As a prospective English major, I’ve written a handful of English papers and have tried to learn what makes some stronger than the others. While the best way to write an English paper may differ based on whether you are writing about a poem, novel, play, or essay, and whether you plan to take a purely textual, historical, theoretical, or comparative approach, some fundamentals are applicable to many English assignments. Here are just some tips you can keep in mind while crafting your next paper:
Make sure to close-read. This goes without saying, but committing to in-depth textual analysis is key to writing a strong English paper. Oftentimes, it can be helpful to take an inductive approach, where you examine a particular set of details in a passage that could lead to an interesting point of discussion. Of course, the best methods for close-reading can vary according to the genre, as close-reading poetry and close-reading prose may require very different methods of analysis. Whether it’s a poem, novel, or essay, however, instead of superficially dabbling with a couple of lines or passages that tie into your argument, it’s important to choose a few quotations and really zero in on them, examining the stylistic choices of the writer and considering any resonant themes or patterns throughout the work as a whole. This is especially crucial for response papers, where you probe one particular passage and break down the tone, diction, and syntax. Close reading can help you form questions about the intentions and motives of the writer, which can help you formulate potential prompts.
Consult existing scholarship. When writing papers, some classes may require only close reading of texts without reference to any outside sources. However, regardless of whether you actually incorporate it into your essay, it is important and can be incredibly helpful to be aware of existing literary criticism on a particular piece of work before writing a paper on it. Cambridge Companions are often a great resource to find scholarship surrounding a particular time period, genre, novel, or writer. You might also go online and browse databases such as Project MUSE and JSTOR to find articles from literary scholars. One thing to note, however, is that databases such as JSTOR can have unreliable or outdated resources, so you should always check the credibility of the sources you find. While it really depends on the amount of academic attention a work of literature has received, it may be best to avoid citing sources that go back too far.
With that said, don’t be too dependent on secondary sources. When I first began writing English papers, I relied heavily on outside resources–mainly because I didn’t feel confident in what I had to offer to the scholarly conversation. Especially for age-old books that have been thoroughly discussed for the past few centuries, it may seem daunting to try to present something new to the existing discussion. As with any academic discipline, however, it’s critical to contribute a new viewpoint to the academic conversation, whether you contest an existing view or interpret a text anachronistically through a more modern lens. Furthermore, having your paper inundated with outside sources can get in the way of close reading. As I gained experience with writing English papers, I realized that relying too much on secondary sources left very little room for my own interpretation of the texts.
Tie your analysis to something larger. It’s easy to become heavily absorbed in the words and text when writing an English paper, at times making it more abstract and difficult to make real-life connections in the way that social science papers often do. At the end of the day, however, it’s crucial to tie back this close reading and textual analysis to why such literary criticism matters and is relevant today. For instance, if you’re exploring the racism and racial nuances in children’s literature from earlier centuries, you may stress the importance of examining such texts in the modern era and how they have evolved or are still resonant in contemporary literature and culture. Contextualizing your analysis in such a manner can help create a sense of closure while adding a layer of complexity to your argument.
Revise your paper. As with any paper, your writing should be clear and coherent, with effective transitions to help the flow of your argument. Especially with English papers, it’s imperative that each step in your analysis of various passages doesn’t feel fragmented, and that you are clearly stating how you are further developing your argument with every new piece of textual analysis by connecting it back to your thesis. Make sure your paper is not inundated with quotations, and that each quotation and its analysis serve a purpose in fleshing out your argument.
An English paper is fundamentally not that different from other papers. However, it does require a much closer reading of specific texts and a more active effort in providing real-life context of your argument and analysis. Hopefully these tips are useful as you prepare to write your next English paper!
— Soo Young Yun, Humanities Correspondent