BASIC STEPS IN WRITING A LITERATURE PAPER

Dr. Tina L. Hanlon

Associate Professor of English
Ferrum College


Pre-Writing Suggestions

It may be helpful first to do some free writing with a short discussion of your potential topic, or compile a "brainstorming" list of ideas and details that could be used in a paper on a topic you are exploring. Or use the worksheet given below to get feedback on your topic before writing the paper.

Reread the literary work, or relevant portions of it if it is long, and make notes on all details relating to your topic that you might add to your paper. You will be expected to provide more supporting details for each point of analysis than are required in informal journal entries.

Develop a Thesis

You may have developed a good central point of analysis in your pre-writing activities that will provide a thesis, or you may have to develop a new one appropriate for your revised focus. If you start with a a piece of homework or free writing that was based primarily on facts about plot or on personal reactions, it will be essential to develop an interpretive thesis—a precise statement about the topic. If you change your mind later about the opinion or point of interpretation stated in your thesis (since we often discover new insights as we write), or stronger ideas emerge at the end of your draft, reword the thesis and introduction and revise the rest of the essay accordingly.

Sample Thesis Statements about the short story “A Worn Path” by Eudora Welty:

Use an Outline

Notes made while rereading will produce more material than you can use in a short paper.  (If they don't, you are not reading carefully or you have not chosen an appropriate topic for that work.)

To restructure an informal journal entry or rough outline into a more coherent and unified paper, construct an outline in which you select details from your original notes, and arrange them in groups according to subtopics or major points that will make up the body of the paper.  Decide on a logical and effective pattern of organization to use in the paper to move the reader from the statement of your thesis to a demonstration of its validity.

Write the First Draft of the New Paper

In the first draft, do not be concerned about grammar, punctuation, spelling, and style.  It is more important at this stage to get your thoughts written out.  If you have trouble with beginnings, skip the introduction and begin writing at a point where you feel confident about what you want to say on a particular subtopic.  In the end, the essay should have the following parts.

Title: The title should indicate your topic in a clear and precise way, not just repeat the title of the literature.  Avoid titles that are too long, too general, or vague (e.g., "What Is It with Huck Finn?" or "Huck Finn" are too vague).  Don’t use just the title of the literature as the title of your paper.

Introduction:  The introduction should contain a precise statement of the subject (do not rely on the reader's familiarity with the title) and should move from a general discussion of the subject to an indication of your limited focus and the specific thesis.  Stress the significance of the topic in relation to the work as a whole.

You may begin with general background on the subject, but don't be too general or vague or obvious (as in, "Irony is an important technique used by writers of literature," or "James Joyce was a great modern writer."). Avoid empty sentences such as, "In this essay I intend to discuss the differences and similarities in two poems." The reader knows this is your essay and these are your ideas; repeated references to your own process of thinking and writing are awkward and unnecessary, so instead state your precise ideas directly and support them well.

Make the scope of the essay clear in the beginning. It is a good idea to give a listing of subtopics to be discussed in the body of the paper (e.g., what are those similarities and differences?) or at least give some indication of the direction the discussion will take.

Body: Every detail in the body of the essay should develop and support the thesis. Treat every paragraph as a unified, coherent mini-essay with a topic sentence and details that support that subtopic.

Conclusion: Don't end the paper abruptly, on a specific subtopic, but don't add a lengthy summary to a short paper, either. A concluding paragraph should tie together the specific points found in the body of the paper, and give it a sense of completeness and significance. Return to a general level of discussion and to the main idea of your thesis (perhaps by giving it a new twist or different wording), but do not make unsupportable generalizations that go far beyond the scope of your paper (e.g., "Welty struggled against racial prejudice.")

Revise and Polish the First Draft

After you have written the first draft, go back to it and correct faulty grammar, punctuation, and spelling.  Improve the style by making sentences clearer and smoother.  Look carefully for inconsistent shifts in verb tense (a common error in essays describing literary characters and plots).  You may cut or expand or rearrange passages of the essay to make it more effective. See below for instructions on format.

Remember that professional writers may revise their work dozens or even hundreds of times; you should do so as many times as deadlines and your abilities allow. (Of course, this means you must start early so that you can set the essay aside between revisions.) After the essay is typed (whether by you or someone else) make a final check for mechanical errors. Typos will count as errors and a careless typing or proofreading job can ruin a paper with good content.

Revisions of Graded Papers

If you allow enough time between papers, you may revise and resubmit a paper after it has been graded. Revisions must contain substantial improvements in content, besides any necessary mechanical corrections, in order to receive a new grade. The revision will be graded separately (no limit on how much the grade could improve); then the original grade and revision grade will be averaged together when final grades are calculated. Don't forget to turn in the original with the revised paper.



WORKSHEET FOR LITERATURE PAPERS

Use this on your own or turn in a worksheet using the following headings to have a paper topic approved or to get help with your thesis or outline.


Limited topic:


Tentative title:


Literary work(s) to be covered:


Thesis statement:




Outline of major points that support thesis—include specific examples from the text(s):


FORMAT AND MECHANICS FOR ENGLISH PAPERS


1. Paper

Papers should be typed on white paper of a standard weight and size. Avoid very thin paper and erasable paper. Be sure fonts are consistent and printing is legible.

2. Title

No title page is required. Type your title (not just the title of the literature you are analyzing) two inches from the top of the first page with the first word and all other important words capitalized.

3. Typing the Page

a. Leave uniform margins of at least one inch on all sides of each page.

b. Double-space the text of the paper (except for long quotations). Do not leave extra spaces between paragraphs (set Microsoft Word so that there are no extra spaces between paragraphs).

c. Indent the beginning of each paragraph one inch or 4-5 spaces. If it is necessary to change paragraph breaks after the page is typed, use the symbol or "no " to indicate that a new paragraph should or should not begin at that spot.

d. Observe all standard typing rules. For example:

e. Number pages with Arabic numerals beginning on the second page. Do not place a number at the top of a page if there is a title there (i.e., at the top of the first page).

4. Proofreading and Corrections

Check the paper carefully for mechanical errors after it has been typed. If you have trouble with mechanics, proofread as many times as you feel are necessary to look for specific types of errors you tend to make. (For example, read through once just for spelling or just for sentence fragments or comma splices.) Spelling and grammar checkers on word processors are useful, but you must still read through the printed copy carefully for various types of errors that word processors may not identify for you. Use the correct mechanical marks on titles (underline titles of full-length works published or produced alone; use quotation marks on titles of articles and short works). See the list of marking symbols below to review common problems with proofreading and editing.

Remember that a neat and professional appearance is important on any paper, and appearance creates a crucial first impression of your work in the reader's mind. Sloppy pages with many errors should be corrected and reprinted. If if is necessary to make last-minute corrections, do so neatly in ink. Use a carat (^) to indicate insertions.

5. Submitting the Paper

Be sure your name and the date are on the paper. Attach the pages with a staple or paper clip in the upper left corner. Do not use special plastic binders.

 

QUOTATIONS AND DOCUMENTATION IN LITERATURE PAPERS

I. Identifying Sources

The source of every quotation used in your paper must be identified so your reader could find that quotation easily. Whether or not your assignment requires complete citations for documentation, it is necessary to indicate the source and page numbers for each quotation you use in your paper. If full documentation is required, MLA format is used most often for literature papers (the professor may allow for another format such as APA to be used).

A.  If your whole paper discusses and quotes from just one work of literature, be sure that work is identified clearly in the introduction and give page numbers whenever you quote directly from that work. If you mention the author's name or title in your discussion, it is not necessary to repeat it in the parenthetical reference.

Examples, discussing Melville's Benito Cereno:

Melville sums up the situation on the slave ship in an emblem on the San Dominick, a carving of "a dark satyr in a mask" (2158).

Delano's suspicions surface when, for example, as he watches Babo shave Cereno "in the black he saw a headman, and in the white a man at the block" (Melville 2184).

B.  If you quote from more than one work of literature in a paper, give the source in parentheses after the first quotation from each work (as in A.1. above). Thereafter, you can give a shortened form of the title, or an abbreviation of the title, and the page number, in parentheses.

Examples from Scarlet Letter and Daisy Miller: Hawthorne informs us that Pearl "became the richest heiress of her day, in the New World" (SL, 259). Someone has remarked that she grew up to be the heroine of a novel by Henry James, someone like, say, Daisy Miller; Winterbourne's observation that Daisy's "glance was perfectly direct and unshrinking but not . . . an immodest glance" could have been written about Pearl (DM, 7).

C.  If your primary source is a literary work published separately, or a required course anthology, be sure to indicate what edition you are using.

NOTE:  Page references do not have to come immediately after every quoted phrase, or after every sentence in a paragraph with several short quotations from the same place. It may be less awkward to save the page reference until the end of your sentence, or sometimes the end of a paragraph, as long as it is clear where each quotation comes from.  If you are quoting from a short poem, give line numbers rather than page numbers in parentheses (e.g., l. 15).

Use of secondary sources (reference books, critical books and articles, etc.) may not be not required in your papers. Doing your own analysis of the literature is most important in many assignment in literature courses. However, if you have obtained any idea or information from another source besides your own head and the primary work(s) of literature, you must indicate the source of that fact, idea, or quotation, whether or not you are quoting the source directly. It is your responsibility to know how to document secondary sources accurately, using an accepted documentation system for academic papers (preferably the MLA documentation style), and avoid plagiarism.

II. Guidelines for Using Quotations

A.  Use Quotations Sparingly. When you quote, keep each quotation short and select only phrases or sentences that support your analysis through their especially distinctive wording. There is no reason to quote the full text of an incident or a long speech when you can paraphrase it or just mention it. Too many quotations can make reading awkward and confusing; they will distract the readers, rather than impressing them.

B. Quote Accurately. If you are quoting indirectly (i.e., the author's exact words are not used), quotation marks are not necessary, but you must be sure to convey the author's ideas accurately, without distortion. If you use a phrase, sentence, or more in the author's own words, copy the quotation accurately, word for word, with punctuation and quotations marks placed properly. Consult a handbook, if necessary, for conventions involving placement of punctuation in relation to quotation marks, use of ellipsis dots (. . .) to indicate words omitted in direct quotations, and use of square brackets [ ] to insert something in your own words into a direct quotation. Quotations more than several lines long (which should be used rarely in short papers) must be indented and single-spaced, with no quotation marks.

C.  Introduce Quotations Smoothly. In short papers, try to keep each direct quotation to a phrase you can include in a sentence of your own. A quotation of any length must be introduced smoothly; don't just plunk it down in the middle of your discussion. You usually need to introduce it with a transitional phrase guiding the reader from your thoughts to those of your source. Repeat the title or author's name only when necessary to make the introduction clear and smooth. Don't refer to lines you quote as quotations, as if the author were quoting himself or herself.

Example:  As Melville indicates in "Bartleby the Scrivener," "Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance" (358).

III. Quoting from Poetry and Plays

A. Quoting Verse:  When quoting poetry in the context of your own sentences, use a slash mark to indicate the end of a line and retain the capital letters found at the beginnings of lines in the original. When you indent long quotations of more than three lines, slash marks are not necessary.

Example:  Hamlet muses, "To die: to sleep;/No more: and by a sleep to say we end/The heartache" (III. i, ll. 60-62).

B. Identifying Lines from Poetry and Plays:

1.  If your paper quotes only one or two relatively short poems, give the source and page numbers of each poem in parentheses after the first quotation, but identify later quotations by giving line numbers. (l = line; ll = lines)

Example: In "Tintern Abbey" Wordsworth describes his "serene and blessed mood" (l. 41).

2. When quoting from plays, it is customary to identify act, scene, and line numbers when the play has them, or just use page numbers and line numbers if you are quoting from a play or long poem in a course anthology.

Examples: (Act IV. ii, ll. 17-18) OR (p. 1028, ll. 17-18)

IV.  Avoiding Plagiarism

The Ferrum College Honor Code applies to all work submitted for credit in this course. Plagiarism or any other form of cheating on papers, reports, homework, or tests will result in severe penalties, which may include failure of the course. You are responsible for reading and understanding the Ferrum College Honor Policy and the explanation of plagiarism in an English handbook, and for avoiding the undocumented use of the words or ideas of others in your writing. If the professor has any questions about possible sources, inaccurate quoting, or inadequate documentation in a paper that has been submitted, the paper will not be graded until the questions are answered and/or the quoting or documentation has been corrected.

A professor, tutor, or other reliable reader may help you with brainstorming, outlining, suggesting revisions, learning to recognize proofreading errors, or typing a paper. It is unethical to get someone else to edit or proofread (i.e., correct errors) or write all or part of a paper, and to copy homework exercises from someone else. If you have any questions about documentation or help received, talk to the professor before an assignment is submitted. Obviously, it is to your advantage to ask questions early if you have doubts and to learn as much as you can by doing your own work.

MARKING SYMBOLS AND TERMS FOR ENGLISH PAPERS

This chart provides a good review of basic requirements for proofreading and editing college papers. Check it before you submit a paper and after you get it back.  This list progresses from basic mechanics and sentence structure errors which must be avoided, and then stylistic problems for which there may be a number of possible solutions as you revise your sentence. See The Little, Brown Handbook or a similar handbook for more information on these and other editing problems.

W

Write out (don't abbreviate or use symbol)
e.g., the 3 characters ---> the three characters

cap.

Capitalize
e.g., the mississippi river ---> the Mississippi River

LC

Use lower case
e.g., the River Thames ---> the river Thames

sp.

spelling; e.g., Misisipi
(I often just circle spelling mistakes.)

^

insert something (usually a word left out)
wavy line
around letters
or words
Reverse order of letters, words, or symbols
e.g., teahc ---> teach OR . . . end". ---> . . . end."

/

Leave a space here e.g., Fifth/Avenue

Begin new paragraph

--->

Indent here
line through
letters or words
Delete

Do not space here e.g., Avenue

slash mark
through hyphen

Word divided incorrectly; e.g., paragra-
ph

frag.

Sentence fragment
e.g., The tragedy here that such a love could not be consummated and that one so young should be cut off just at the dawn of life.
Rewrite:  The tragedy here is that . . .

CS

Comma splice, or comma fault—two sentences joined incorrectly with a comma.
Use a semi-colon or period between them or add a conjunction.
e.g., We are not allowed to think for ourselves, that privilege is reserved for administrators.
Change punctuation or add because before that.

paral.

Faulty parallelism
e.g., First of all, Daisy was an adult, married, and had a young daughter.
Rewrite:  First of all, Daisy was a married adult with a young daughter.

DM

Dangling modifier or verbal phrase:
e.g., Sweet and innocent, evil deeds destroy the life of the heroine.
Rewrite:  Evil deeds destroy the life of the sweet and innocent heroine.
e.g., Returning evil for evil, no lasting good can be done.  (Who is returning evil for evil?)
Rewrite:  Returning evil for evil, the hero can do no lasting good.

tense

Faulty verb tenses
e.g., They had ran out of gas. (Use simple past tense "ran" or use past participle "run" after helping verb "had.")
e.g., Hamlet saw the ghost and is confused about how to get revenge.
(Inconsistent tenses:  stay in present tense or past tense to discuss the events in a work of literature.)

agr.

Agreement error
e.g., The increase in the number of nations in some continents are amazing.
(Subject-verb agreement:  verb should be "is")
e.g., No matter what the detergent commercials say, no woman really enjoys mopping their dirty kitchen floor.
(Pronoun agreement:  change "their" to "her")

ref.

Problem with pronoun reference
e.g., John told his father that his car wouldn't start. (Whose car?)

rep.

Needless or confusing repetition of the same word.
e.g., The characteristics of the main character are reflected in the characteristics of the minor characters.

red.

Redundancy:  needless repetition of the same idea in a word, phrase, sentence, or passage.  Reword more concisely.
e.g., He is influenced by the surrounding environment . (Delete surrounding.)
e.g., The collector of insects needs only a small amount of equipment to begin an insect collection.

awk.

Awkward wording
e.g., The football player has had many broken noses, with which he ends up looking like a prizefighter.
Rewrite:  The football player has broken his nose so often that he looks like a prizefighter.

WW

Wrong word
e.g., By the time they reached Phoenix they had spent their food allotment and were faced with the gloomy aspect of starving to death.
(The writer probably meant "prospect.")

vague

An idea is not expressed in precise terms.
e.g., What most impressed me about the story was the author's descriptive language.
(His vivid, sensory diction or his simple, concrete words?)

coll.

Colloquial language used in informal conversation but not appropriate in academic writing.
Use colloquial language or slang only when quoting dialogue or creating a special effect.
e.g., The story is over with when the hero comes back really worn out after a lot of adventures.
Rewrite:  The story ends when the hero returns, exhausted after many adventures.

cliche

Trite or overused expressions which make your writing lack freshness.  Rephrase in plain but not trite language.
e.g., The hero returned from the picnic tired but happy and that night he slept like a log.

wordy

Be more concise; cut out unnecessary words.
e.g., He was justified in trying to straighten out his mother on her backward ideas about her attitude toward politics.
Rewrite:  He was justified in trying to reform his mother's attitudes about politics.

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