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Essay writing advice

* This guide is intended to provide a set of helpful suggestions only. Please do not feel the need to 'check off' every single point and consult it only so far as you find it useful. Your tutors will be happy to discuss your essay with you during Office Hours should you want further advice.

Reading poems

When you read and write about the poems on this module, first think about your close reading (click here for notes on this); and also the following:

  1. What form is the poem written in?
  2. What specifies the narrator’s voice? What kind of language is being used?
  3. Assess the key images in the poem and think about the effect they produce
  4. Does the poem communicate a plot or a mood?
  5. Who is being addressed in the poem?
  6. How does the poem describe, narrate or ignore contemporaneous events?
  7. What cultural myths and ideologies are endorsed or challenged?
  8. Was the poem published and if so, how was it disseminated?

Writing essays

Introduction and Thesis

• Begin with an introductory paragraph, which should: (1) introduce your reader to your topic; and (2) present your thesis or argument.
• Distinguish the topic (what you’re writing about) from your thesis (what you will attempt to argue or prove). A thesis is an interpretation of the text at hand that you will set forth in specific terms and propose defend by argumentation and literary analysis. Your thesis is the position you are attempting to persuade your reader to accept. Try and summarise your thesis in one or two sentences to make it clear and coherent.
• You will not know what your thesis is until after you have written the essay. Start by thinking about a provisional thesis so you have somewhere to begin from; your final thesis will emerge from your close-readings, rather than precede them.
• A thesis cannot be a statement of fact; if you think a reader could either easily agree or disagree with your thesis, you’ve probably set forth a statement of fact.
• A good thesis is specific not general; don’t make sweeping or ‘universal’ statements about human beings, about poetry, about life, about anything ‘through the ages’ as you’ll find you’re simplifying.
• Your thesis statement should give the reader a sense of your essay structure; if your thesis contains two or three parts, then your reader will expect you to discuss those two or three parts in the order in which you’ve given them in the thesis statement.

Beginning the essay

• Always start with the text and work out from it, rather than thinking up a thesis and then trying to impose it on the text; reread the texts you will be discussing and make clear notes on passages that seem relevant.
• Look over these notes and then select the one thing that you feel most excited about or is most striking to you, the one image or metaphor or set of images or metaphors that you think will provoke the richest discussion; identify the passages that these metaphors/images appear in.
• Write out your interpretations of the instances you’ve chosen, dedicating one rough paragraph to each; you should be aiming not to just say what the passages mean, but rather to show how they mean what you think they mean.
• Your thesis should then emerge out of these interpretations.

Proving your thesis: argumentation

• Your argument should proceed in a logical progression from one thought to the next (don’t skip around back and forth between ideas). This logic should be clear within each sentence (from one phrase to the next); within each paragraph (from one sentence to the next); and within the essay (from one paragraph to the next).
• Each paragraph should develop one coherent point that relates clearly back to the thesis within the logical progression of your argument, and everything in the paragraph should be relevant to that one coherent point.
• In order to clarify this logical progression, every paragraph must have a key or topic sentence: the first sentence of each paragraph should clarify the one coherent point of that paragraph and provide a clear and explicit transition to that point from the point of the preceding paragraph.
• This key sentence is like a mini-thesis and so cannot be a statement of fact. Rather it must present the point or idea that your paragraph should make within the logical progression of your argument (a point needs to be demonstrated; a fact does not).
• After you’ve written a first draft, go back and look at each paragraph you’ve written; check that there is a point which supports your main thesis.
• Check that the paragraphs are connected and that you have provided a transition between your key points (the transition is the connection between the point of the preceding paragraph and the point of your present paragraph - if you’re struggling with this, write out what each point is in a list and then work out what links them: this is the transition).

Close Reading

• Your essay should include careful close readings which should interpret or explicate the text (rather than summarise or translate it).
• Do not simply repeat what the text says in your own words: you should be interpreting the text by producing your own ideas about how the text creates meaning.
• The purpose of your close reading is to support the point of your paragraph which you will have articulated in your key or topic sentence.
• Your aim in close reading should be to show your reader how you read the passage you have quoted; and show how your reading supports the larger point of the paragraph.
• Always analyse literature in the present tense: you are interpreting the text in the present and not summarising what happened in it; literature, although written in the past, is still happening as you read it.
• Historical and contextual issues should be discussed in the past tense.

Concluding your essay

• Literary critics conclude articles by considering how their reading of a text enriches or complicates our understanding of a larger literary, social, historical, or cultural movement (the Enlightenment, neoclassicism, sensibility, Romanticism) or our appreciation of the status of a significant issue (reason, emotion, class, death, sexuality) in a particular cultural context.
• When you conclude your essay, think about how your reading of a given text or group of texts pertains to some of the larger issues you have addressed during your course or in seminars.
• The conclusion should be brief: pull together your ideas, suggest how your reading relates to larger issues and/or restate your key thesis in a new way: do not simply repeat what you have already written.


When you’ve finished the essay, check:

• that the essay addresses the specific subject it sets out to analyse
• that the essay interprets the text, and does not simply paraphrase or summarise
• that the essay fully develops the thesis it sets forth in the beginning
• whether you need to restructure the essay to more effectively argue the thesis
• whether the thesis needs to be changed to reflect the actual argument you have given