Writing an Essay: The Critical Steps

Writing the World Lit Essay: The Critical Steps
Mr. Phan
Identifying the Potential Topics (a topic is a subject of conversation or discussion)
Topics tend to be broad, and so must be narrowed, focused, sharpened. It is better to write with depth
on a single idea, symbol, type of image, or kind of character – with extensive and close use of the text –
then to spread your discussion into superficiality. It is also crucial to write about the author and not just
the characters or symbol. What is the author trying to do here, how is she or he doing it, and why?
Here are some examples of workable topics from books I’ve taught in the past. Note the level of
specificity utilized by the I.B.
Examples of some topics chosen by two classes for World Lit Assignment One
(Texts: Ibsen: Hedda Gabler; Chekhov: Three Sisters; Hesse: Siddhartha; Marquez: 100 Years of
Solitude; Midaq Alley)
The role of work in Hedda Gabler and Three Sisters
The role of the past in Hedda Gabler and Three Sisters
The role of the domestic servant Hedda Gabler and Three Sisters
Dramatic irony Medea and Hedda Gabler
The effects of monologues Medea and Three Sisters
The way children are used to develop plot and illustrate character in 100 Years and Three Sisters
Reactions to infidelity compared in Medea and Three Sisters
How sympathy is created for the weak or gullible husband in Hedda Gabler and Three Sisters
Negative views of marriage in Hedda Gabler and Three Sisters
The effect of endings in Hedda Gabler and Three Sisters
The significance of oral comment from the chorus in Hedda Gabler and Three Sisters and Medea
The role of motherhood in Hedda Gabler and Three Sisters
The portrayal of the “outsider”: characters on the outskirts of society in Midaq Alley and 100 Years
The belief of words/language as a resource for knowledge and wisdom in 100 Years and
The role of memory in Three Sisters and 100 Years of Solitude
Here is another set of topics from other classes. Note how concrete and text-based the ideas are,
and how they relate to the students’ own interests:
(Texts: Homer, The Odyssey; Tolstoy: Anna Karenina; Allende: The House of the Spirits)
Obedience and disobedience: a study of parents’ and children’s relationships in the three novels
Landowners and their relationship with land and people: at study of two landlords
Horses and sport in Anna Karenina and The Odyssey
Social occasions and their reflection of society in Anna Karenina and The Odyssey
Activities of practical life (jam-making, boat building) and the significance of their description
Tears and their significance
Nine months and then…a study of pregnancy and birth in Anna Karenina and House of the Spirits
Writing the World Lit Essay: The Critical Steps
Mr. Phan
Choosing a Topic and Explaining Why it is Important
Now that you’ve generated (or been given) a list of potential topics, you must choose one. Don’t be
scared. YOU can come up with the “big” question and related questions that you want to ask. All that
matters is 1) you have a topic you are interested in and 2) you have a topic that is narrow enough for
you to probe deeply.
I suggest that you brainstorm HARD for fifteen minutes on the topic that interests you most. (You may
have to do this several times to help you decide which topic is the best for you. If you’re not even sure
where to start before this, take five minutes to write ideas about one topic, then five minutes on
another, etc.) Then, create a question – or closely related questions – which you want to ask to get at
that topic. Your essay will be an answer to this question. You may have a couple of “wrong”
questions before you find the one you really want. Then write this question at the top of a piece of
paper (or type it) and underneath the question, write a one to two page reflection. You should do a few
things in this reflection. In whatever order you feel is most effective, you should:
Explain why you chose it: why does it interest you personally? How did you get interested?
Defend the question: why is it important in your understanding of the text? Why is it an important
question to ask?
Explain what you anticipate discussing. You do not have to have all your answers, much less a
thesis, but comment on what you think you will have to do.
Here is an example of this process using Toni Morrison’s Beloved (forgive the graphic nature of
the following topic development – if you haven’t read the book, don’t let it turn you off – it’s a
wonderful text!)
This is a novel filled with rapes. Why is rape important in the novel, and how can we
understand a character by exploring the “legacy” of rape? How the character has been scarred
by rape and how the character has dealt with the rape.
I was struck by how common rape is in this novel: I had never read a work where rape was so
visible. I remember being shocked by Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire, but recall that the
rape was out of sight, behind the curtain and off stage. In Morrison’s work, though, women –
and even men, if you add Paul D in Alfred – are raped, or forced into sex, throughout the text.
You hear of Sethe and the “mossy-teethed” boys and the stone cutter in the first few pages, and
there are countless others: Baby Suggs and the strawboss, Sethe’s mother on the slave ships,
Ella and the father and son, the woman at Deer Creek, Stamp Paid’s wife and the slave owner’s
son…But I am not interested in writing on why men rape: it seems that is not the question
Morrison is as interested in. (Men in the book rape for power, but they also do so simply
because some of them are sick. I am not sure there is much more to say about why two men lock
a woman in a cabin.) I am interested, though, in how the character has lived a life after being
raped. Can the character love again? Make love again? Trust? What scars are evident? How
has the character dealt with the trauma? Where do we see the efforts to deal with the memory?
Does the character ever “recover”? If so, how? Who helped? What did the character do with
the memory? If the character does not “recover”, why not? It just seems to me that you simply
cannot understand Sethe or Ella or Paul D without looking at the fact that they were all raped. It
is a book about dealing with past horrors: one way to get a handle on that theme is to look at
I am not sure whom I will discuss. I need to do more research. Paul D may or may not fit – it
may be that he is an entire other discussion and one that does not mesh well with a discussion of
the women. Some of the rapes are barely mentioned and would only figure in the introductory
paragraph. My guess is that I will focus on Sethe (obviously) and examine how she has been
scarred by rape, but I think that Ella is important in her own way as well. I want to get at the
legacy of trauma – how a character carries the pain, humiliation and loss of a rape, and whether
the character is ever “whole” (whatever that means!) again. Sethe has been so obviously
traumatized, but I think I may end up arguing that it is by telling the story – by letting others
know, like Paul D, Amy, other women – she may find healing. Not sure yet.
Writing the World Lit Essay: The Critical Steps
Mr. Phan
Collecting your Information
Now that you have come up with a question and defended it to yourself (and perhaps to me or someone
else), you should be ready to look for specific ways to answer it. That means using the text(s).
You should spend an hour or so leafing through the book(s) so that you can start finding the specifics
you might want to draw on in your paper. A few thoughts:
Since you now know your topic and question, you may be able to eliminate lots of the text. For
instance, if you’re writing about Alba’s birth, you can flip right past a chapter on Jaime and
Nicolas. On the other hand, some questions – something more abstract like “Exactly how does
Garcia Lorca define freedom and who seems to experience it?” – could have something relevant on
any page, especially since you’re not yet sure exactly what you are going to say.
You are looking for anything you might eventually use in a discussion. When you find something,
write it down neatly on a sheet of paper (or type it, which might save you time later) word for
word, with a page reference. Be neat and organized. You don’t want to be leafing around the
book later on in the writing process if you don’t have to.
Look for references, long passages and even single words. Don’t think of quotations only.
Don’t worry at this point about having too much or whether some reference will be useful or not.
Decide that later.
After you have your completed list, look through it, and neatly in the margins, add any comments
here and there: is one particularly brilliant? Is a quotation too long and not all needed? Then
write a brief general comment about the list. Not enough? More than enough? Predictable
specifics (ones that we’ve gone over and over in class so are less original)? Original ones? You
can also get someone else to look through your list and answer these same questions for you.
Writing the World Lit Essay: The Critical Steps
Mr. Phan
Introduction, Thesis and Topic Sentence Outline
Now that you have a topic area, question and all the data, you should first spend time just looking over
all your findings. Don’t do any writing yet. Just look at what you have mined from the book, and look
for patterns, connections, and places a discussion might turn. Look for your argument. It’s in there.
Find it.
Having spent some time looking, write a five to ten minute free write answer to your question. In a
free write, you aren’t concerned about wording; just think about ideas.
Turn that thesis into an introduction and thesis. The introduction should
Give a strong, specific and clear thesis*. This, of course, is what your paper will argue, and it is
your answer to your own question. Your thesis may have been stated in an informal way in the
free write. The thesis is usually the last sentence of the introduction – not the first.
Give the main points of your discussion, the overall direction. Your free write may have done this
in an informal way.
Have something interesting or original which marks your introduction. But don’t be gimmicky.
Don’t start with a dictionary definition or a quotation by a singer or a general statement about how
the world works. Stick closely to your topic.
This is only your first try, so don’t panic or sweat the details too much. Just be sure to get a start.
After you’ve gotten a basic introduction and thesis, you should write a topic sentence** outline.
You have all the data you need, and you have a sense of what you want to say. You have a sense of
your argument. So, for each paragraph, write a topic sentence, giving a good transition if needed, and
underneath the sentence, put the specifics you want to use. Most writers put a note to themselves about
what point they want to make or how they want to use the specific. It helps later when you write it up.
*Remember that a thesis should address these questions 1) What is this essay about? 2) How is it
going to argue that point? 3) Why is that point important?
**Remember that a topic sentence sets out what the paragraph is going to be about. Really good topic
sentences also suggest how the paragraph will connect back to the thesis statement, but you can also do
that at another point in the paragraph.
Writing the World Lit Essay: The Critical Steps
Mr. Phan
Developing Ideas into Body Paragraphs
A pattern that you should use in the development of your ideas is this: Assert, Illustrate, Explain
Note that this is not a formula; it is a pattern.
Note that you do not just want one sentence insight, one sentence quotation, and one sentence
Note that you should have roughly 20-30% illustrations. Too much suggests your own voice is
lost and you are probably paraphrasing.
State the insight (idea, opinion).
Note that this may take several sentences: sometimes an idea is complex and needs considerable
work to make it clear. You may have to work through it carefully.
Note that this may be a quotation (long or short), a descriptive detail, a single word or even just a
Be sure that you integrate* the illustration well. Quotations especially should be smoothly
integrated and correctly punctuated and cited.
Be sure that you do not use too many questions, and be sure that they are as short as possible and
perfectly relevant.
Stuck for a way to introduce a quotation? You could say:
Allende writes, “...”
Alba says, “…”
The narrator describes the (insert adjective) scene: “…”
(Insert character) says to Bernarda Alba, “…”
Note that the comment on how the specific is significant may be lengthy: quotations with
interesting language may have to be fully analyzed; even a reference may need to be fully
Occasionally a specific is self-evident and need not be commented on.
*Quotation Integration is further explained on the next page, titled “Close Use of the Text”
Writing the World Lit Essay: The Critical Steps
Mr. Phan
Close Use of the Text
When you select the evidence that you intend to use in your essay, you should choose the best specifics
you can. An important point could be lavishly explored. For the most part, you want to avoid
referencing anything that you do not then explain. The equivalent of this in a courtroom trial would be
if you wave a piece of evidence around in front of the jury, throw it triumphantly on the table and then
sit down. The judge and jury have no idea what it means. They just know that it is there.
Similarly with a quotation, you don’t just want to plop it down into a paragraph. You want to explain
why it’s there and connect it to the overall question you’re trying to answer or idea you’re trying to
When you choose a piece of evidence, make sure that it is the best evidence and that you know how to
explain it. We practice passage analysis in order to equip you with the skills for close reading. Use
these skills to help you identify significant diction, syntax, imagery, symbols, figurative language, etc.
You should avoid using too many long quotations. These can make it seem as if you’re trying to fill
out your paper with the author’s words – and it’s usually true. Occasionally a long quotation can be
quite helpful – if you’re going to explain the whole thing – but usually it’s better to excerpt it. Take the
parts that are most important and use only these.
One or two word quotations can help you build an argument. For example, you could write about the
end of The Great Gatsby that it is a discussion of how humans “ceaselessly” return to their
backgrounds and what went before. The rest of the words are your own, but the word in quotations is
taken from the text. You could then go on to explain why this word is so important – more important
than other words might be in this context.
Some Notes on Quotation Integration
Example 1: A quotation of less than three lines at the end of a sentence.
As section four opens, Steinbeck describes the quality of light around the bunkhouse, “Although there
was evening brightness showing through the windows of the bunk house, it was dusk” (38).
Example 2: A quotation of less than three lines that is not at the end of a sentence.
During Lennie and George’s first encounter with Curley’ s wife, she wears “a cotton house dress and
red mules” with “ostrich feathers,” which suggests that she is vain and self-absorbed, because these
adornments are not necessary on a ranch (31).
Example 3: A quotation of three or more lines.
As George and Lennie arrive at the bunkhouse, Steinbeck immediately establishes an
atmosphere of danger and mistrust through their dialogue with Candy, the old swamper. When George
accuses Candy of listening in on their conversation, he replies,
“I didn’t hear nothin’ you guys was sayin’. I ain’t interested in nothin’ you was saying. A guy
on a ranch don’t never listen, nor he don’t ask no questions.”
“Damn right he don’t,” said George, slightly mollified, “not if he wants to stay workin’ long.”
Steinbeck makes it clear to the reader through this dialogue that ranch culture does not allow for the
development of trust, sharing or friendship. The reader immediately feels the conflict between the
informal rules of the ranch and the nature of George and Lennie’s deep friendship.
Writing the World Lit Essay: The Critical Steps
Mr. Phan
Rough draft
Now that you have an outline, you should write your first draft. With luck, the skeleton is all there: the
introduction is clear; the topic sentences shape the paragraph and give transitions; and the support is
ample and original. Now spend the time fleshing out what you have begun. This should include a very
rough draft of the conclusion.
After you have completed your rough draft, get someone to look over it carefully (you can also do this
yourself, but it can be easy to miss things since all the correct ideas are in your head and you tend to fill
in the blanks in your writing). Your rough draft reader isn’t looking for correct grammar in this draft;
she/he is looking for the quality and clarity of your ideas.
Final draft
You should now edit your essay so that what you hand in represents your best writing. You should pay
particular attention to:
Syntax: have you varied your sentence structure?
Cogent, original word choice
Use of all punctuation devices to allow greater variety of expression
Correct presentation of quotations, including the citation
Correct spelling
Transitions to move from one idea to the next and one paragraph to the next
You have written about the text(s) in the present tense
You do not switch back and forth between tenses unless appropriate
Book titles are underlined or italicized; poem titles are in quotations
All character and place names are spelled correctly
You have an appropriate, helpful title
You have checked your World Lit Handout for information on correct presentation, including
specifics on title page, bibliography, etc.
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