What is a successful paper? It should be one that not only satisfies the terms of the assignment for a particular course, but also teaches you something about your assigned or chosen topic. With each paper you write, you'll learn more about writing itself.
This essay does not address specific research questions such as how to format a works cited page, or how to use the library, or how to evaluate internet sources. You can consult any one of a number of good guides for information like that, such as Diana Hacker's A Writer's Reference (Boston: Bedford Books, 1999), or Joseph Gibaldi's MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (New York: The Modern Language Association, 1999). Instead, this essay is more about the attitudes you need to bring to your assignment, how to have a conversation with your instructor as you're working, and how to write in different ways about literature.
What is the assignment?
Begin by assessing the assignment. Is it clear to you what is required or suggested? Ask questions before you begin to write your paper so you're sure that you understand what you have been asked to do. It's always a good idea to sketch out a plan and then to ask the instructor if you're thinking about the assignment correctly. This is especially important when an paper assignment involves some choices or options. For example, here's an assignment from English 340, Restoration and Eighteenth-Century British Literature:
LONGER PAPER: (25%), due on 03/09.
1. Paper length: 4-5 pages. (Minimum: 4; maximum: 5.)
2. Take any text not assigned in the course from Fairer's anthology or Johnson's Works.
3. Investigate at length and in detail some aspect of this text, such as, awareness of generic tradition, representations of social circumstances surrounding the composition of the text, construction of gender relations, verse form, etc.
4. Your primary goal should be to closely read the text. Issues of style and genre are as important as issues of ideology and cultural context; consequently, your paper should be concerned with both form and content.
5. Be sure to develop an argument that surpasses any of our class discussions on related topics.
6. Your paper should have a clearly developed thesis, and quote or reference directly from the material. If secondary materials are used, adequately document these according to MLA standards.
This assignment has a lot of information, both directions and suggestions. First, the length of the paper is carefully described. This is not a guideline, but rather, is a requirement. Second, your selection of text is completely open as long as you choose from particular texts and you don't choose something already covered. Third, you are given directions about what your paper should investigate, that is, "some aspect of this text," but the exact topic is not defined for you. You have to choose it, and you don't have to discuss any of three topics listed unless you want to since these are suggestions. Fourth, you have some very definite directions about the approach to take: you can't focus totally on content at the expense of form. Fifth, you need to go beyond class discussion. Sixth, as you might expect, you need to have a thesis. You should draw directly from the text to support your claims. Now you've decided what is required and what is optional. You have some reading to do and some decisions to make.
Some paper assignments may be more specific and might not give you as much choice. You still need to read the assignment sheet carefully before you decide what to write about.
Talking with your instructor:
Once you've chosen your text and the aspect of the work you want to write about, it's a good idea to check in with the instructor. Did you understand the assignment? The best way is to ask directly: "This is what I think I'll write about. How does that sound?" If your instructor has very different ideas about how to do the assignment, it's much better to find out as you just start working on the paper than when you get your grade. Some students really dislike coming in to talk with an instructor during office hours, or a student's schedule may not permit it. You can still use the phone or e-mail to check out your topic. You could also type up your thoughts so far on the assignment and give that to the instructor for review. Most will be only too happy to give you some feedback.
Some assignments may ask you to write about topics that you don't feel too enthusiastic about. You may actually be presented with an opportunity to think in new ways, so you might want to try it anyway. But you might want to negotiate the assignment, that is, to discuss your own preferences and to see if those topics would be acceptable. For example, in English 340, if you want to discuss a text already covered in class but you are eager to do something entirely different with it, your instructor might readily agree to your plan. Don't assume just because what you want to do isn't covered by the assignment that you won't be able to follow your own interests. Of course, you'll need to clear your own preferences with the instructor long before the paper is due.
Can you make the deadline?
Will you have difficulty turning in your paper on time? Many instructors are understanding about occasionally demanding schedules or illnesses, but you will want to discuss your situation well in advance of the due date. Don't show up the day the paper is due and expect to get an extension. In case of emergency, remember that CSUB instructors have 24-hour voice mail, and you can always call to leave a message. If your printer blew up, your roommate erased the hard drive on your computer, or you were briefly abducted by aliens, get in touch with your instructor. Of course, he or she can't be unfair to the rest of the class who did complete their assignment on time, so you may incur a penalty for missing a deadline.
Are you interested in the assignment?
A written paper should be an investment of your interest and energy, as well as your time. Find a paper topic that you're genuinely interested in, and talk to the instructor if you can't think of one. If you don't care about the topic because it bores you, your paper will reflect your lack of enthusiasm and will be the worse for it. You don't want to write something that's boring, and believe me, your instructor doesn't want to read it.
One way of becoming engaged in an assignment is to take some risks. Of course you want to get a good grade, but you will learn more if you challenge yourself, and you will enjoy the necessary work more. Try a topic that looks at least a little daunting. Don't rely on the same ideas that just "got you by" in other classes.
How do you start?
Start by reading carefully and thinking carefully. This sounds obvious, but it's not. Stay completely open to what the text wants to tell you. Make lists and notes. Assemble evidence, even if you're not quite sure what your argument is yet.
Then think as broadly as you can to discover patterns that might hold the evidence you've been compiling. You might formulate a question to get started. You may come up with some ideas that you can't completely support at this point, but write them down as notes or questions to settle later. How will you interpret the material: what kinds of approaches will you use? What ideas will be most helpful in explaining the texts in particular ways? You can come up with these best by paying close attention to the text itself.
At this stage, you might have only a set of questions. Don't let this make you nervous. Form a plan for investigating your topic. How does one question or one idea lead to another? Begin to organize your thoughts into a working, basic outline.
What form of organizing your thoughts and notes works best for you?
Some people like to write down separate ideas on 3x5 cards and then shuffle them around until a pattern starts to emerge. Others use "post-it" notes to cover a wall or desk top. Some do process writing (by which thoughts are put down in no particular order); others sketch on blank paper some sort of diagram. Whatever works for you, that's what you should do (no matter how much your roommates tease you). Just do something. No writer in the world, after reading a text once, was ever tapped on the head by the Muse and got a sense of the whole argument all at once. These things take time and the courage to play around with your observations, questions, and ideas.
Can you now formulate a thesis statement?
Even a thesis question will do. What are the largest concerns of your paper, and how do they relate to the text in question? What are you trying to prove? Use this as your guide as you write. It should be the equivalent of an accurate flight plan. It would be extremely unsettling to get into a plane, expecting to go to one city, and then have the pilot announce that he'd just decided to land in a different city. Announce to your reader where you're heading in your paper. This should come early in the paper; traditionally, the thesis statement or question appears in the first paragraph.
Now develop in a logical and systematic way your points that demonstrate your thesis. If your paper is a coherent explanation of your thesis, it will not be a collection of bits of information. One point should support and lead to another. The well-written paper is an organized combination of insightful ideas and specific uses of the text, clearly and succinctly presented.
Be sure to support your statements or claims with the text itself. Quote judiciously: use just enough and no more to prove your claims. If you are using secondary material (that is, criticism written about that text, author, or period, etc.) or reference materials (such as a glossary or handbook), use these sources judiciously as well. Huge chunks of quotations floating between just a few lines of your own writing indicate that you haven't quite incorporated your evidence into your argument. The best way to use quoted material is as follows. First, introduce the quote: its necessity and its context should be clear. Then put in the quote. After you do, look at it again: do you need every line and every word? If not, take some out. Finally, interpret the quote. Some writers wrongly assume that the quote is so compelling that its meaning is obvious. It's not. You need to say why it's useful or important. Think of it as a loose gem, easily lost unless it's set in a framework of your own writing designed to show it off to greatest advantage. Here's an example from an essay I wrote recently. In this section, I discuss one part of a poem by William Cowper, "On the Late Indecent Liberties Taken with the Remains of the Great Milton, Anno 1790."
When the speaker addresses Milton's corpse in an apostrophe, the speaker shows why he is so indignant.
Oh ill-requited bard! Neglect
Thy living worth repay'd
And blind idolatrous respect
As much affronts thee dead. (ll.21-24)
Because the bard is now "ill-requited" and because his "worth" while he was living was ignored, the speaker himself stands little chance of entering into the poetic succession himself, even though he has power enough to address the greater poet.
Note how in this example both the introduction and the explanation following the quote from Cowper keep the quoted material firmly placed within my own argument.
How many drafts do you need?
As you're writing, don't be afraid to leave some sections or ideas in a sketchy state. You can always go back later and fill them in when you're more certain about the argument. You could leave what is still unsettled in square brackets so that kind of text is clearly set out from other passages that are more developed. (Sometimes I just type: "[Be smart here]" to remind myself that I still need to work something out.) Don't expect a finished paper in one draft, or even two. When you have a draft, try to read it objectively as if it were written by someone else. (You might try reading your draft out loud. Sometimes it's easier to catch your own mistakes this way.) Does it convey a coherent argument? It may be helpful to outline your first draft after you write it. Did you discuss what you announced in the thesis statement? Does each point lead to another in the most logical fashion? If not, rewrite. You can put in logical connections after you've got the main structure of the essay set out. Conjunctive adverbs such as "instead," "consequently," "furthermore," and subordinating conjunctions, such as "after," or "since" are very helpful to show the logical relationship between your ideas.
A lot can be summarized about good writing with Clymer's Observations About Good Writing:
There are two essential facts about writing:
1. Language is a structure, conveying meaning through denotations and connotations.
2. Writing is a form of thinking.
There are two rules for writing that follow from these facts:
1. Make explicit what is only implicit in your thinking.
2. Show the logical connections between your ideas.
No one on the planet (or at least, no one I know) can produce a nearly perfect draft on the first try. The dirty secret about writing is that it takes a lot of work, and even the really good writers have to work hard. How many drafts do you need? As many as it takes. Four or five is a good plan if you want to have a polished, coherent, astute, and successful essay. We all somehow believe that everybody else got their papers right on the first try, and that we alone had to labor mightily. It's not true. You aren't doing it wrong. Because writing is actually a form of thinking, not the proof that you got all your thinking right on the first try, you will need multiple drafts to get your thinking and its expression right. When you have an assignment due, the only thing more painful than writing is not writing. But seeing an idea take shape as you work to refine your thinking is one of life's greatest pleasures. (Yes, there's a paradox here.)
How long will my paper take to write?
Unfortunately, the answer has to be: as long as it takes, or as much time as you have available. A general rule of calculation could be this, however. Start your reading and thinking. Next, consider how long you think it will take to write your first draft. Then multiply by at least three. Start early, long before (that's weeks or days -- not hours) the paper is due. It's always a good idea to put a paper away for a little while between drafts. You'll be amazed how actively you impose what you think you said onto what you actually succeeded in saying. Letting a draft "cool" will help you see what needs to be fixed.
Who is my audience?
Although you clearly write a paper to satisfy a class requirement, and the instructor will determine your paper's grade, be sure to check with your instructor about your audience. Some instructors want you to assume that they know the basic plot or the basic facts about a text and that you shouldn't repeat those. Others (and I'm in this second group) would prefer that you imagine another undergraduate who knows something about English and American literature, but is not taking your particular class. This person is very interested in your topic, but is mostly uninformed about it. Write to explain your topic to this imaginary person. Don't skip over essential parts of your argument, and if you use any terms or reference complex ideas, define them. Explain any assumptions and refer to or quote from the text you are explaining.
What kinds of statements do we make about literature?
When we write or talk about literature, we should understand what sort of statements we make. There are three general kinds of statements: descriptions, judgments, and interpretations. We describe a work by saying that it has certain identifiable features. Simple descriptions are: "'On the Late Indecent Liberties Taken with the Remains of the Great Milton' has 24 lines"; "the poem was published in 1803"; "it was written by William Cowper"; "in the fourth stanza, the speaker poses a question." The truth of these statements remains relatively unchanged as scholarship continues since they reflect simple facts about the work. Paraphrases may be included in this descriptive category because they describe simply the text's statements and/or plot.
A judgment about the text is a statement of value, taste, or preference, which reflects our own subjective opinion. For example, "Keats is a better poet than Milton"; "science fiction is a waste of time"; "poems written in heroic couplets are intriguing." A judgment may be a valid form of communication, depending on the context, but it is not necessarily a "true" statement about the work itself since it reflects our reactive judgment. We can't keep our sense of pleasure, excitement, boredom, or frustration completely out of our reading. But our decision about what we admire or dislike differs dramatically from descriptions and interpretations of texts.
An interpretation is a proposition that seems plausible on the basis of some information and literary methods. It attempts to deal with the whole work, or large aspects of it. This kind of statement is usually open to challenge and revision. Interpretive statements are liable to change with the addition of new information or new ways of understanding the text. The following interpretive statements might be made about Cowper's poem: "the speaker of the poem expresses Cowper's anxiety about his standing as a poet"; "although the poem has elements of a lament, the tone is too indignant for that"; "by referring to Milton, the speaker invokes much of what is important in an English poetic tradition." Statements of interpretation must be based on the text as closely as possible because we can't offer a good interpretation until we have carefully considered all of the information the text offers. Jumping ahead to a subjective judgment is unlikely to produce a convincing argument about what we read. It seems paradoxical that although a text may be fictitious because it is a work of imagination and invention, an interpretation must be valid in terms of the text. We must test the truthfulness of an interpretation by considering one or more of the text's components, that is, how it is constructed, or what its message is (Ryan 55-57). Everything is certainly open to interpretation -- permitting a variety of positions -- but some interpretations are more adequately informed than others.
If your paper is to be truthful about its subject as well as successful in building an argument, descriptive statements should be used as the support of your interpretation. The main points of the paper will be interpretive statements (61). Subjective judgments are not entirely out of place in a paper, as long as they make a direct contribution to the argument. If you are aware of the differences between description, judgment, and interpretation, you will avoid summarizing when you ought to be analyzing the material. A good paper moves beyond simple description in order to present an interpretation that is based on the text. If you find you've had to sweep a significant portion of the text under your mouse pad in order to make your interpretation "fit," then you need to go back and read more carefully. Something important about the text hasn't yet been incorporated into your thesis.
What sort of format should I use for my paper?
Again, check with your instructor. Your paper assignment probably included some instructions about format. Papers in my classes should be formatted in the following way: typed with double spacing; non-italics typeface, between 10 and 12 points; 1" margins all around. A cover page gives your name, title of the paper, the class and date. A cover page is not numbered, but the other pages should be. Please staple your pages together; do not use fancy binders or covers. Consult A Writer's Reference for assistance in how to quote, about grammar and syntax, and other mechanics.
Proofread carefully, not only for typographical errors, but also for errors of syntax. You can expect that instructors will mark a paper down for poor grammar and syntax, or for typographical errors. Spelling errors always make a paper look sloppy, even if you spent a long time refining the argument.
A successful paper will give you an opportunity to explore a topic in a way that only reading and casual thinking do not. If you are rigorous and energetic in your investigation, and even take a few risks, you will be engaged in a process of discovery, both about the subject and about your own intellectual life.
Note: Some of this information originally appeared in my "Writing A Successful Paper," one section of Success in English Courses: A Guide for Undergraduates (Santa Barbara: Department of English, University of California at Santa Barbara, 1991).
Ryan, Marie-Laure. "Criticism, Pleasure, and Truth: A Typology of Critical Statements." What is Criticism? Ed. Paul Hernadi. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981. 55-57.
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