ESSAY WRITING GUIDE
(refer detailled queries to
the MLA HANDBOOK or the Faculty Essay Writing Guidelines)
Each essay consists of an
Introduction, a (for want of a better term)
Body, and a Conclusion.
- Answer the Question (Q.) asked right
away and continue to hammer at it throughout (this will be your
- Do not merely regurgitate the
wording of the Q. Paraphrase the key terms given in the Q.
Reserve longer and more precise definitions for Foot/Endnotes.
- Give an outline of the main argument
to come by offering a brief preview of the main points which
you will develop in the Main Body of your essay.
- Specify the
title(s) of any
literary text(s) you will be looking at. Do not refer to a text
vaguely as a ‘book’: what sort of book are you dealing with, an
encyclopedia? A play? A novel?
- A suitable length for your
introduction is 5 - 10 lines--any longer means that you are going into too
much detail here.
- Each of the main points mentioned in
your introductory paragraph must be dealt with in a separate paragraph. In
effect, each paragraph is a self-contained unit that, theoretically,
can be extracted from your essay and yet still make complete sense. If you
mention six (6) points in your introduction, the main body of your essay
should, ideally-speaking, consist of six (6) paragraphs. Where a single
paragraph threatens to grow out of hand, it is permissible to divide it.
Determine for yourself what logical order best suits the sequence of
- Each paragraph should be structured
according to the formula P.D.I.:
- The opening sentence of each
paragraph should make your point,
thesis statement or
sentence crystal clear.
- Your next sentence(s) should be
devoted to an in-depth development,
of your point. Leave nothing to chance and take nothing for granted:
always assume that your reader is ignorant and not that (s)he
will automatically understand your intention. Your task is to
communicate and to fully explicate the topic.
the point you have been seeking to prove. In the case of a literary
essay, this will involve making close reference to the text in question
either by paraphrasing or directly quoting from the text.
Do not be content, however, to merely quote: it is your job,
after doing so, to explicate the quotation in order to show that you
understand. Hence, do not end a paragraph with a quotation. (In
the case of other kinds of research papers, other forms of illustration
are necessary [e.g. statistics, historical or scientific documentation,
- A useful way of beginning your
Conclusion is ‘In conclusion, . . .’. Do not begin with ‘Therefore,
. . .’: it is not a maths problem.
- Reiterate your
your position on or response to the Q.).
- You may also want to present a brief
review of your argument.
- Your Conclusion is also the place
for any conclusion(s) which you may have come to (as is often the case) in
the course of writing your essay.
It is preferable,
if you have access to a computer, to use a word-processor which today
allows you extensive editing capabilities. If you must write it out by hand,
do your best to write legibly.
your lines. The benefit of this is that it permits you to see your own
errors more clearly and gives your reader room to make his/her comments etc.
Always respect the
assigned because it could endanger your performance, given the
time-considerations that may be involved. (Some examiners even stop reading
after the limit has been reached.)
Write out the Q.
somewhere at the head of your paper (do not waste time doing so in an
exam, merely number the Q.). Constantly refer to it throughout and let it be
your guide (this is equally indispensable in an exam).
Avoid verbal diarrhoea: be
succinct. Avoid ‘beating
about the bush.’ Do you recognise such ‘polyfilla’ as ‘In the
Shakespearean Renaissance play Hamlet, . . .’? Or ‘Mr.
William Shakespeare, who wrote poems as well as plays, is here saying .
. .’? Remember that ‘meandering’ like this is usually a ploy
designed to gain you enough time to think about a (difficult) question
but really only wastes time in the long run.
and to avoid repetitiousness.
scholarly tone rather than a colloquial one.
verbose phrases or sentences that, while seeming to say much, actually
say precious little. For example, what does this sentence (drawn from an
actual essay), which purports to be very scholarly in appearance, mean:
‘The author manipulate [sic] the theme being portrayed in the
case of these fair stories it is the theme of alienation where the
characterisation develops around the theme to enhance it.’?
tendency, especially at higher levels within academia, is to identify to
your reader the stance from which you are writing and which inevitably
shapes your criticism (e.g., ‘As a working-class black woman, The
Color Purple has special significance for me . . .’), it is still
advisable to avoid making personal and subjective intrusions
‘I think that . . .’ or ‘It appears to me that . . .’ or the ever
popular ‘It is the opinion of this writer that . . .’).
exclamation marks must be followed by two
subordinate clauses: for example, ‘In this novel, the theme of
human mortality is . . .’ or ‘Here, . . .’
abbreviate (e.g.. ‘don’t,’ ‘can’t,’ etc.). Write these out
in full (e.g. ‘do not,’ cannot,’ etc.)
In discussing the
events depicted in a literary text, use the
consistently throughout, even though most texts are written in several past
tenses. For example, ‘Hamlet quarrels with his mother in Act Three’
or ‘We are told in the fourth chapter that Rupert
responsible for the death of his mother. He
does not stop crying for
Always read over
what you write with a ‘fine-tooth comb,’ looking for errors not only in
terms of content but also in terms of grammar,
and sentence construction. Marks are lost for
deficiencies in any or all of these areas.
the titles of:
novels (e.g. Women
in Love) and plays (Hamlet);
poetry (Eliot's Selected Poems)
short stories (Arrival of the Snake Woman);
Heath Introduction to Poetry);
(Dollimore's Radical Tragedy); etc.
the titles of
individual poems (e.g. "The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock");
("Arrival of the Snake Woman");
scholarly journals ("The Image of the Indo-Caribbean Woman in
Olive Senior's Arrival of the Snake Woman"); etc.
Note, too, that the first letter in the most
important words in a title are capitalised. [Cf. MLA HANDBOOK
DOCUMENTING YOUR RESEARCH
The higher you reach within academia, the more research
(reading and studying around the subject in question) becomes indispensable. In
literary studies at the university level, it is advisable to read a selection of
commentaries on the literary text in question. The notion of an original and
untutored thought does not hold much water today: your insights into a
particular text are rarely (if ever) solely and uniquely yours. They are most
often, rather, the product of a history of previous readings, methods of
interpretation and ideological world views to which one has been exposed.
Therefore, it is important not only to ‘read around’ the subject in order to
expand your intellectual horizons but also to openly acknowledge this process by
crediting your sources in a list of Works Consulted in order to be
intellectually honest and to avoid the charge of
research papers and dissertations must
be accompanied by a list of Works Consulted, consisting both of all
the primary text(s) (the one[s] you are studying and writing on) and all
the secondary sources (critical commentaries, etc. written on the former)
to which you make reference or upon which you draw in some way.
This must be
set out strictly according to the format dictated by the MLA Handbook,
which specifies that entries must be compiled in
alphabetic order, and
that each entry must be laid out according to a certain
of punctuation. For example:
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Bernard
Lott. Essex: Longman, 1968.
Derrida, Jacques. "Différance." Critical
Theory Since 1965. Ed. Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle.
Tallahassee: U of Florida P, 1986. 120-136.
Where all works consulted are documented in the Bibliography,
it is not necessary to repeat this information in the form of
Foot/Endnotes. The latter remain an alternative and equally viable means of
documenting your research. I prefer to draw up a comprehensive list of Works
Consulted and to make use Foot/Endnotes only in order to clarify points made in
the essay with information which may not be directly relevant to the topic in
For a fuller listing of examples of the differing formats of
both bibliographical items and Foot/Endnotes, see either the MLA Handbook
or the pamphlet Student Guidelines for the Preparation and Documentation of
Essays prepared by the Faculty of Humanities at Cave Hill. The latter is an
abbreviated version of the former.
QUOTING A LITERARY TEXT
It goes without saying that all works quoted in this way
must be itemised in the list of Works Consulted. Students may,
alternatively, make use of Foot/Endnotes to document the reference in
quotations must be placed in double inverted commas. A
special effort should be made to make the quotation fit smoothly into the
flow of the sentence. For example, ‘Hamlet begins his soliloquy by clearly
contemplating suicide: "to be or not to be" (3.1.56), he asks.’
Or ‘Irene’s alienation as a child is worsened when she is called a
"country Bumpkin" (29) by the other children.’ Where a short
passage from a poem is cited, every effort should be made to indicate the
end of lines by means of strokes and to respect the original punctuation.
For example, ‘Eliot’s point in "Preludes" is that there is no
meaning to life: "The worlds revolve like ancient women / Gathering
fuel in vacant lots" (53-4)’
must be ‘isolated’: that is, they must
begin on the line following the point you are trying to illustrate and be
doubly-indented (i.e. indented both on the right and the left). Such
extended quotations must not be placed in inverted commas. The same
effort, however, must be made to incorporate such quotations into the smooth
flow of the paragraph. Note, in this regard, the importance of the correct
punctuation and the usefulness of a simple colon in the following example:
‘Selfishness is a prominent theme in this short
story. Mr. Smith not only estranges outsiders but also the members of his
Peace came at a price, oh, a terrible price not
only for himself but for everyone with whom he had any contact. Day
in, day out, he pored over his collection of stamps, huddled in the
dimmest of lights, the hunger gnawing at his stomach, the gold
glittering in his eyes, his son, all the while, dying of consumption.
The cost of Mr. Smith's obsession is nothing less than
the life of his son.’
Note that, instead of utilising a colon after ‘family,’
a full stop might have been used, followed by ‘We are told that’. Note,
too, that the paragraph does not end with a quotation but with an
where a part of a
quotation is omitted, students should use three (3) dots with a space
in between each. For example, ‘Eliot’s point in "Preludes" is
that there is no meaning to life: "The worlds revolve . . . vacant
lots" (53-4).’ (Students should always be very careful in this regard
lest any quotation appear too truncated.)
write ought to be related to the Q. Constantly reassert and hammer at
your thesis. (Avoid, however, incessantly repeating the very same terms and
yourself the following questions: Did I do enough research? Did I answer the
Q.? Did I interpret the topic correctly? Did I treat it in sufficient depth?
Is the evidence I utilised both relevant and adequate?
- Do not simply
story--your examiner/teacher can do that for him/herself. You are not
writing a summary. It is your job to explicate, to analyse and to comment on
what you have read, while demonstrating a detailled knowledge of the text.