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Tips for Students Writing Literature Papers:

(1) The best way to begin any paper is by doing a close reading of literature or a critical reading of the essay's argument before you begin writing to make sure you really understand the material. See the close reading exercise online or in the course packet for help with this.

(2) Make sure you know what every word means in a passage you are analyzing or discussing. If you are examining a source from past centuries, you should consult The Oxford English Dictionary (the online version available from the library's webpage or the big multi-volume hardcopy version in the English Department's main office) to find obsolete or outmoded meanings of words. Often the meaning of words have changed somewhat over the years. For instance, a seventeenth-century speaker might call a woman his mistress without implying any adultery--the word is simply a polite way of referring to the relationship a modern speaker would call a girlfriend. If Shakespeare calls someone fond, that word doesn't mean loving or affectionate, it means silly or stupid. In the same way, if a speaker in Old English or Middle English calls someone silly, he means happy, innocent, or blessed. Be sure the word means what you think it means!

(3) When writing about a novel, short story, or other narrative, don't summarize the story. I've already read it, and I don't need you to spoonfeed the tale to me. Spend your time instead focusing on specific passages, specific scenes, or specific characters. Close reading is the key!

(4) All your essays should have a thesis. A thesis is an argument about a debatable point that your essay will prove by pointing to textual evidence and using logic. You should not simply describe or summarize the qualities of the piece of literature, you should fashion an original argument about it.

(5) In addition to primary sources (i.e., the original poems, writings, or novels that provide the focus of your paper), you will want to make judicious use of secondary sources (scholarly writings or analyses about that poem, story, or novel that is the focus of your paper.) For instance, if I were writing a paper on Shakespeare's use of tragic conventions in Macbeth, the play Macbeth would be a primary source, as would Aristotle's definition of tragedy in The Poetics. For secondary sources, I might use Willard Farnham's book, The Medieval Heritage of Elizabethan Tragedy, or a lecture such as A. C. Bradley's "Lecture on Macbeth" as reprinted in Shakespearean Tragedy, or a peer-reviewed article from Shakespeare Quarterly or a similar scholarly journal.

(6) See also all the tips for writers of research papers.


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