Skip to main content

How to Write an Essay

 

ESSAY HELP

This handbook is a guide that I’m hoping will enable you. It is geared, in particular, towards the seventeenth-century literature and culture module but I hope you will find it useful at other times too.

I would like to stress, though, that it is not the only way to do things. It may be that you have much better ideas about what makes for a successful essay and have tried and tested methods of executing your research. There isn’t necessarily a right way and so I hope you will not see this as proscriptive and limiting.

You should talk to all your tutors about what makes for a good essay to get a sense of the different ways that you might construct an essay.

 

Contents

1. Essay writing (p.2)

2. Close reading (p. 4)

3. Research (p. 6)

4. Constructing an argument (p. 8)

5. Help with this particular assessment (p. 9)

6. Grade descriptions (p. 10)

 

 

1. ESSAY WRITING (and historicist writing in particular)

Essay writing has four stages: reading, planning, writing and proof-reading. Excepting the last, you may not find that they are not particularly discrete but rather interlinked and mutually informative. If any stage is skipped or done badly, though, it will impair your work.

 

A) Reading

1) Read the text and make sure you understand it. Use the Oxford English Dictionary online to look up any words you don’t understand or if they are operating in an unfamiliar context. Available on the Warwick web: http://www.oed.com

2) Do a close reading. Make a list technical features (cf. the page in this booklet entitled ‘close reading’; refer to the section on poetic form in the back of your Norton Anthologies pp. 2944-52). Ask yourself: ‘how does the text achieve its effects?’ Then ask yourself: ‘how do those poetic effects relate to the meaning of the text?’.

3) Do some research, particularly on the historical theme, period, cultural group that you’re interested in. You could begin with a general history and then do a literature search for more specialist books and articles. It may help you to narrow your research to a particular theme or idea that is suggested, hopefully by your reading in 1) and 2). Rather than trying to find out about the whole of seventeenth-century culture, limit your research to the restoration, cavalier culture, medicine, the family or whatever. (See the handout on research).

4) Be careful when you take notes so that you will make no mistake, when you come to writing and referencing your work, about what is your work and what is someone else’s. Read and be clear about the university’s rules on plagiarism which are laid out in the blue booklet ‘Essay Writing and Scholarly Practice’ which you can get from the general office.

B) Planning

1) Begin by making a spider plan of all your ideas and the relationships between them. IF YOU DON'T LIKE SPIDERS FORGET THIS BIT.

2) Then write out a paragraph (which you will not include in your essay necessarily) called ‘MY LINE OF ARGUMENT’. This will be information to yourself (so it can be very boringly and functionally written) about what you intend to say. Ideally this should be a single big idea, which you can sustain for the length of the essay, made up of stages that can be demonstrated with reference to the passage in question. It may well be that you want to write something similar to this ‘line of argument’ paragraph, only in a more dynamic and elegant way, for your introduction. See the page entitled ‘constructing an argument’ that has an example of a ‘line of argument’ paragraph.

3) Then write out a linear plan of your essay with a logical ARGUMENT, an argument that is assertively stated and then proved through the course of your piece. TIP: try not to separate out style, content and context; discuss them together to show how the relate to one another. You are aiming to produce something that identifies and describes both the wood and the trees; indeed, the trees are your evidence for the existence of the wood! You need to put together a big argument out of lots of bits of evidence.

C) Writing

1) Everyone has his or her own way of writing. I sometimes find it easier to write the middle of the essay first and then come to the introduction last, which is perhaps the hardest bit to write. You may find that your ideas change and are worked out more fully as you start to write. In which case go back to B) and produce another plan. Present your ideas as a finished thought, rather than a thought process.

2) Keep yourself closely to your argument by imagining your reader. Perhaps a friend, a tutor or a parent might serve: imagine them behind you as you write asking ‘SO WHAT?’, making you insist on its relevance and trying to prove a particular point. Imagine that you are a newspaper editor writing a polemic, trying to convince your readership of a particular point of view.

3) Inventing a title and writing an introduction. You should try to make your essay interesting to an examiner. Which do you think is the best of these three titles: ‘Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko’; ‘Discuss the question of race in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko’; ‘The “gallant slave”: the idea of the noble savage in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko’. Similarly with the introduction. The first sentence should grab the examiner immediately. Which is a better first sentence: ‘Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko was published in 1688 and is a prose work about Surinam’; ‘At the heart of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko stands the deep paradox of the ‘royal slave’.

4) Using secondary literary criticism. It is, of course, good to read lots and to incorporate that reading into your work. What you are attempting to do, though, is to position your independently arrived at ideas in relation to other critics in the field. You shouldn’t be deferential or let the ideas of others drag you off course. You should USE other people’s work in the service of your own argument. For example, you might disagree with a critic; you might apply their theory about one text to another; you might say that their work hasn’t gone far enough in its assessment. Never use a quotation from someone else to clinch an argument: just because someone famous has said x or y it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily true. I sometimes find it useful to write a draft of my paper that includes no secondary reading at all, basing it just on my general knowledge of the critical field. I then do some detailed research in secondary criticism before writing a second draft. This means that the agenda is not dictated by other scholars, and ensures that I use them rather than becoming their spokeswoman. Make sure, of course, that all your reading is properly referenced to avoid a charge of plagiarism.

D) Proof-reading

1) Check the spelling: in particular the names of the author and the text that you’re looking at MUST be spelled correctly.

2) Check your punctuation. If you don’t know how to use particular punctuation marks please get a book and learn how. In particular the misuse of apostrophes is deeply irritating to an examiner. The Collins gem guides are really good also Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots and Leaves is fun and informative.

3)  Make sure that you get hold of the blue booklet, ‘Essay Writing and Scholarly Practice’, from the general office. You must use the reference guide in there. I favor the MHRA guidelines; you may prefer the MLA style. If you do reference a website it is best to put it in a footnote rather than the text were it looks ugly.

 

2. CLOSE READING

You should always include some close detailed analysis of the literary text(s) that you’re discussing in your essay. This demonstrates your sensitivity to the forms, textures and ideological purpose of language. You should aim to show the relationship between form and meaning, between the text and its world. Before you can put together an argument about the relationship between a text and its time you will need to do some close reading, compiling a list of technical features in a text or an excerpt from a text. Choose excerpts that relate to themes or passages that interest you. Then you can develop a checklist of features to look for. Use this as a guide but you may want to add to, or amend it.

*** What you see will be very different from what other people see. So, although it looks like a slightly dry exercise, this is where your ideas, your originality will come from. Close reading, in any module, will make your essays sparkle. ***

Big questions:

 Prose, drama or poetry?

 Genre? (e.g. is it panegyric, epic, restoration comedy or what ever)

 Does it remind you of anything? Can you compare or contrast it with something of a similar date? Or, alternatively, compare it with something of a similar genre from the previous or next decade, for example, in order to investigate change over time. 

Smaller questions:

 Poetry: metre, rhythm and rhyme. Look at the section on poetic form at the back of the Norton Anthology (p. 2944) and other guides. Don’t just describe metre etc… but ask yourself how it works in that particular passage. How are units of meaning created by the line divisions? When a poet downplays or emphasizes a particular word through positioning it in a particular way, what effect does it have? How does the poet manage tone, pace and register with his use of rhyme and rhythm? iF THESE FEATURES ARE NOT IMPORTANT IN YOUR PIECE IGNORE THEM.

 Drama: look at the length / speed of the speeches, the stage directions, the entrances and exits.

 Prose: rhetorical features and clause structure are the things to look out for in particular. Are the sentences complex or simple? Is it in hypotaxis or parataxis? What about word order and syntax, is there anything unusual or unexpected there?

 What is the overall structure of the passage / text? Are there abrupt changes or a progression from one idea to another?

 What other structures are there? Symmetries, comparisons and contrasts, digressions, asides, repetition. Is there any dialogue? Are the arguments circular or progressive?

 Are there any words you don’t fully understand? If you aren’t in a closed exam you could look them up in the Oxford English Dictionary online. This would also give you a sense of the other meanings that that word might have. Are there any puns?

 Think about grammatical features: tenses, conditional constructions, the passive voice. Is the passage in the first, second or third person? Perhaps there are tense or person shifts; what effect do these produce?

 Look out for predominance: several superlatives or comparative adjectives and adverbs; a lot of words that mean a similar thing, repetitions of possessive pronouns or what ever.

 What kind of language is being used? i.e. what register is it in? Is it elevated or earthy, legal or lyrical, rhetorical or religious? Why?

 Look for particular rhetorical features: metaphor and simile, hyperbole and litotes, personification, metonymy and so on.

 Look at punctuation (but be careful: it could be the intervention of a printer or a later editor). Look out for: enjambment, parentheses, direct speech? When the punctuation is sparse, why? Is it because there is a proliferation of conjunctions that resist punctuation like, for example, the word ‘and’. This may indicate parataxis or a very conversational style.

 Look out for allusions and references, often to the bible or classical stories. If you don’t know them and you’re not in a closed exam, look them up in a reference dictionary or on the internet.

 What is the tone of the passage? Is it homiletic, comic, anxious, melancholy or ironic? How is this effect created?

 Where else does that poet use similar phrases, ideas, patterns and images? What does it say about his or her concerns and art?

TIP: Don’t make simple associations between sense and sound. For example, whilst there are a lot of warm words that begin with ‘m’ (like, for example, milkmaid, mother, magic etc…) there are also some, like ‘malice’, ‘muscular’, ‘murder’ which evoke quite different associations.

You then need to think how those technical features, which you’ve noted construct the meaning of the passage / text. Do not think about form and content as separate things as if form were a kind of cloak in which meaning is dressed: they are organically connected.

Above and beyond that you will also need to think about how that text (both its form and its meaning) relate to the particular concerns and fashions (literary, political, philosophical etc…) of its time. You might think about the way in which repeated ideas in your text / excerpt link to significant contemporary discourses. Look for substituted vocabularies: i.e. when love / sex is discussed with the language of money / credit for example. Could that be related to prevailing economic trends and ideas?

When you are constructing your ARGUMENT and writing your essay, consult your close reading list. Not everything there will be relevant to your ARGUMENT; you only want to include the things that relate, that offer evidence for a particular point of view about how the text is placed culturally, politically, socially and / or historically.

 

3. RESEARCH

Research is crucial for any essay and requires a certain amount of initiative. You will partly have to learn by trial and error. Here are a few tips and ideas, though. Read both narrowly (and address the theme of your essay) and also widely. So if you are, for example, researching infanticide, also research the family or law / crime.

When you research a context it might be worth look at the work of philosophers, painters, and theologians and see what they were saying / doing in this period. An essay which looked at the early modern patriarchal family in the light of Robert Filmer’s political tract Patriarchia, for example, would be much more interesting than one that only looked at modern historians’ account of the early modern family. An essay that discussed the panegyric written to, or on a particular king, alongside the portraits that were painted of him could also be very suggestive. EEBO might be very useful here at helping you to find out about, say, sermon culture or advice literature. (look at the last page of this booklet for some help here).

Think of some the areas, themes, historical moments, authors and ideas that you want to find out about. List them as key words. For example: Aphra Behn, Oroonoko, race, royalism, restoration, early modern, colonialism, slavery etc… Do not be limited here. Think of terms / phrases that will give you some background too. How about ‘cheap print’, ‘renaissance politics’ etc…

Then begin on the computer. Be careful of stuff that you find on the ordinary WWW. It is not usually very reliable. Often this is stuff that people can’t publish in proper books. Use it is a guide and be very critical.

 

1) http://www.jstor.org (through the Warwick network only). Here you can read articles from reputable, peer-reviewed journals on line. An excellent starting point. Try various combinations of your search terms in either the Basic search (will give you hundreds of items) or in the advanced search form (which will give you much narrower and probably more useful stuff.

 

Try it out; go to the advanced search form:

A) In the box marked ‘All of these words’ insert the word ‘Behn’. Then tick the box marked ‘title’ and then also the box marked ‘article’.  Press the ‘Search’ button. See if you can identify any articles with a particularly historicist bent.

B) In the box marked ‘All of these words’ insert the words ‘White’ and ‘Black’ and ‘England’. In the box marked ‘exact phrase’ enter ‘Seventeenth-century’. Press search and see what you get out. Try other, similar search terms.

C) In the box marked ‘All of these words’ insert the word ‘Royalist’. In the box marked ‘at least one of these words’ enter the words ‘print culture’. Perhaps limit to articles by checking the relevant tick box. Press search and see if any of those are useful. [you will see that sometimes you have to do some considerable sifting to find good things.]

 

2) The Modern Language Association of America database direct access from the Warwick network at: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/library/electronicresources/databases/#m

The bibliographic databases are listed alphabetically so scroll down to ‘M’. Select ‘MLA’. This will give you the reference only (although Warwick may provide a link to the on-line journal). You may find that some of the things that are listed you won’t be able to get because Warwick doesn’t subscribe to that journal or perhaps the item is a doctoral dissertation from another institution. Don’t worry, you’re not expected to read everything under the sun. Leave those things that you can’t get.

 

Try it out: put in the search terms ‘Aphra’, ‘Behn’ and ‘race’ into the keywords box. Press search and see what you get.

 

3) Historical abstracts: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/library/subjects/arts/elecresources/#databases_internet

Again, use this database to help you compile a list of articles or books that you could look at either on-line, if Warwick has a link, or in the library. Ignore the things that you can’t get hold of.

 

Try it out:

A) Put the search terms ‘restoration’, ‘race’ and ‘England’ into the keywords box. Press search.

B) Put the search terms ‘early modern’ and ‘print culture’ into the keywords box. Press search. Again you will have to decide what’s useful / relevant.

 

4) Use the library catalogue, don’t limit yourself to books about English. Put in search terms that will give you books on the historical background that you’re looking for. Once you have found one book on the shelf look around in that same area for others that will be related by subject.

 

5) Look on your reading list for general background books.

 CONSTRUCTING AN ARGUMENT

 

Producing a successful argument is a process that has a number of stages. Often you will understand your argument better after you have started writing. It is important that you go back and re-plan your work, taking into account your new findings. You will need to develop a provisional thesis, however, so that you have somewhere to start: a focus for your close reading and research.

 

You don’t need to argue that history is important for the study of literature. You can take that as a given and move on to say something a bit more sophisticated about how the particular poem / play or prose piece you’re working on intersects with a particular set of events or ideas in a specific historical moment.

 

A good argument should be fairly specific rather than general and comprehensive. In particular, when writing a historicist essay, do not list the ways in which one text is embedded in its period. Instead choose one of those ways and research it in more depth. So, rather than writing about, say, Ben Jonson’s interest in Anabaptists, Spanishness, alchemy, the plague, etc… in The Alchemist, choose one of these themes and find out about it in the historiography of the seventeenth century and couple this research with a close reading of those sections of the play that treat that theme.

 

Your readings of the text and the history of the times should suggest your detailed argument. Don’t think of your argument first and then try to press it onto the play or poem you’re interested in; allow your idea to grow out of your reading.

 

Below is my best attempt at a LINE OF ARGUMENT for an essay on Rochester and Milton. Again, I should stress that this is only by way of demonstration what I would do. This is very different from what you would do. There is no one way and your ideas will be as interesting / valid as mine. Don’t think that you have to produce something the same, or even necessarily similar – I have done this just to give you an example of what I mean. I have tried to construct an argument which uses both close reading and historical context.

 

Title:

 

Imagining the future in the restoration: a critical comparison of the poetry of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester and John Milton.

 

Line of Argument:

 

This essay will argue that Rochester’s poetry is not only everywhere fascinated by time, regularly exploring what it is and how it operates, but that this interest betrays his sophisticated engagement with contemporary political philosophy. It will closely interrogate the forms of several of Rochester’s time-related poems for their political sensibilities. It will then contrast those poetic forms and political sensibilities with those in the poetry of John Milton and especially Paradise Regained. Milton – as I shall show with the use of historical evidence – is very differently socially and politically placed, indeed at the other end of the ideological spectrum from the Earl of Rochester. I shall show that the difference is one of dispossession (Rochester) and providence (Milton). Rochester’s narrators exist in fear of, and subject to an arbitrary and absolute future; Milton’s Paradise Regained, on the other hand, asks an imagined republican reader to wait in anticipation of a future in which God will deliver their political success. I shall explore the way in which Rochester’s pessimism – the idea and tone of dispossession in his poetry – and Milton’s optimism – the visionary quality of his providential allegory – stand in contrast to the respective fortunes of the political groups to which those poets actually belonged and at the particular times when the poems I’m discussing here were written and published: i.e. Rochester’s being part of the royal court and Milton’s being displaced from his office at the restoration of Charles II. This will arrive at, by way of conclusion, the demonstrable sadness of some of Rochester’s verse which indicates the complex circumspection with which he viewed his own aristocratic, political community and its limited expectations of monarchical authority.

 

 

 

 

HELP FOR THIS PARTICULAR ASSESSMENT

 

Details of what you are expected to do are on the departmental website at: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/undergrad/modules/second/en228/assessedessay2/

 

There you will find a list of texts and details of how to find them on EEBO (Early English Books Online). Their website is at: http://eebo.chadwyck.com/home

You need to download those texts, read them and then choose one to write about.

 

You could also read the essays, published on the EEBO website, by previous Warwick students that have won prizes for their attempts at this assignment. http://www.lib.umich.edu/tcp/eebo/edu/edu_win_03.html

 

You might also use EEBO in your essay research. Try the subject list in particular. If you get yourself to the search form at http://eebo.chadwyck.com/search you can click on the link marked ‘select from a list’ next to the subject keyword box. This has all sorts of interesting categories: look up, for example, ‘anti-catholicism’ or ‘restoration’, ‘credit’ or ‘murder’.

 

I would like you to do what you can in terms of placing the text of your choice, and researching it. Then I’d like you to come and see me at the end of term with a title and a line of argument. You could also, if you wish, bring a longer essay plan.

This is Isabel talking to her group. We will all be available on email over the holidays--do ask. Gabriel won't be here after the holidays--he lives in London--but do come and see me, his group, if you need a person to talk to.

USING THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY

 

The OED can be found online (through the Warwick network) at http://www.oed.com. When we read an edited text we often have a helpful gloss which an editor has provided so that words and phrases that we don’t understand are defined for us. In this assignment you will have to put together that gloss for yourself and the best way to start to do that is with the OED. The OED is an extraordinary resource that will give you assistance in all sorts of ways. For example:

 

a) it will obviously help you to understand words which you don’t understand or unusual applications. It will also help you to find obsolete and dialect words.

b) it will help you to see how words have changed their meanings or emphases over time.

c) it will help you to identify puns. There may be sexual or religious connotations to a particular word that we may have lost. Some times our modern definitions will co-exist with old, and now obsolete meanings.

d) it will tell you the earliest use of a particular word. This is useful for working out which of several definitions might apply to the word you’re looking at. Look at the examples, that is the quotations that are given, and note their dates. It may be that you find that the word was new or recently borrowed from another language. Click the ‘date chart’ button to see the uses represented on a time line. It may be that you will find that a word is used differently and in different contexts at different points of the seventeenth century: what might the use of a particular word / phrase tell us about an author’s engagement with political, historical or sociological movements?

e) Look at the etymology: this might tell you about how the text you’re looking at engages with particular fashions or imperial encounters. Look up, for example, ‘chocolate’ where does the word come from? At what period does it come into the language?

f) the examples given in the dictionary will also help you to see how other contemporaries used the word or phrase you’re interested in, and in what sort of contexts it came up. In this way it can operate as a concordance. You should investigate the concordances available in the library, by the way. Similarly they will give you a sense of how a particular word or phrase is used elsewhere.

 

 

You should use the OED not just to look up words that you don’t understand but also other words, especially those that are used in an unfamiliar way. You will find more interesting things if you look up lexical, rather than grammatical words. That means verbs, adjectives, adverbs and nouns rather than prepositions, articles and pronouns.

 

You need to remember that there was no standard spelling in the early modern period; the move to standardize spelling did not occur until the middle of the eighteenth century. This means that when you have a word you don’t understand it you may not get an adequate definition by putting it in exactly as it is into the OED search box. Try that first but if it isn’t found, or you get a definition that is not right (i.e. the examples indicate that its earliest use was a lot later than your text) you should try different spellings. In particular the vowels are often interchangeable. Try every vowel combination that you can think of. Try substituting ts and cs, us and vs and other related consonants.

 

 

EXERCISE

 

Try out the OED. Look up the following words: how have their meanings have changed? Where do the words come from? How were the words used at different points in history? And in the seventeenth century in particular?

 

Transpire

Prestige

Pretty

Silly

Chocolate

 

 Isabel Davis