of your paper.) It can be particularly helpful to include this “roadmap” of your essay in in-class writing (e.g. on an exam) since doing so forces you to think through the logical structure of your argument rather than charging off in a wrong direction. Even if you do not include this information in your introductory paragraph, thinking through where you are going before you write will add clarity to your paper, helping you to set up aparagraph structure dictated by the logic of your argument (rather than, for example, the order in which textual evidence occurs in the text you are writing about). It can also help your reader to see where your paper is going.
Do NOT begin your paper with truisms, statements of personal philosophy, generalities, or examples from modern life; get to your point, which is an interpretation of the primary texts. You have a limited amount of space in which to make your case; don’t waste it on a “hook.” (You already have my full attention.) Avoid using the first or second person (I, we, you) in constructing your argument, which should be presented as objectively as possible. The implication of first-person references is that your paper is just a statement of personal opinion, and thus no more valid than opposing opinions; why should the reader care what you think? Instead, aim for a tone of objective neutrality, which is rhetorically more effective than a statement of opinion (“I believe”; “I think”) in convincing the reader of the objective validity of your argument.
Argumentation The body of your paper (approximately three pages independent of your introduction and conclusion) provides textual support and analysis to demonstrate the validity of your thesis. Be sure to keep your paper analytic rather than descriptive. A summary of events or list of examples is NOT textual analysis; you must have something to say ABOUT the examples you cite.
Provide a separate paragraph for each step in your argument, with appropriate transitions between them. Order paragraphs according to the logic of your argument (not the order in which the citations occur in the primary text). Or, if your paper requires the analysis of different kinds of textual evidence that do not have obvious logical connections between them, start with the most general, simple, obvious or concrete points and examples and move to the most specific, complex, subtle and interpretive ones.
Provide three to four pieces of carefully chosen textual evidence per paragraph (i.e. in support of each step of your argument). Follow up on your citations with a line or two of interpretation before moving on to a new example or a new idea (opening a new paragraph). Be sure to explain the relevance of the material you quote to your argument—don’t just stick it in and expect it to speak for itself. Textual evidence must be interpreted for the reader.
To return to the lawyer analogy, citations from the text are like testimony, the evidence you must interpret for the judge and jury. Your analysis of those citations is the cross-examination of witnesses and/or interpretation of the evidence–what will make or break your case. If you don’t make your points explicitly, they are not entered into the court record and cannot be considered by the jury (your professor) in deciding whether or not you have successfully defended your client (proven the validity of your thesis)–nor can they be considered by the judge (also your professor) who assigns the final grade. The Concluding Paragraph The least important part of an effective paper, the final paragraph can be short and sweet. Use it to sum up your argument without going into so much detail that you repeat the body of the paper. Remind the reader of the debatable point you set out to prove and of the steps in the argument you have made. The best conclusions also offer some final insight or twist, a new thought that grows out of what you argued in the paper–but avoid assertions that are so unconnected as to require a whole new paper to back them up. Don’t end your essay with a quotation–it’s your paper, so you, not someone else, should have the last word.
QUOTATIONS AND DOCUMENTATION IN LITERATURE PAPERS
I. Identifying Sources The source of every quotation used in your paper must be identified so your reader could find that quotation easily, but formal footnotes are not required. As long as your paper discusses only works of literature from the textbooks or handouts used by the whole class, there is no need to give complete citations for documentation. It is still necessary, however, to indicate the source and page numbers for each quotation you use in your paper. Use the following convenient method in your papers.
A. If you quote from one work of literature, use the following method:
B. If you quote from more than one work of literature in a paper, give the source in parentheses after the first quotation from each work (as in A.1. above). Thereafter, give a shortened form of the title, or an abbreviation of the title, and the page number, in parentheses. Examples from Scarlet Letter and Daisy Miller: Hawthorne informs us that Pearl “became the richest heiress of her day, in the New World” (SL 259). Someone has remarked that she grew up to be the heroine of a novel by Henry James, someone like, say, Daisy Miller; Winterbourne’s observation that Daisy’s “glance was perfectly direct and unshrinking but not . . . an immodest glance” could have been written about Pearl (DM 7). C. If your primary source is a literary work published separately, rather than a required course anthology, be sure to indicate, after the first quotation, what edition you are using. Example: Hester fears “that poor little Pearl was a demon offspring,” as the neighbors had whispered (The Scarlet Letter and Other Tales of the Puritans, Riverside Edition, 97). NOTE: Page references do not have to come immediately after every quoted phrase, or after every sentence in a paragraph with several short quotations from the same place. It may be less awkward to save the page reference until the end of your sentence, or sometimes the end of a paragraph, as long as it is clear where each quotation comes from. If you are quoting from a short poem, give line numbers rather than page numbers in parentheses (e.g., l. 15). Use of secondary sources (online sources, electronic sources, reference books, critical books and articles, etc.) are required in this paper. Doing your own analysis of the literature is most important in this assignment. However, if you have obtained any idea or information from another source besides your own head and the primary work(s) of literature, you must indicate the source of that fact, idea, or quotation, whether or not you are quoting the source directly. It is your responsibility to know how to document secondary sources accurately, using an accepted documentation system for academic papers (preferably the MLA documentation style), and avoid plagiarism.
II. Guidelines for Using Quotations A. Use Quotations Sparingly. When you quote, keep each quotation short and select only phrases or sentences that support your analysis through their especially distinctive wording. There is no reason to quote the full text of an incident or a long speech when you can paraphrase it or just mention it. Too many quotations can make reading awkward and confusing; they will distract the readers, rather than impressing them. B. Quote Accurately. If you are quoting indirectly (i.e., the author’s exact words are not used), quotation marks are not necessary, but you must be sure to convey the author’s ideas accurately, without distortion. If you use a phrase, sentence, or more in the author’s own words, copy the quotation accurately, word for word, with punctuation and quotations marks placed properly. Consult a handbook, if necessary, for conventions involving placement of punctuation in relation to quotation marks, use of ellipsis dots (. . .) to indicate words omitted in direct quotations, and use of square brackets [ ] to insert something in your own words into a direct quotation. Quotations more than several lines long (which should be used rarely in short papers) must be indented and single-spaced, with no quotation marks. C. Introduce Quotations Smoothly. In short papers, try to keep each direct quotation to a phrase you can include in a sentence of your own. A quotation of any length must be introduced smoothly; don’t just plunk it down in the middle of your discussion. You usually need to introduce it with a transitional phrase guiding the reader from your thoughts to those of your source. Repeat the title or author’s name only when necessary to make the introduction clear and smooth. Example: As Melville indicates in “Bartleby the Scrivener,” “Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance” (358). III. Quoting from Poetry and Plays A. Quoting Verse: When quoting poetry in the context of your own sentences, use a slash mark to indicate the end of a line and retain the capital letters found at the beginnings of lines in the original. When you indent long quotations of more than three lines, slash marks are not necessary. Example: Hamlet muses, “To die: to sleep;/No more: and by a sleep to say we end/The heartache” (III. i, ll. 60-62). B. Identifying Lines from Poetry and Plays: 1. If your paper quotes only one or two relatively short poems, give the source and page numbers of each poem in parentheses after the first quotation, but identify later quotations by giving line numbers. (l = line; ll = lines) Example: In “Tintern Abbey” Wordsworth describes his “serene and blessed mood” (l. 41). 2. When quoting from plays, it is customary to identify act, scene, and line numbers when the play has them, or just use page numbers and line numbers if you are quoting from a play or long poem in a course anthology. Examples: (Act IV. ii, ll. 17-18) OR (p. 1028, ll. 17-18)
Your analysis then continues, double-spaced, below the indented, single-spaced quotation. Note that for indented block quotations, final punctuation precedes the parenthetical reference; for quotations within the body of your text, final punctuation of quotation follows the parenthetical reference.
Reminders Be sure to consult the ESSAY EVALUATION CHECKLIST (which I will use in grading your papers) both BEFORE AND AFTER writing your first draft. Proofread carefully, and be sure that you do not make the errors included on the checklist!
Don’t forget to give your paper a title which identifies the authors or work(s) discussed and gives your reader some idea of what you are arguing (your thesis). The paper title should not be underlined or italicized, but the title of most primary texts should be. (Exception: the titles of individual lyric poems are enclosed in “quotation marks,” not italicized or underlined.)
Avoid using the first or second person (I, we, you). The implication of first-person references is that your paper is just a statement of personal opinion, and thus no more valid than opposing opinions; why should the reader care what you think? Instead, aim for a tone of objective neutrality, which is rhetorically more effective than a statement of opinion (“I believe”; “I think”) in convincing the reader of the objective validity of your argument.
Use the present tense in writing about literature. The past tense is appropriate for discussion of historical context or to refer to events that occur before those recounted in the text, but keep discussion of what occurs in the text in the present tense.
As necessary, modify citations so that the quoted passages fit smoothly into the syntax of your sentences. Be sure to indicate any changes in the citation using [square brackets], not (parentheses), since parentheses could be part of the material you are quoting. Indicate any omitted words or lines with ellipses [. . .].
Remember: this essay is NOT primarily a research assignment. Limit citing secondary sources. As appropriate, you may bring in information from virtual discussions, the Longman Anthology introductions and the study guides. To avoid plagiarism, be sure to state this information in your own words–do not cite the guides or introduction directly.
On italics vs. underlining: either is acceptable, but pick one and use it consistently — don’t use both in the same essay.
If your essay does not meet the minimum standards of MLA style (Proper running page header, proper heading, double spacing, Black Times New Roman 12 point font).
See attached MLA Style Guidelines document above.
Avoid these major errors in MLA style with the following scoring deductions:
No running page header: 5-point deduction No heading: 10-point deduction No title: 10-point deduction Incorrect font style: 20-point deduction Incorrect spacing: 40-point deduction
World Literature Studies Essay Guidelines
Consider topics for your essay from the following list of questions. You do NOT have to answer all of the question listed under a given topic when you write your paper. These topics are designed to help you come up with a POINT to explore and support. Think about them as you decide what to focus on and what interpretation you will argue in your paper. Remember: these are ONLY topics; unless you have something to PROVE about the topic, your paper will have no thesis. Be sure to consult any resources you may have, including Basic Steps in Writing a Literature Paper as you work on this paper.
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