Thinking / Planning for Your Paper.

March 8, 2009 at 3:02 pm Leave a comment

Preliminary Work. A List of Things To Do Before Writing Your Paper.

This week you should start brainstorming ideas on what you would like to write your ten page paper or your two five page papers (or your five page paper and an in-class presentation).

Below is a step by step list of things you ought to consider doing before you start to write the actual paper. It might seem labor intensive, but I assure you and I promise you it will make your life writing this paper much easier and fulfilling, and it will make your writing better and get you a better grade.

1. Make a List of Issues, Topics, Characters, Conflicts (Etc Etc) that INTEREST YOU the Most.

If you do not have a definite idea about your topic yet (which is fine), start by looking through the questions for reading and writing I have given so far, some of the background material I have posted. On a piece of paper, write a list of things / issues in what we have read that interests or fascinates or beguiles you. Maybe even something that makes you angry.

My feeling is that you should write your paper on either something in the literature that interests you or that inspires powerful feelings.

2. Thesis Statement: to Use or Not to Use.

I do not require you to give me a thesis statement. If it helps you to form one, that’s fine. I have never been a big fan of thesis statements. A central idea, focus or arguments evolves out of the writing process in my opinion. I have always felt that starting a paper by laboring over a thesis statement adds an odd and extra wall to the writing process, which is hard enough.

Instead, I believe that you should design some sort of focused idea, topic or argument that you develop and draw through your paper and your interpretations.

3. Narrow Your Topic  / Create a Focus.

This step is crucial. In my experience, this is the step that gets skipped or not worked on enough that leads to problems and difficulties in writing about literature.

Once you have an idea or topic that you are interested in, you need to spend time doing some things to narrow your scope and sharpen your focus. What I mean is that many students have difficulties with papers because their topic is way to broad and general. If you have a broad and general topic, you will more than likely write a broad and general paper. Even worse, you will probably have a miserable time doing it.

I am going to use the play Hamlet, a very big and complex piece of literature as an example. There are a lot of issues in the play, but if you do not focus and narrow your work on an issue, they are all too big. For instance, suppose your topic is Hamlet’s reluctance to seek revenge. Or Hamlet, an indecisive prince. Or, How power corrupts individuals. I could keep going, but you get my drift. Each of these topics is gigantic, and would force you to examine the entire play. Scholars have written books on just one of these isses. You would be overwheled and miserable if you tried to write on one of these. Another example, using Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. If you topic was Christian Symbolism in Sir Gawain, you would be overwhelemed and end up writiing a general paper, or, which usually happens in this case, five pages of plot summary. All of Sir Gawain is a Christian symbol.

You do not want this to happen, particularly since you would find the writing experience miserable.

So how do you narrow your topic and focus your effort?  You want to write your general topic down, and then brainstorm (either on paper or in your head) particulars concerning your topic–sub-topics–examples–particular moments in the piece of literature. You want to make your topic something that speaks specifically about an issue.

For instance, if you were interested in Christian symbolism in Sir Gawain, you may want to write down several particular symbols themselves, and what they symbolize. And then choose maybe just one that you could expand into an interpretive paper. For instance, The green girdle as a symbol for the Fall in Sir Gawain, or, The use of images on Gawaine’s Armor and his role as a Christian warrior . . . of something like that.

With Hamlet, perhaps you are interested in his reluctance to seek revenge. You would want to narrow down to some particular aspect, or cauese and effect, or something about Hamlet’s personality, or his relationship with someons . . . whatever it would be, something that gets you away from writing about something gigantic and monolithic. Perhaps it would be how Hamlet wrestles with moral issues concerning his actions in Act I; or perhaps it might be how Hamlet is uncertain about the validity of the Ghost, and what this means and does concerning his actions.

4. Narrow Your Focus in the Text: Selecting Places to Use / Interpret / Quote.

Now that you’ve narrowed your focus, the next thing you would want to do is to find one, two, three, maybe four places in the text that you will look at, quote from and interpret in your paper. This is a big and important step. Too many times we go right to our writing, and even if we have narrowed our topic, we still deal with the entire play. Worse, we might introduce our topic, and then proceed to write about almost everything else except for the topic.

Too often we feel like we need to tell the professor everything we know about a piece of literature in a paper, as if this will prove our intelligence, etc. This is, in fact, the last thing a professor wants in a paper (also, plot summary).

What you want to do is to peruse the text, and find a few key spots that are central to your topic / issue, and use those few spots to expand your argument. It can even be just one place, one passage in a text. Think of all the things one could develop in a paper interpreting the ten or so line passage from The Canterbury Tales in which the Wife of Bath tells us that she has had “her world enough and time.”  There have been great essays and books on just one passage or one line in Shakespeare. I have had some students work on just the “to be or not to be” soliloquy in Hamlet, and discover that it is overwhelming.

The big thing that you want to avoid is writing about the entire piece of literature. When you find a couple of spots, or a passage, or a few places, focus on that and keep saying to yourself, “This is what I am using to expand my writing and interpretation. I do not need to tell the professor everything I know about _______.”

5. Consider the Types of Places in a Text you Would Look At.

Obviously, there are a lot of different types of moments / passages in a text when you are choosing those you will focus on in  your paper. Consider various different things:

A key description of an event, an action or a place.

A key piece of dialogue, like a speach, or an exchange, or a prayer, etc.

The key place in which a symbol, or an image, or a metaphor appears and is most clear.

A crucial moment, like a plot twist, the climax to the conflict and action, the opening, the ending, and aside.

A word or phrase that repeats and has significance (known as a motif), like The Wife of Bath and “sovereignty,” or The Pardoner and “greed is the root of all evil,” or “avarice.”  Sir Gawain and “courtesy,” or “pact,” or “honor.”

An odd or confusing moment, one that is difficult to interpret, doesn’t make sense, seems out of place, can’t get your mind around, seems inexplicable. These are known as aporias in text, places in text that undermine or define meaning or interpretation. Often, they are great places to write about.

A  minor character, and a significant role, moment, dialogue or function.

A moment in which there is dramatic irony: where we know more than the protagonist.

A digression: when the author goes off into a different tone, or describes / narrates something that jumps out of the sustained order and action of the narrative, or when there is a passage or a speech or dialogue that seemingly has nothing to do with anything important in the literary work. Often times digressions surprise us, and turn out to be more important or interesting than we thought.

6. Re-Reading the Text. Ugghh!

I know it sounds  onerous, but one of the best things you can do when you have to write a paper about a work is to reread it. In fact, it is generally essential for a scholarly paper. But if you are doing something on, say, The Pardoner, it would suffice to just reread his Prologue and his Tale. You can, of course, skim through certain areas, and pay more attention to places that are important for your paper.

Bottom Line: The best thing you can do before writing an English paper is to do this pre-planning, brainstorming and preparing before you begin to construct the essay. It might sound labor intensive, but I can assure you that if you list and choose from all of the issues / topics that interest you, make that topic / issue more focused and narrow, reread parts of the piece and choose 1, 2, 3 or 4 places in the text that you will use, focus on and quote, you will write a better paper, and have a much better writing experience, and one that is much less overwhelming and unnerving.

I know that writing is hard work. In my experience, these things have helped me out a lot in the past twenty years, and my students too.

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