These are all things that you already know how to do, but too often they are forgotten in the rush of writing. Give yourself enough time, during and after drafting your essay, to address everything from the list below, and you will produce an essay that both you and I can admire.
1. Have an argument.
- You are all intelligent, opinionated people. Find some perspective on the texts and assignment with which you think – better yet, know – that your peers could rationally disagree. Few things are more boring to read than an essay stating the obvious.
- Be sure to have ONE argument that governs your entire essay. This is a particular problem when you are asked to use two or more texts in an essay; the tendency is to treat them equally, with the result that the essay bifurcates into two mini-essays. A good way around this problem is to subordinate one text to the other, such that the argument is primarily about one text, and the second text is used to demonstrate some localized aspect of the overarching argument.
2. Consider your audience.
- Assume that your audience is not just your peers in the classroom, but every UGA English major who has once taken a medieval literature class. You are thus writing to an audience aware of major cultural trends, but maybe not able to immediately recall (for example) the date of the Auchinleck manuscript or the fact that Margery Kempe was writing an autobiography in the early fifteenth century.
- Do write as though your audience has read your text(s), but perhaps not recently. Don't recap the plot, but also don't assume that the reader has the text memorized. Remind the reader of where in the plot this-or-that passage occurs to keep him or her from getting lost.
- Treat your audience with respect as you refine your essay; no one appreciates a poorly proofread or sloppily argued finished product.
3. Have a clearly stated, provocative, and incisive thesis, as well as an introduction that prepares the informed reader for that thesis.
- Every thesis should be narrow: that is, precisely identifying the scope of your argument and gesturing toward the kinds of evidence being used.
- Every thesis should also be provocative, presenting a point that is not self-evident and/or with which someone could rationally disagree. A non-provocative thesis usually leads to a milquetoast essay.
- Every thesis ought to be incisive, cutting to the heart of what's really at stake. Whether or not the Narrator in Troilus and Criseyde desires to experience the love affair voyeuristically is less important than his desire – and inability – to resist the end of the preordained narrative that condemns Criseyde.
- The introduction and the thesis ought to work together not just to establish the who/what/when/why of the argument, but also to outline the general progression of the argument, its major logical elements, and its significance to the reader's understanding of the text.
- There are certain things that the reader must know to appreciate the wit and wisdom of your thesis and argument: the introduction is the place to, er, introduce the reader to these elements.
4. Marshall your evidence effectively.
- Use a variety of kinds of evidence: structural analysis, formal analysis, theoretical (gender, psychoanalytic, economic) readings, and, often, secondary materials can come together to make your argument more persuasive.
- Don't rely too heavily on only one type of evidence; this is a common problem when students cite so-and-so article as “proof” of Argument X without supporting Argument X with data from the text as well.
- Close reading is almost always the most convincing type of evidence in literary essays, so it should be used generously.
- Acknowledge counterarguments when they come up, but then use them to your advantage. Demonstrating that Argument X is a more plausible interpretation of the text than Counterargument Y is often more persuasive than simply making Argument X without reference to Counterargument Y.
5. Show the logical processes by which you move from your quotation or other evidence to your point about that evidence.
- Quoting a passage from the poem and then claiming "This proves that . . .” does not prove anything.
- Rather, identify the particular valences of individual words, the ironic slippages, the echoes of other passages . . . all the little “close reading” tricks you've learned as an English major.
- Then use those little pieces of data to show the logical steps by which you get from the quotation to your “This proves that . . .” statement.
- It helps some people to achieve the desired level of argumentative detail to imagine that they are arguing a case before a judge; if this is a useful trick for you, use it.
6. Avoid major undergraduate argumentative fallacies.
- Proof by confident assertion: simply stating that Chaucer's Pardoner is a homosexual without providing textual support backed up by logical reasoning convinces no one.
- Proof by naked quotation: do not drop in a quotation and assume that your reader will understand its relevance to your argument just because it seems obvious to you. Explain its importance. Your readers are not mindreaders, and if you are making an original and provocative argument (as of course you are doing), you can be assured that your reader can not independently glean your precise interpretation from the quoted passage.
- Proof by cherrypicking: do not choose only those passages or quotations that support your argument and silently ignore those that undermine it. Your audience, having already read the text, knows that you are leaving out important counterarguments, and you are thus undermining your argument's persuasive potential by undermining your credibility as a critical thinker. You are also failing to capitalize on a chance to address – and negate – key counterarguments, an argumentative move that can be more persuasive than any directly linear progression of argument.
- Proof by scavanger hunting: similarly, do not go skimming through primary (literary) or secondary (modern criticism) texts looking for any ol' tidbit or phrasing that supports your point. That's a misuse of your sources. You need to engage with the nuances of both kinds of texts to help you make your point.
7. Use your transitions to further your argument.
- At the very least, transitions should guide the reader through the essay, throwing up signposts when important points are made and when the argument is shifting from one point, text, or major segment to another.
- Transitions are also where much actual arguing happens: they can establish similarities and differences between different aspects of your evidence, suggest larger trends, and generally provide the important connective tissue that turns a series of close-reading exercises into an effective argument. Learn to love conjunctive adverbs.
8. Write like a reader; read like a writer.
- When you're writing your essay, always keep your reader's needs and responses in mind. What does the reader need to know in the introduction to make your argument on p. 3 clear? What alternative arguments or counterarguments is your reader likely to have to hand, and how can you preempt them?
- When you're reading in preparation to write your essay -- especially when reading secondary material -- read in part with an eye to how the author crafts his or her argument (not just what that argument is). You'll learn much about how to construct your own arguments, how to finesse your own language use, how to engage with secondary material, etc etc if you watch how other writers deal with these same issues.
9. Be sure that your organization is helping, not hindering, the persuasiveness of your essay.
- Keep the obvious organizational strategies in mind: move linearly through the text unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise; establish norms and definitions early in the argument; end on your strongest point.
- Cultivate more sophisticated organizational strategies as well: develop an argument that builds, like a house, on a solid foundation (rather than one that moves from point to point like beads on a string); address counterexamples at the most effective point; shut down possible objections to your argument before they can arise.
10. Write for grace and clarity.
- Not everyone can be a sophisticated prose stylist, although anyone can learn tricks for writing effective prose. One of the best places to start on this project is the classic Elements of Style by Willam Strunk.
- Nevertheless, everyone CAN produce prose free from wordy constructions, unclear syntax, neologisms, malapropisms, and grammatical errors – and I expect that of every formal essay handed to me.
11. Quote properly.
- Learn proper MLA style for prose and verse, primary and secondary materials, and USE IT.
- Integrate the quotations grammatically into your own prose.
- Always quote Middle English as Middle English (do not “quote” it in translation). If your text uses the three obsolete Middle English characters, go to the Character Map and insert them into their proper places. (You will find thorn and eth there, but you'll have to use a 3 to represent yogh unless you've installed special fonts, which I don't expect of you.) You can provide translations of particularly sticky passages if their nuances of meaning are central to your argument, but in most circumstances you will be best served simply to explain the senses of the words in your own analysis.
- Always include a Works Cited page (unless told explicitly otherwise) and format it according to the most recent MLA standards.
- Medieval authors can be tricky to alphabetize. If the author's last name is a toponymic (Marie de France), alphabetize by the first name (Marie); if it is a true surname (Geoffrey Chaucer), alphabetize by surname (Chaucer). If you're not sure, check the library catalogue to see how they have alphabatized your author.
- Be sure to identify the medieval author, not the modern editor or translator, as the primary author in the Works Cited (and in the in-text citations).
- You can always contact me with citation questions if you cannot find the answer after consulting a manual or the website above.
12. Proofread for argumentative consistency as well as typographical errors.
- After writing that draft, reread your essay top to bottom to be sure that your initial, working thesis lines up with what you eventually argued . If it does not, adjust the thesis and other linking material accordingly.
- An unproofread paper is simply unprofessional: it undercuts your readers' impression of you as an intelligent reader of literature, hamstringing your argument before it has a chance to represent itself in all its persuasive glory. It's also a disservice to your audience; no one wants to put in the time to decipher typos and sentence fragments. And it's liable to get your paper handed back to you, gradeless, to be cleaned up before your professor will grade it.
13. Give your paper a usefully descriptive title
- "Essay 2" is not a title, nor is "Henryson's Orpheus and Eurydice." "The Romance Features of Henryson's Orpheus and Eurydice" is better, because it tells the reader the major topic of the essay.
- Even more effecitve is a title like this one (written by one of my students): "'How can a modest woman speak the unspeakable?': Silence, Speech, and Guilt in The Rape of Lucrece." It includes the title and the major topics (speech and silence), while also incorporating the "quotation before the colon" structure, in which the quotation epitomizes the kinds of problems or questions the essay is tackling.
You've got the freedom to be witty or funny in the title. One of the best titles of an academic article, on the absence of sexual encounters in Old English poetry, is "'No Sex Please, We're Anglo-Saxons'?: Attitudes to Sexuality in Old English Prose and Poetry." Rhetorical questions, skillsfully deployed, can work; alliteration is often a nice touch as well.