Literature and academic writing about literature are both creative endeavours, but each in quite different ways. ‘Good writing' within the context of an academic degree has little or nothing to do with being creative, innovative or poetic. Rather, it means being able to produce clear, cogent arguments, usually in response to a question set by your lecturer.
It is always advisable to read widely and to integrate aspects of that reading into your work. What you are required to do in your essays, however, is to position your individual ideas and arguments in relation to those of other critics in the field.
You should not be overly deferential or allow the ideas of others to steer you off track. Rather, you should aim to make use of the work of other critics in fashioning your own arguments, whether by taking issue with their claims or interpretations, applying their interpretative strategies to different texts, or arguing that their work fails to go far enough in its application or assessment.
The process of writing essays involves four basic stages: reading, planning, writing, and revising. If any of these stages is missed out or done badly, the quality of your work will be impaired.
How to Write a Good Literature Essay
- Always spend time thinking about the question and how it relates to ideas and themes explored in your lectures and seminars, as well as the texts you are required to read.
- Rather than simply presenting a series of disconnected ideas and personal impressions, your aim should be to construct a coherent and compelling argument in response to the question.
- Always keep the essay question in mind as you take notes, read and write, and make sure that everything you include in the essay contributes towards answering it.
- The introduction is often the most difficult section to write, but it is worth spending the time to get it right. A strong introduction should grab the reader's attention, clarify how you will answer the question, and provide a clear outline of the essay to follow. Your introductory paragraph should set the tone of the essay as a whole.
- Your writing should aim to be analytical rather than descriptive, and be structured around your main argument rather than the narrative of the text. You can assume that your reader is already familiar with the text, so do not waste words summarising it.
- Devote special attention to the language the author uses and to the structure of the composition. Do not simply take into account what the text says, but also try to understand how it is put together, how it conveys its ideas and elicits its responses.
- Pay close attention to the author's use of figurative language, rhetorical techniques, and narrative strategies. Consider whether any of them are used consistently in connection with specific themes, emotions or ideas, and if so, to what end. How effective is the author's use of these techniques?
Support your claims with reference to the text, whether by using paraphrase, succinct summary or a short quotation. Always supply the relevant context from which you've extracted your quotations, and never expect to speak for themselves; it is your job to explain and interpret them.
- If the essay question includes literary terms of art that can be used in different ways, be sure that you understand them in the sense intended.
- Devote attention to how your argument develops between paragraphs. Each paragraph should form a step forward in your argument and build on the point made in the one previous to it.
- Try to think for yourself and cultivate your own critical voice. Be respectful of the views of other critics, but not overly deferential, and avoid adopting their arguments or interpretations wholesale.
- Use your conclusion to recapitulate your main thesis and demonstrate how it provides an answer to the question.
Revise your essay, paying attention not only to typographical, spelling and grammar errors, but also to clarity, elegance and style. Devote special attention to transitions between paragraphs. Be sure to cite all works drawn upon in accordance with your department's preferred citation style.
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