Note: this document was originally written for first year students
about to write their first essay on Kurt Vonnegut. I've revised it to
make it more generally applicable. Since the standard that it asks for
is high, it applies, certainly, to strategies for writing assessed essays
in the first year and in the second year of the English course, and indeed
to the third year dissertation.
The ideas that are in it are only my ideas. Other lecturers may disagree;
so may you. Please read this, as anything else you read, not passively,
but critically.If you find it's not useful, don't use it: go ahead and
1. What is an essay?
- An organised collection
- of YOUR IDEAS
- about literary texts
- nicely written
- and professionally presented .
In other words, the essay must be well structured (ie organised) and presented
in a way that the reader finds easy to follow and clear: it must look
tidy and not present any obstacles to the reader. It must have a clear
readable interesting style. But, above all, it must consist of your ideas
about literary texts. This is the centre of it: this, and this only, gets
the marks. Not quotes from critics, not generalisations at second hand
about literary history, not filling and padding; your thoughts, that you
have had while in the act of reading specific bits of literary texts,
which can be adduced in the form of quotations to back up your arguments.
2. Why write in
2.1 Learning how to write professionally
In the English Department you learn how to respond to literary texts.
This is an interesting and worthwhile thing to do, but unless you become
a teacher of English remarkably few people in later life will be interested
in your thoughts about Jane Austen. What they will be interested in (I'm
talking about potential employers now, but not only them) is your ability
to talk, to think, and to write. This part of the course is where you
learn to write: professionally. The guidelines that follow tell you how
to do it, or rather how to learn to do it.
They set a higher standard than is usually asked of a first year undergraduate
essay in this Department. This is for the following reasons. (1) I think
it's my job to offer you the best advice I can, not to tell you how to
get by. (2) If you learn what these guidelines teach, you will get better
marks in all the essays you do from now on until finals. You will surprise
the markers with the quality of your presentations, by producing a better
quality than they expect. (3) You will learn a skill, a not-very-hard-to-learn
skill, that will last you for the rest of your life.
3. Collecting the
The first task is to get the material together. The material comes
in two kinds: primary and secondary sources. Primary sources in this case
are literary texts: the actual material that you work on. Secondary sources
are works of criticism. Here is your Second Important Message:
(ii) It is always better to read an original text and refer to it
than to read and refer to a critic.
The more literary texts you read and can refer to the better. You
can't possibly read too many. Remember, the key to your essay is the number
and quality of your ideas about literary texts. If you casually refer,
from at least an apparent position of familiarity, to some obscure literary
text, you will win the admiration of your marker. If you refer to a critic,
particularly an obscure one, the chances are his or her eye will glaze
over. There are exceptions to this rule, which I will mention later, but
the basic principle is extremely important: original texts are better
than critics, and you can't know too many. Whereas it is possible to get
a first class degree and never to have read any critics at all.
3.1 What are critics for?
The short answer: to be disagreed with. A longer answer: reading critics
can give you an idea of what the state of critical opinion is about a
literary text, to save you re-inventing the wheel and coming up with some
brilliant original perception that William Empson thought of sixty years
ago. Reading critics means that you can start at the coal face rather
than have to dig your own mine. Secondly, they can stimulate your ideas.
But the thing to remember is: only your ideas obtain merit. Therefore,
never, ever, quote a critic just to agree with him or her. Always, under
all circumstances, quote a critic in the following form: Leavis says x,
but I disagree as follows. Or: Leavis says x, and this is very true, but
I would develop his thought as follows. Never, NEVER: as Leavis says,
followed by a quote, followed by nothing. This is very common in undergraduate
essays, and it is simply a waste of space.
3.2 Books and articles
A secondary point about critics. They publish in two forms, books
and articles. You should be familiar with the library electronic catalogue
and the ways of searching it, in order to find books: it's not difficult,
and if you don't know how to do it by now go immediately and find out.
If you have a problem, ask a librarian, they'd be happy to help. Just
spend half an hour simply playing with the library computer, finding out
what it can do. But: books are not usually much use. They're usually out,
as you will surely have discovered by now. And you gain no special merit
points for having read them, because so has everyone else.
Articles are a different matter. Articles in academic journals are (a)
not normally read by undergraduates, and therefore (b) normally on the
shelves. They are more work to track down, but success will be rewarded
by the admiration of your examiner, because undergraduates aren't expected
to know about such things. And they are full of interesting, original,
and up-to-date ideas about literary texts, that, maybe, your examiner
won't even have heard of (but don't count on this: stealing ideas is heavily
penalised). Also of dross and garbage, of course. But this is good too,
because you'll have plenty to disagree with.
The way to get hold of articles is to go to the library and play with
the CD ROM workstation. There's one on every main floor. I can't tell
you here how to work it: find out, it's not difficult, and, as before,
a librarian will be glad to help you; also there are copious instructions.
Spend some time playing with it: the database you want is called the MLA
Index. You will come up with a lot of titles that aren't in the library,
which is very frustrating, but from every search you will find at least
a few relevant articles, and some of these will be valuable. This is almost
Note: this information is now out of date. There is a wonderful database
called BIDS that lists articles
published since 1981. It's on the Web; it's easy to search, very user-friendly,
and it emails you the list of articles you are interested in. Remarkable.
You need to go to the equally friendly Information Desk in the Main Library
to get a login and password first.
3.3 Using the World Wide Web
The Web is rapidly becoming a fantastic resource: easily available,
full of material, and with an an answer to every question. However, there
are problems, and you should use the Web carefully. Click here
for some important advice on that topic.
4. Reading, making
notes, having ideas
When you have found the books and articles you are going to read,
you will need to read them. Here are the golden rules:
(iii) Always carry a notebook
Always read interactively
File and rewrite the notes so you can find them again
Make a bibliography
I will explain. The key is: you are in the business of making a collection
of your ideas (do I have to say it again?) about literary texts. These
can come to you at any time. If you don't write them down, you will probably
forget them. If you do write them down, you will probably think of some
more ideas while you are writing. Write them down too. It doesn't matter
if they don't seem very good: just write them down. Carry one of those
spiral-bound shorthand notebooks at all times, and, if an idea comes to
you, however intimate or urgent the accompanying moment, write it down.
No-one need ever see this notebook, so you need feel no self-consciousness
about what you write in it.
This is perhaps the most useful attribute of the shorthand notebook: it
beats the censor. The censor is the cause of writer's block: the small
voice inside your head that tells you that what you're writing is rubbish.
In your notebook you can ignore that voice, and as a result you will accumulate
ideas. Some will be good, some bad; when you re-read the notes you can
sort out one from the other more rationally than while under the stress
of creative writing. Thus the censor has been by-passed.
4.1 Making notes
The best time to have ideas is when you are reading, either a literary
text or a work of criticism. This is where note-taking comes in. Don't
make notes in the form of summaries, unless you need it to help you remember
a plot (lecture notes are an exception to this): it's normally best to
read the thing again (and get more ideas the second time round). But always,
always, read with a pen and notebook to hand: read interactively. Think
about what you're reading and write down your thoughts. Always. When a
thought occurs under these circumstances it will be in reaction to a piece
of the text at hand: a quotation. Copy out the quote, and a page reference
so you can find it again to check it if necessary, and then put your idea
underneath it. If you tie the idea in with the quote in this way, then
your ideas will always be text-based and close to the concrete life of
the text, as Leavis might possibly have said.
Always write one idea and one idea only per page of the shorthand notebook.
Why? So that you can file them. Once a week go through all of the notes
that you've accumulated during the week. Take them out of the shorthand
notebook: tear them out, or remove the spiral. You put headings on each
note, throwing away the dross (the obvious dross, that is: dross can turn
to gold if left to itself for a bit). Rewrite if necessary; make more
notes if more ideas occur. Then file them in a way that you can find them
again. Make sure you know where all the quotes came from: editions, page
numbers, and so on.
You will find more about note taking in my Guided Reading lecture,
For this you need a booklist, either computer-based, or in the form
of a card index. A bibliography, some call it. Every book you read should
have its details listed in your master book-list, your card index or computer
file. Author/s, title, date, publisher, shelf mark, place of publication.
I repeat: every single book and article you read should be in this list.
In (only) two and a bit years' time when you are desperately trying to
find something original to say about The Book of the Duchess
for an exam that is going to happen in a few weeks' or days' time, you
will need this booklist and these carefully filed notes, containing your
ideas about literary texts. Believe me.
5. Planning and
So: you've gathered the material, read it, made notes, had ideas,
written them down on separate slips, headed and filed them. How do you
write the essay?
Like this. You gather together all of the slips you have on the topic
of the essay. You read through, writing new ones and rewriting old ones
if more or different ideas come to you, and making sure each of them is
headed. You put the headings together in a logical order (headings, sub-headings,
sub-sub-headings) on a sheet of paper in the form of an outline of the
essay. You arrange the slips in order of the outline. You assemble the
pile of slips, the outline, and blank paper (or a blank word-processor
screen) in front of you. You write the essay, going from heading to heading
and slip to slip. The essay writes itself, painlessly, because you've
done most of the thinking already. On the way, you observe the following
rules and wise bits of advice.
5.1 The outline
The plan you construct should be in the form of an indented outline.
This is a series of headings and subheadings, indented, like this:
notes on subheading 1
notes on subheading 2
and so on...
Behind every essay there must be a plan of that sort. This essay on essays
is built from such a plan, as you can see. If you remember any lectures
that use outlines, you will (I hope) remember how useful it was to have
that written out in front of you so that you knew where you were in it.
Now think of an examiner, having to read up to a hundred student essays.
A decent level of concentration is hard to maintain. They get lost, and
lose the thread, just as you do in lectures. It is essential therefore
that an outline like that must be obvious to him or her, clearly perceptible
in the way the essay is written. In order to achieve this effect the easiest
way is to have one, written out for your own benefit beforehand.
5.2 The paragraph
The second thing, in order to maintain and make obvious a clear structure,
is to be aware of the nature of the paragraph as the basic structuring
unit in the essay. Basically, every paragraph should represent and flesh
out a heading or sub-heading in the outline. The paragraph is the building
block of the essay. Therefore:
- It should be at least a third to half a page in length, but not
too long or the reader will get lost. No one-sentence paragraphs!
They give the impression that you read the Sun a lot.
It's not good to give that impression.
- It should have what's known as a topic sentence, near the beginning,
that announces the theme of the paragraph. The paragraph should not
deviate from this theme or introduce any new themes.
- The first sentence should somehow be linked to, or contrast with,
the last sentence of the previous paragraph.
- The first paragraph should announce clearly the theme of the essay.
I prefer first paragraphs that quite baldly say "I am going to
do this and that in this essay". (Some don't, however). In the
first paragraph also you should define your version of the title and
make it clear. If the marker knows from the beginning what you are going
to do, s/he can bear it in mind and be aware that you are sticking to
the point and developing it, because s/he will know what the point is.
- The last paragraph is not so important. You can proudly announce
that you have fulfilled the aims of the first paragraph, if you like,
or you can just end: it's up to you.
But the main thing is to make each paragraph a solid unit that develops
a clearly announced sub-theme of the essay. This way the indented outline
that's behind it will be obvious (not too obvious: don't write subheadings
before every paragraph) and the marker will not have that terrible lost
feeling that immediately precedes giving the essay a low mark in disgust.
Behind everything I've said so far there are two themes. One, just
to repeat it yet one more time, in case you might have formed the idea
that I don't think it's important, is: your ideas about literary texts
are what matters. The other is this:
(iv) Always put the reader first.
Up to now, most of the writing you've done has been for people who are
paid to read what you've written. They have no choice: they have to do
it. After you leave here, most of the writing you will do (in the course
of your working lives) will be writing you are paid to do for other people.
They won't, on the whole, have to read it: if they don't follow it or
feel offended by its scruffy presentation or even are having an off-day
and are not instantly seduced by its beauty and clarity, they will just
throw it away and do something else instead.
University teachers are somewhat in between these two classes. On the
one hand, they are in fact paid to read your essays. On the other, if
you can imagine the sheer labour of having to read a large number of long
assessed essays on the same topic, you can imagine that no-one really
likes doing it. It's extremely hard work, and they would normally rather
be doing something else. Therefore, if they're not immediately seduced
by the clarity and beauty of the thing they're reading, they may get irritated.
If this happens they won't be able to throw it away and do something else,
so they will get even more irritated. The end product of this will be:
a lousy mark. Or at least, a worse mark than you would otherwise get,
even if the ideas are good. This is a good thing, in fact, because because
you can use it to train you to
ALWAYS PUT THE READER FIRST.
Therefore, make your essay as beautiful, compelling, and as professionally
presented as possible, is my advice. Here are some guidelines.
6.1. The list of works consulted
Every essay without exception should end with a list of books and
articles used. Often a marker will look at this first, to see what kind
of work you've done: where, as it were, you're coming from. On the whole
and within reason, the longer this is, the better. As long, that is, as
you can reasonably show that you have indeed used the works on the list.
6.2. Styling references
This list should be set out in a particular and consistent way. The
way I use is like this:
Horace Hart, Hart's Rules for Compositors and Readers at the
University Press, Oxford , (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983)
Main Library General Reference 1 Z 253
A.S. Maney and R.L. Smallwood, MHRA Style Book, Notes for Authors,
Editors and Writers of Dissertations , (London: Modern Humanities
Research Association, 1981) Main Library General Reference 1 Z 253 Main
Library Lang. & Lit. Ref. 1 Z 253
MLA Handbook for writers of research papers, theses, and dissertations
, (New York: MLA, 1977) Gen. Ref. Z 253
and, appropriately enough, these are the books that tell you how to do
it properly. There are various ways of styling (as printers call it) references
(ie book and article titles) and it doesn't matter which you adopt, but
you should learn one and adopt it. Hart's Rules is a beautiful
little book, the printer's bible and ultimate authority, and it's very
nice to own a copy; the MLA \f16 Handbook is more use for
students (it has a chapter on how to do indented outlines, for instance--see
section 8 for more on this.) I have both, right by my desk, all the time.
These books will tell you how to style your references and how also to
lay out quotations in an essay, how to refer to a book or an article in
the body of an essay, how to punctuate, and so on. I would buy one of
them, if I were you, and use it. I very rarely look at mine now: I more
or less know what they say. So should you: it's the essence of professionalism
Note (1997). The English Department has now published its own ideas
about how to do styling. There are here.
My advice is, start using this document NOW!
Check also the method for arranging references in the text. They should
be indented on each side and separated from the rest of the text with
a white line above and below, if they are longer than a line or so. And
they should have a reference: author, title, and page number.
6.3. Type it if at all possible
No, you don't have to type it. But if you do then it will be far easier
for the reader. And rule (iv) is? Right: put the reader first. In any
case, studies have shown that particular kinds of handwriting influence
(without their knowing it) readers of literary essays such that they get
lower marks. I would guess that typed essays tend to get higher marks,
but this is just a guess. But it is my honest and truthful opinion that
if you hand in an assessed essay (that is, an essay written for marks
that will count towards your final degree) and it's not typed, you would
be making a foolish mistake.
If you are using a word processor, take some time to get the layout
right. Double space, with an extra space between paragraphs. The first
line of a paragraph should be indented. Number the pages, and put in a
header with the short title of the essay and your name in it. A4 paper.
If you want to beautify it with illustrations, drop capitals, a beautiful
title page, hand illuminated or gold leaf embellishments, that's fine,
though it's not expected. (I should perhaps stress that the gold leaf
is a joke.) And: make sure you use the spelling checker, before
you print it.
A note on safe computing. While you are actually working on a document,
it is held in RAM. All that you need to know about this is that RAM is
volatile. This means that if a passing friend trips over the power cable,
pulling it out of the wall, the computer will go down, and everything
in RAM will vanish utterly for ever. What you will lose is everything
you created since you last saved to disk. Moral: save to disk frequently.
At least every ten minutes. Secondly, you should develop the feeling that
whenever you switch the computer off, you are doing a dangerous thing.
Dangerous to your data, that is. When you switch it on again, there is
no guarantee whatsoever that it will come up and present you with your
work. It might crash. It probably won't, it's quite unlikely that anything
bad will happen, but nonetheless this is the time of maximum danger for
your essay. I have been working with computers equipped with hard disks
since 1987, and in that time so far I have had three hard disk crashes.
Wipeout. Obliteration. Everything gone for ever. I have also had computers
stolen twice, from burglary: end result: once more, all the data on the
hard disk gone for ever.
As a result, I never switch off the computer without making sure that
all the data on it that I don't mind losing is backed up. Never. Ever.
This means that whatever I've worked on since the last time I switched
the machine off gets copied on to floppy disks or zip disks. If it's creative
writing, like your essay, I usually make two or even three copies. If
I feel really nervous about losing it, I print the file out on to paper,
as a final security. I really advise you to do the same.
One final point: the last time I had a computer burgled, I was immaculately
backed up, and I still lost some data. Why? I left one of the backup disks
inside the machine...
6.4. One side of the paper only
When I tell students to write on one side of the paper only, they
give me the same look that I frequently get from my cat: "Is this
man totally out of his mind?" it says. Look: it makes it easier for
the reader. A lot easier. Rule (iv) is? If that doesn't convince you,
try sending any piece of writing whatsoever to any form of publication
whatsoever, written on both sides of the paper, and see how long it takes
for them to send it back. Unread. (They'll also send it back unread if
you don't type it, incidentally.)
6.5. Spelling and punctuation
There is a simple but unpleasant rule about this.
(v) If you produce work that is mis-spelt and/or badly punctuated
and/or ungrammatical, however good the ideas are, people will tend to
think that you are stupid.
They will be wrong; it will just mean that you can't spell, or can't
punctuate, or don't know some of the grammar rules. Nonetheless, that's
what they will think. Since it will almost always be in your best interests
to show that you are intelligent, rather than stupid, if you have a problem
in any of these areas you should do something about it. If you have a
word processor, get a spelling checker. Persuade someone you know who
can spell, punctuate, etc. to read over your work first and check it:
learn the sort of mistakes you make, and don't make them again.
There are very good suggestions on how to manage punctuation in the
Oxford Guide to Writing. If you have a problem
with punctuation, I strongly suggest you get hold of this book.
Another much cheaper and also excellent book is Plain English, by
Diané Collinson et al. (book
details and current price) (Library
A wonderful web site for all sorts of writing problems, including
punctuation, is here.
There is one particular error that is very common, students quite
often are in the habit of running two or more sentences together and joining
them with commas, it is really a very bad idea to do this, a marker when
he or she sees it will become very irritated, I hope you are by now with
the strange breathless quality of this sentence. Don't do it. A sentence
is a sentence. It should end in a full stop. Putting two sentences together
with commas between them is becoming acceptable in creative writing, but
it's still a bad idea to do it in an essay.
6.6 Handing it in.
Controversy rages over the best way to bind the thing. My own view
is this. It should be simple, cheap, and easy for the examiner. The pages
should not be stapled, clipped, or in any way fastened together. They
should not be bound! Some people like to bind them in a presentation folder,
often designed by the same person who invented the rat trap, featuring
spiked and sharpened strips of brass. Sometimes the essays come back with
the examiner's blood on them. This doesn't necessarily guarantee a lower
mark, but there's always that possibility. I accept that the motivation
behind this kind of presentation is good, and appreciate it as such, but
it's really not a good idea. Go for loose sheets, each page numbered,
your name at the top of each page, of course written on one side only,
and held together in a simple plastic sleeve: the kind with punched holes
down one side and an opening in the top only. This keeps the essay clean
and coherent, is unlikely to lacerate the examiner, and takes up no extra
room, so the essays can be stacked without them falling all over the place.
7. How to write
Style is not something I can prescribe in a set of notes like this.
Write well: if you have any problems in this direction, it is for your
tutor to tell you about them. But here are a few random points instead.
This is what linguists call a style appropriate to the occasion.
Be aware: a certain scholarly gravity is called for. Not too heavy
so that it's uninteresting. But avoid colloquial abbreviations: should
not, not shouldn't. Jokes are hazardous: if they don't [do not follow
my practice as regards don't] work, they can cost you a lot. Avoid
them, on the whole: or at least don't be jokey. Don't for goodness
sake imitate the way I'm writing here, either the rather flippant
colloquial style or the somewhat overbearing tone, or the numbered
subheadings. This is an essay on how to write a literary essay, not
a literary essay.
Firstly, quote sufficiently but not too copiously. Not more than
a third of a (handwritten) page at the very outside, and usually just
a few lines at a time. It's your thought, not the quotation, that
is the point. On the other hand, never forget that your ideas should
be tied firmly into the text, and that you should demonstrate this
by quotation. Secondly, always give page numbers for your quotations:
you will need to know where to find them again.
No short paragraphs.
A non-assessed essay should be about six sides of handwritten
or four sides of typed A4 at least.
Always make a photocopy of any essay you do
before you hand it in. Academics are very unreliable, and not uncommonly
Here is a summary of things to keep in your mind about writing an
essay. When I mark an essay, they are the things that I particularly look
- Use of critics (ie don't slavishly agree with them)
- Range of reference to literary texts, including obscure ones
- Clear and perceptible structure
- Interesting ideas tied in to quotations
- The paragraph:
2. Topic sentence
3. First sentence, last sentence
4. First paragraph (sets out themes)
- List of works consulted (properly styled)
- Quotations properly laid out, and references styled properly
- One side of the paper only
- Spelling and punctuation
Handbook for writers of research papers, theses, and dissertations
, (New York: MLA, 1977) Gen. Ref. Z 253.
This is the most useful text to buy. It has notes on everything you
need, including how to do indented outlines. It's not as full or as easy
to understand as the next title below, but it's all there.
Update (27/3/99): you don't have to buy it any more. It's here,
in a really helpful frame format. This is wonderful. All students should
use this site all the time.
Kane, Thomas S, The
Oxford Guide to Writing , (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
This book has it all: how to make an indented outline, how to spell,
how to punctuate, how to write a paragraph, how to take notes, how to
sharpen your pencil--everything. The bad news is that (a) it's rather
American, and (b) it's out of print. Go and look at the short loan copy
and photocopy anything you find useful. It's of particular use if you
have any punctuation problems.
10. Useful Links
is a wonderful set of documents on how to write essays; here,
from the same source, is a full set of links about writing of various
courtesy of Voice of the Shuttle, are a whole set of links about how to
write, think, look things up, and so on. Wonderful.
11. Read a
different poem every day.
Finally. One of the key attributes of success in an English course
is knowledge of a wide variety of styles, periods, and topics in English
is a painless way of learning this. Subscribe to this site and they will
email you a different poem every day. Take time every day to read the
poem, think about it, and post a short comment on their bulletin board.
The site is frustrating and often bizarre, but the exercise is the most
useful single thing I can think of at the moment for an English student