How to Write a Good Essay on English Literature in 5 Easy Steps
To write a good essay on English literature, you need to do five things:
1) Understand the purpose of writing essays about literature.
2) Understand how to understand a work of literature.
3) Define "English."
4) Focus your essay.
5) Write your essay.
Let's take these in order.
1) Purpose. There are two closely related purposes of writing essays about literature. Instructors have you write them to make you examine literary works more closely. These works deserve your attention. They have moved people to tears and express the greatest thoughts and feelings of humanity in the best-known writing. As a student, the purpose of writing such an essay is to demonstrate that you understand this work fully and deeply.
2) Understanding. But how do you get that understanding? You get it by reviewing the work closely and repeatedly, and by looking at content, form, and function. You might think of the process as taking an engine apart and putting it back together. In the process, you should come to understand this particular "engine" (literary work) well. To do so, examine each choice made by the author until you can explain how it relates to the whole. Slow down, and take all elements of the work into account: sound, shape on the page, structure (chapter length, number of chapters, etc.), point of view, and so on. Assemble a list and move through it, always keeping the larger purposes of the essay in mind.
3) English. Don't take the term "English" for granted. It's been the subject of a lot of debate over the centuries, and you want to know how you're using it. Research the work's historical period and the author, and take what you learn to define your use of "English." Where is the author from? How did that location define itself during this period in relation to England—and how does it show up in the work?
4) Focus. As you write a literary essay, you argue for a specific interpretation of the work. The essential focus of your essay should be expressed in the thesis statement. Though there are many ways to phrase a thesis statement, you should always be able to translate it to a statement like this: "In this essay, I will prove ___ about this work." Your focus must relate to the purposes of literary essays. You should always be proving that you understand this work on a profound level, but also that you understand the larger meaning of this literary form, this period of English literature, writing, and humanity. Focusing well requires a lot of reflection.
5) Write the essay. This is where most people start. Don't. If you start here, you're likely to find the process hard and the result mediocre. Instead, do the other steps first. Come to the writing stage with a pile of notes and a clear sense of your focus regarding the work. Then start your essay with a clearly defined introduction that hooks your readers' interest and ends with a clearly stated thesis. Write three or more body paragraphs, each of which makes points that support your thesis, points that you illustrate with specific evidence from the work itself and your outside research. Provide transitions between each paragraph that guide your readers to a conclusion that sums up the essay, expresses what you learned by writing the essay, and, in the best possible world, rewards readers for reading your essay by teaching them something new. However, before you give the essay to them, review it. Make sure it completes its functions. Then proofread it until the work is error-free. You want every line of your essay to quietly declare, "You can trust me. I understand this work."
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