A checklist for essay

A checklist for essay-writers
 The opening sentence. Opening sentences should be interesting, precise and directly
involved with the topic under discussion.
 “Hamlet is a play by Shakespeare.” [No. Self-evident facts are boring.]
 “Hamlet is a work of extraordinary genius and complexity.” [No.
Unsubstantiated opinions are pointless.]
 “Tragedy was a form of writing developed in ancient Greece.” [Er… When will
we get to Hamlet?]
 “Hamlet’s death is too messy to make him a conventional tragic hero.” [Sounds
interesting. Makes me want to read on.]
Defining your terms. It’s important for any essay to give a clear definition of the terms it
uses. This is not best done by quoting from a dictionary or a glossary of literary terms,
however, since such sources inevitably deal in broad and brief generalisations. If you are
writing about Hamlet as a “tragedy” or Hamlet himself as a “hero,” or about the idea of
“revenge” in the play, what your essay needs to show is how you see such terms working in
the particular context of Hamlet. In other words, the definition needs to emerge from within
your discussion of the play, rather than being imposed on it from an outside source.
The argument. An essay should be a focussed discussion of a specific topic, and not a
ragbag of everything you could say about the play under discussion. The “argument” or
“thesis” of your essay – what you’re setting out to show or prove through your discussion –
should be the clear aim that drives virtually everything you say. (The clearer your argument
is, the more room there is for interesting and useful digression. If the argument isn’t clear,
digressions just read like wandering off the point, even if they may be interesting in
themselves.) There are various ways of helping yourself to organise your essay:
 Write a point-by-point plan and stick to it.
 Write a short paragraph summarising the argument you intend to make (called an
“abstract” in academic jargon). You may or may not find yourself using the words of this
paragraph in your actual essay, but it will clarify what is and isn’t relevant to your discussion.
 Draft the last couple of sentences of your essay at the outset, and aim everything
you write towards them. Again, they may get changed in the end, but this will provide you
with a clear goal.
Analysis. An essay is an argument supported by evidence. The “evidence” in a
literature/drama-based essay comes largely from the text or play under discussion. Most of
any essay you write should therefore consist of a detailed analysis of the things that happen
in the play you’re writing about, to show how its characterisation, use of dialogue, plot,
structure, stage-action, etc. support the view of it that you’re developing in your argument. It
means that you should adopt the habit of distrusting any generalisation about a play that isn’t
backed up by detail. And it means that quoting from, or referring to, specific bits of the play
is vital to a convincing essay. But not if all you end up doing is summarising the plot, or
paraphrasing what goes on, or quoting great chunks of the text without any commentary or
discussion. Analysis means that you use the detail of the play in order to show how it works
as a piece of writing and as a piece of theatre.
Quoting from the views of critics is another kind of “evidence.” But again it is much more
effective if you engage with critics in a discussion of their ideas – perhaps suggesting
alternative points of view, or other ways in which a given critic’s ideas could be applied -rather than just quoting from them as “authorities.”
Sentence structure. The clarity of your overall argument and analysis depends upon
writing clear sentences; and the clarity of individual sentences depends upon knowing what
the argument is that each of them contributes to.
 “By the middle of the play it’s becoming clear that Hamlet is more interested in
proving that Claudius killed his father than in doing anything about it and anyway the idea of
revenge seems a fairly primitive one, and Hamlet seems to be in two minds too about
whether he should trust the word of a ghost as is made clear at the beginning of the play, or
fairly clear anyway.” [The ideas aren’t stupid. But there are too many of them for a single
sentence, they’re presented in no particular order and with a distinct lack of conviction. The
absence of punctuation and of detailed reference to the play confirm the impression of
 Paragraphing. Clearly written sentences should contribute to clearly laid-out paragraphs.
If sentences are the individual “ideas” and “proofs” within your overall argument,
paragraphs are the main “sub-headings” or “building-blocks” of the case that you’re
constructing. If you write an entire page without a fresh paragraph, then the likelihood is
that you’re not sorting your ideas out into the separate parts of the argument that are needed
in order for it to develop clearly. If there’s a new paragraph for nearly every sentence, then
the likelihood is that your argument is going to be bitty and insubstantial.
 Punctuation. The careful punctuation of sentences is one of the clearest signs that you, as
an essay-writer, are thinking about the detailed needs of your reader – not just writing down
ideas as they come to you, but making sure that what you write works on the page.
 Commas (,) are used when you want your reader to pause briefly within a
sentence, or when there’s a list of words that needs dividing up for clarity’s sake. “Hamlet is
a tragedy, but it is also a melodrama, a revenge play, and perhaps at times a grim farce.”
 Semi-colons (;) are used when you want your reader to pause a bit longer, but
not with a sufficient change of idea to justify a new sentence. “Hamlet is a tragedy; whether
it is a sad play is a different question.”
 Colons (:) are used when the next part of the sentence follows from what has
already been said, but goes off in a new or supplementary direction. “The main reason for
calling Hamlet a tragedy is simple: by the end of the play a young prince is dead.”
 This is also the reason why colons (not semi-colons) are used when a sentence
leads into a quotation. “Hamlet is a tragedy: ‘drown[ing] the stage with tears,’ as Hamlet
himself says of the First Player’s speech (Act 2, scene 2).” Notice also here: square brackets
used to modify a quotation so that its fits in with the syntax of the sentence, and normal
brackets used to locate the source of the quotation.
 Quotation-marks (“ ”/‘ ’), single or double, should be used within a sentence
or paragraph to indicate a quotation. If on the other hand you are indenting a longer
quotation, the indentation should be sufficient to indicate that it’s a quotation, without using
quotation-marks as well.
 Whole sentences that incorporate quotations should be punctuated with commas
if the quotation continues; and with a full-stop if it’s the end of a sentence, even if it isn’t a
complete sentence that’s being quoted. ‘He would drown the stage with tears,’ says Hamlet
of the First Player, ‘And cleave the general ear with horrid speech.’ But: “As Hamlet says, the
First Player ‘would drown the stage with tears.’ In the end, it is what Hamlet himself wants
to do.”
 And finally, apostrophes. If you can sort out the ten mistakes involving
apostrophes in the following you should be well on the way to using them correctly:
“Shakespeares Globe Theatre was on the south bank of the River Thame’s. Its not known
precisely what it looked like but it’s basic structure was either circular or hexagonal, with
gallery’s around the sides. The women’s part’s were taken by boy’s, and theres evidence that
Shakespeares’ own career had been as a member of Burbage’s actor’s company before he
became a playwright.”
Roger Moss, November 2006.