GUIDELINES FOR ESSAY WRITING
While most of you have already had experience of essay writing, it is important to realise that essay writing at University level may be different from the practices you have so far encountered.
The aim of this tutorial is to discuss what is required of an English Literature essay at University level, including:
1. information on the criteria in relation to which your essay will be judged
2. how to plan and organise an essay
- Planning an Essay o Essay Structure
- Independence and Critical Reading
- Use of Secondary Material
3. advice on writing style
4. a final checklist
WHAT ARE THE CRITERIA?
In assessing essays, you are asked to bear in mind:
- Relevance to the essay-subject as it has been set;
- A well-defined line of argument, with each stage clearly marked;
- Appropriate, economical, and accurate illustration;
- Mastery of the relevant background material (contextual, critical, theoretical), and evidence of independent and wide-ranging reading;
- Evidence of independent thinking about the subject, and, where ideas are taken from critics, ability to apply them to materials of the student’s own choice;
- Crisp expression. Failure to stay within the maximum number of words set for written work will be penalised;
- Spelling, punctuation, grammar;
- Accurate and comprehensive referencing of sources and list of Works Cited.
HOW TO PLAN AND ORGANISE AN ESSAY
Planning an Essay Careful planning is the key to producing a good essay.
Do NOT begin to write your essay the night before it is due to be submitted.
You should allow yourselves time to consider, plan, write, rewrite and revise, and proof read your essay before its submission.
The diagram and questions reproduced below will assist you in planning your essay.
Your essay should present a discussion and a reasoned argument:
it should not be a set of random reflections on the texts or topic you have chosen.
This will require some planning and organisation of your material before you begin to write, to ensure that your argument is coherent and engages directly with the question asked.
A good introduction is often the key to a good essay.
The first thing you should do is define any complex or potentially ambiguous terms in the question.
This can also be one good way of effecting an introduction. Another is to consider why the question might be asked, what makes it interesting, or why it is relevant to the texts you are considering.
You might also use your introduction to outline briefly your intentions in writing the essay: but remember that for a 1,000 or 2,000 word essay the introduction will necessarily be brief.
The body of the essay of the essay should relate to the issues you outline in your introduction. It also needs a coherent structure:
if you have used your introduction to identify the key issues of your discussion, structuring the essay becomes easier, as you can address these issues in separate paragraphs.
Make the links and transitions between paragraphs clear. Remember that every paragraph and sentence should contribute directly to your argument.
Your essay needs to strike a balance between argument and supporting evidence.
Avoid unsupported generalisations. Stating that ‘society is a patriarchy’ or that ‘evil is more interesting than good’ without offering evidence to support the assertion is little different from claiming that ‘the earth is flat’ or ‘tall people are more intelligent than short ones’.
Even your more particular points about texts or issues always need supporting evidence, often in the form of quotations from the texts. Remember that you may need to explain how your evidence supports your point.
Your essay needs a conclusion to avoid it petering out and losing its force. You might use the conclusion to draw together the threads of your argument, to re-visit the original question, or even to point towards new questions that your discussion has opened up. Whatever your conclusion, you should use it to step back slightly from the detail of the preceding argument to re-consider the wider picture.
INDEPENDENCE AND CRITICAL READING
The purpose of an essay is to develop and present your own thinking about the texts and issues raised by the question.
All essays are likely to draw on ideas taken from others, whether from critical books, lectures or discussions.
But clearly an essay is not intended to be simply an anthology of others’ ideas: those ideas should only be introduced in order to form and advance your own argument, which is both the substance and the purpose of the essay.
USE OF SECONDARY (CRITICAL) MATERIAL
Critical books and articles are often useful in stimulating your ideas about the literature you are writing on.
It is also important to develop some awareness of the ongoing critical debate about works and literary issues; sometimes you may even be asked to write about the critical or theoretical works themselves.
But ideas and words from other writers should never simply replace your own, either directly, or in the form of paraphrase.
Quoted or paraphrased thoughts and words from another critic should be included in the text of your essay only if you wish to say something about them. You may want to take issue with them, or to develop them, or to illustrate a particular view which you then discuss.
It is not helpful to quote from or paraphrase critics simply because you think their words sound more authoritative than your own.
While you will often draw on other critics’ ideas, you need to distinguish their words and opinions clearly from your own.
Students should exercise caution and care in the use of paraphrase in particular.
It is imperative that the reader should always be able 7 to distinguish your voice and argument from that of the critics you cite.
So avoid simply ventriloquising critical arguments and conduct instead a critical engagement with them. For example, do not accept interpretations in critical works as matters of fact; demonstrate to the reader of your essay the ways in which you have produced a thoughtful response to the critics that you have employed.
If you do not ensure that there is no confusion in an essay about the origin of its arguments, you will find that your readers are unable to judge your arguments. You will also lay yourself open to a charge of plagiarism, which is a serious academic offence.
University level essays should be written in a formal style and demonstrate your understanding of the codes of academic discourse as they relate to the study of English Literature.
While there are variations between different disciplines, there are three main characteristics that are common to all academic essays. These are:
- An overriding concern to interpret and make meaning through the presentation of arguments;
- Careful attention to the marshalling of relevant and valid facts, examples and other kinds of evidence to substantiate or refute arguments and interpretations;
- A structure or organisational framework which has not been chosen arbitrarily, but is instead designed to present arguments and evidence in a coherent and logically appropriate form
Clarity and expressiveness of language is obviously particularly important in essays on literature, and the development of an accurate and engaging writing style is one of the aims of a degree in this discipline.
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