16 Mar What kind of diction should you use in an ess.ay? ? 2. Why is your spellchecker sometimes wrong? ? 3. How should you use a semicolon? ? 4. What is a comma splice? ? 5
For this Guided Reading Questions assignment, please read pp. 127-145 in our Writing Ess.ays about Literature text. The following review questions tie directly to the assigned readings.
For each question, please answer with a strong paragraph, drawing examples (meaning quotes) from the assigned reading where appropriate. I'm interested in seeing that you have read the chapters and absorbed the information so that you can now put the ideas in the reading into your own words.
1. What kind of diction should you use in an ess.ay?
2. Why is your spellchecker sometimes wrong?
3. How should you use a semicolon?
4. What is a comma splice?
5. What use can the dictionary be in polishing your ess.ay and producing the final version?
Good rules of thumb for guided reading questions:
- Do your best.
- Show me you're trying.
- Make a sincere effort.
If you do this, you'll get full points.
A BRIEF GUIDE FOR UNIVERSITY
AND COLLEGE STUDENTS
Katherine O. Acheson
“I've been using Writing Essays About Literature in my courses for years now because it is by far the clearest, most direct, and most engaging explanation
of the processes of literary analysis. It explains through demonstration, taking readers through each step with the genuine curiosity we want to encourage
in our students. The revisions to the second edition clarify the steps students struggle with most: developing the thesis statement as part of the introduction
and then revising the thesis after writing the body of the essay.” —KYLEE-ANNE HINGSTON, St. Thomas More College
“I was especially impressed by the lively and approachable authorial voice in Writing Essays About Literature. Where students might be accustomed to start with a thesis and write an essay straight through from beginning to end, the book demonstrates a more nuanced writing process that is both inductive and recursive. It gives students the tools to do higher-level research and
thinking, and it concludes with sample essays that model those outcomes.” —SUNNY STALTER-PACE, Auburn University
“I am a student studying English and American Studies, and this may be a bit unorthodox, but [ wanted to say that Writing Essays About Literature was one of the best textbooks I have ever read … You have done a brilliant job
making essay-writing easy, structured, and actually enjoyable!” —LAUREN GAYLOR, University of Kansas
This book gives students an answer to the question, “What does my professor want from this essay?” Using a single poem by William Carlos Williams as the basis for the process of writing a paper, it walks students through the processes of reading, brainstorming, researching secondary sources, gathering evidence, and composing and editing the paper.
Writing Essays About Literature is designed to strengthen argumentation skills and deepen understanding of the relationships between the reader, the author, the text, and critical interpretations. Its lessons about clarity, preci- sion, and the importance of providing evidence will have wide relevance for student writers. The second edition has been updated throughout and pro- vides three new complete sample essays showing varying approaches to the final essay.
KATHERINE O. ACHESON is Professor of English at the University of Waterloo and the editor of the Broadview Edition of Lady Anne Clifford’s Memoir of 1603 and Diary of 1616-19.
broadview press www.broadviewpress.com
A Brief Guide for University
and College Students
Katherine O. Acheson
BROADVIEW PRESS – www.broadviewpress.com
Peterborough, Ontario, Canada
Founded in 1985, Broadview Press remains a wholly independent publishing house.
Broadview's focus is on academic publishing; our titles are accessible to university
and college students as well as scholars and general readers. With 800 titles in print,
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fair business practices.
© 2021 Katherine O. Acheson
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, kept in an information
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or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or otherwise, except as expressly
permitted by the applicable copyright laws or through written permission from the
LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA CATALOGUING IN PUBLICATION
Title: Writing essays about literature : a brief guide for university and college students /
Katherine O. Acheson.
Names: Acheson, Katherine O., 1963- author.
Description: Second edition. | Includes bibliographical references and index.
Identifiers: Canadiana (print) 20200393804 | Canadiana (ebook) 2020039391X | ISBN
9781554815517 (softcover) | ISBN 9781770487987 (PDF) | ISBN 9781460407479 (EPUB)
Subjects: LCSH: Academic writing—Textbooks. | LCSH: Report writing—Textbooks.
| LCSH: Essay— Authorship—Textbooks. | LCSH: English language—Rhetoric—
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Edited by Martin R. Boyne
Book design by Michel Vrana
PRINTED IN CANADA
For Mary Osler, Katherine Stevens, and Gladys Guest,
who taught me most of what I know about words.
Section One: Introduction 1
CHAPTER ONE: THE PURPOSE OF AN ESSAY ABOUT LITERATURE 3
Literature: Instruction, Delight, Imitation 5
The Literary Essay 7 Evidence 7
Subjectivity 11 How to Use This Book 15
Review Questions 15
Section Two: Research and Analysis 17
CHAPTER TWO: RESEARCH WITHIN THE TEXT 19
Taking Notes about Literature 20 Recording Your Responses to the Text 21
Do I Like the Work? 21 What Words Stand Our? 22
What Feelings Does It Give Me? 24
Do I Identify with Any of the People Represented? 26 Is There Anything about How It’s Written That Stands Out? 28 What Is the Work about? 31
Review Questions 34
CHAPTER THREE: USING REFERENCE WORKS 35 The Oxford English Dictionary 36
Etymology 37 Definitions 39
Examples of Usage 42 Scholarly Editions 45
Encyclopedias 50 Conclusion 52
Review Questions 53
CHAPTER FOUR: RESEARCH ABOUT SOCIAL AND HISTORICAL CONTEXTS 55
Topics for Research: Social Phenomena and Literary Movements Useful Resources 59
Using Your Findings 60 Conclusion 66 Review Questions 67
CHAPTER FIVE: RESEARCH ABOUT THE CURRENT
CRITICAL ASSESSMENT OF LITERARY WORKS 69
Finding Critical Works 71
Assessing Publications 71
Using Bibliographies 72 Reading Critical Works 76
Taking Notes from Critical Readings 79 Conclusion 82
Review Questions 83
CHAPTER SIX: INVENTING YOUR ARGUMENT 85 Arranging Your Evidence 86
Reviewing Your Labeled Evidence 86 Categorizing Your Evidence 87
Charting Your Evidence 90 Conclusion 96
Review Questions 97
Section Three: Composition 99
CHAPTER SEVEN: COMPOSING YOUR ARGUMENT 101 Inductive Reasoning 102 Composing the Thesis Statement 103
Writing the Subtopic Sentences 103 Composing the Body of the Introduction 105 Concluding the Introduction 107
A Variation: An Essay without Secondary Sources 109
Review Questions 113
CHAPTER EIGHT: WRITING THE BODY OF THE ESSAY
The Body Paragraphs 115 Features of Strong Paragraphs 119 Writing the Conclusion and Revising the Introduction
The Conclusion 120
Revising the Introduction 122 Conclusion 122
Review Questions 123
Section Four: Polish and Presentation 125
CHAPTER NINE: EDITING AND PROOFREADING YOUR ESSAY 127
Conventions of Essay-Writing Style 128
Vocabulary 129 Connecting Words 130
Common Grammatical Errors 131
Apostrophes 132 Demonstrative Pronouns 133
Pronoun Agreement 134
Verb Tense 135
Common Errors in Punctuation and Sentence Structure 136
Comma Splices 138 Sentence Fragments 139
Subordinating Conjunctions 140
Conjunctive Adverbs 143
Review Questions 145
CHAPTER TEN: DOCUMENTING YOUR SOURCES
AND PRESENTING YOUR WORK 147
Reasons for Documenting Sources 147
Documentation Practices 149
Presenting Your Work 151 Layout and Order 151
Multimedia and the Literary Essay 153
Exemplary Hlustrations 154 Complementary Illustrations 155
Supplementary Illustrations 156 Last-Minute Checks 157
Review Questions 159
Section Five: Conclusion and Review 161
CHAPTER ELEVEN: THE PROCESS OF ESSAY
WRITING—A SUMMARY 163
Collecting Evidence (Chapters 2-5) 163
Categorizing Evidence (Chapter 6) 164 Writing Your Thesis Statement (Chapter 7) 165
Troubleshooting the Thesis Statement (Chapter 7) 165
Writing the Body Paragraphs (Chapter 8) 166 Concluding Your Essay (Chapter 8) 166 Proofreading (Chapter 9) 166
Documentation and Presentation (Chapter 10) 167
SAMPLE ESSAY ONE 169
SAMPLE ESSAY TWO 177
SAMPLE ESSAY THREE 189
WORKS CITED 203
PERMISSIONS ACKNOWLEDGMENT 207
SUBJECT INDEX 209
of an Essay about Literature
THERE ARE TWO QUESTIONS INSTRUCTORS IN LITERARY
studies dread hearing from students. The first is “did we do any-
thing important in the class that I missed?” This is what we call a
loaded question: I have to agree to premises that put me in a pos-
ition I don't want to be in. An example of a loaded question is “Do
you always burn the toast?” To answer this, I need to agree that I
have been burning the toast. To answer the question about what
was missed in class, I have to accept the possibility that nothing
important happened (or that something did but I'm too cranky to
repeat it for the student). The instructor perceives this question as
a challenge to their talent or to the inherent interest of the course’s
subject matter. But I understand, when I get this question, that the
student is asking if the missed class presented something that they
need to know to do well on the graded components of the course, so
I usually mention those and then ask the student to find a classmate
who is willing to share their notes.
SECTION ONE: INTRODUCTION
The other question is “what do you want in this essay?” This
question is more complicated. It’s loaded too, though: it implies that
there is an ideal essay tucked away in my head, and a clever student
can get a glimpse of it if I let down my guard or if I like the student
personally enough to give special attention to them. There’s a whole
bunch that’s whacky about that set of implications. One, there is no
ideal essay. Two, if there were, I wouldn't have it hidden away in the
darker recesses of my brain; I'd have it out on the table for every-
one to see. Three, my desires, whims, or even ideas, and the extent
to which your essay reflects them, are not what the assignment is
about. So the answers I give to this question are always a bit kooky:
I say, “I want to be enlightened and moved” or “I want to make no
corrections to pronoun agreement” or “I want to discover the secret
of eternal life” or “I want to finish grading before the end of the
holidays, or at least soon thereafter.” Or I can be more helpful and
say that I want a clearly written argument, based on evidence, about
the meaning, power, or structure of the work or works the essay
discusses. Yes, let’s repeat that—a clearly written argument, based on
evidence, about the meaning, power, or structure of the work or works.
That’s what teachers really want.
In my courses, I'm quite careful about letting students know
what I want and how to accomplish it. Grading is one of the most
valuable things I do for students, and I would hate for them to think
that I don’t have objective and measurable reasons for evaluating
their work in the way that I do, that there is no rational process to
assessing an essay. I give them a breakdown of what’s important
for written assignments and what the weighting of each category
is. And I'll go over in class how to get from beginning to end in
the essay-writing process and how to write the best possible essay.
There is a method to writing a good essay, and there are clear and
manageable steps to take from start to finish. That’s what this book
is about. For those of you who already know how to write great
essays, I'm sorry to have to take the mystery out of the process; you
know the secrets, and I'm going to blurt them out here. It’s about
sharing, and that’s good. And we can all learn something new, how-
ever proficient we already are. We all want to have AHA! moments,
and writing a great essay will give you more than one.
THE PURPOSE OF AN ESSAY ABOUT LITERATURE
Literature is as complex as an ecosystem, as ineffable as the sub-
atomic world, as rich and beautiful and interesting as the many
cultures around us. It is shaped by the world, and it shapes our
understanding of the world. It is made from language, an infin-
itely malleable and sinuous medium. It can be found in the simplest,
most naive forms and the most carefully crafted; its authors can be
children with few skills or geniuses who have worked for years to
hone their art. Literature in English is read all around the world
and has been central to advanced education for hundreds of years.
Literature is powerfully ideological; it can be subversive, oppressive,
or any combination of the two. Literature comforts us, frightens
us, brings us to tears, creates bonds, and opens up possibilities for
our imaginations. The reasons we study literature—the reasons we
write essays about literature—are to try to understand better what
it gives us, how it reflects, enlarges, and critiques what it is to be
human in this world, or these worlds, of ours.
Literature’s principal purposes are different from those of
other systems, and those differences shape how we approach it.
From classical times until the present, literary critics have been
in agreement about what literature does. The first thing that lit-
erature does, we believe, is to instruct its readers. Instruction can
come in many forms, and a huge range of information, values, and
ideas is conveyed in works of literature. The author may intend us
to learn certain things, but we can also learn things that the author
or authors didn’t plan on us knowing. Those things can be about the
society that the work depicts—that it is prejudiced toward women,
for example, or that its religious values permeate all of the things
that happen in it. They can be about the ideas that are represented
in the work: we might perceive that the scientific ideas of the pro-
tagonist are related to their ideas about art, related in a way that
the author didn’t consciously intend us to perceive. They can be
about the material world in which the story is set: we can make
connections, as readers, between certain objects and ideas, between
things and feelings, that also help us to understand more about the
world, the characters, and the action that is represented in the work.
SECTION ONE: INTRODUCTION
It may be important to you to distinguish between intended and
unintended effects: it’s always interesting, for instance, to read what
an author says they were trying to do in a work and measure that
against what you think actually got done. But because the medium
of literature is language, because readers are individuals in particu-
lar cultural and social situations, and because works of literature
are read in different times and places, much of the effect of a work
of literature is out of the control of the author. These are reasons
we keep going back to the same texts: they are never quite the same.
And the enduring freshness of literary masterpieces also means we
have endlessly interesting questions about what complex works of
literature mean, which is why we keep on writing essays!
The second purpose of literature, we agree, is to delight its audi-
ence. Delight means to cause pleasure, so the effect is emotional.
But the emotions that give us pleasure are not just joyful ones: we
can take pleasure from sadness, for example, or from terror. Why
else would we pay to see tear-jerkers and horror movies? One of
the things we value most in art and entertainment is intensity of
emotion; as a species, we like a good cry, a rush of adrenalin, a belly
laugh, a shiver of fear. Psychologists and neuroscientists may be
able to tell us why; perhaps rehearsing emotions that help us take
action or communicate needs is just as important as staying in good
physical shape. Perhaps reading literature, watching plays and films,
and listening to music are as essential to our well-being as vitamins
and minerals. But what we as students of literature focus on is what
the emotions are, how they are produced by literary works, and how
they are related to other things in works of literature and in the
worlds in which they were produced and are read. As with their plan
to instruct readers, authors may intend us to have certain emotions,
but their works may produce emotions that are well in excess of
their plans, or opposite to their intentions. These are all fair game
for literary critics—of whom, I think I forgot to tell you, you are one.
The third purpose of literature is to imitate life, to produce for
the reader a believable version of a world that is or that could be.
This might be an internal world (the thoughts and feelings of one
being, usually a person, but sometimes an animal or even an object),
or it might be the world of a set of people in a culture or of a whole
society. It might be a real world that has existed or does exist, it
THE PURPOSE OF AN ESSAY ABOUT LITERATURE
might be a fantastical world inhabited by outlandish creatures with
magical powers, or it might be an ideal and imaginary world in
which perfectly beautiful beings possessing the essence of being-
ness float effortlessly above the drossy world we inhabit. Literary
critics are interested in how authors build worlds and in how read-
ers experience these worlds. We are interested in the opportunities
and limitations that different kinds of worlds offer to the kinds of
ideas and feelings that can be produced within them. For instance,
science fiction can offer a different understanding of the human
body and a different experience of its capabilities than can an eight-
eenth-century realist novel set in a small village in England.
But we are also interested in how authors make worlds out of
language. If you think about this art, it’s like making a house out
of ice or a dress out of sand or a dessert out of cauliflower—there’s
magic involved in taking symbols, scribbles on a page, and turning
them into something colorful, believable, sensuous, vibrant, and
captivating. Much of what literary critics do involves examining the
craft of literary construction: Why does this word work better than
others? What is the effect of this way of representing thought or
conversation? Why does this point of view make the emotional con-
tent more powerful? Literary critics are experts in how literature is
made—in how the choices authors make and the experiences read-
ers bring to works produce the rich, beautiful, and varied worlds
that inhabit the pages of the books we read.
THE LITERARY ESSAY
A couple of pages ago, I said that the task of a student assigned to
write an essay about literature is to present a clearly written argu-
ment, based on evidence, about the meaning, power, or structure of the
work or works. The previous section has given us a bit more detail
about literature and about why we are interested in the meaning
(the “instruction”), the power (the “delight”), and the construction
of the work or works (how it “imitates” the world it represents).
The rest of this book will be about the other terms in that sentence:
how to collect and use evidence and how to write a clear and cogent
SECTION ONE: INTRODUCTION
argument from that evidence. But let me say a few things about
those two right now, by way of introduction.
Literary studies is an evidence-based discipline, just like sci-
ence, law, or medicine. If you are a doctor, your patients will list
their symptoms to you, and you will try to pull those together into
a plausible explanation that identifies a cause for the effects they
feel. If you were a police detective, called to the scene of a crime,
you would collect clues—a stray hair, a bloody knife, a used glass—
and then try to put those and other bits of information together in
order to produce a story that explains the body, the robbery, and the
mysterious symbols painted on the mirror. The symptoms and clues
you are analyzing, as a literary critic, are the ideas and feelings pro-
duced by the work of literature and the things that are used to make
it—the words. From this evidence, you will produce a narrative that
offers an explanation for the effects the work of literature has.
If you think of yourself as a detective or a doctor and you
examine the work of literature and its context for clues, you too
can diagnose the patient or solve the crime. I'll repeat myself: the
study of literature is based on evidence, and its findings are argu-
ments built from that evidence. The arguments must account for
all the relevant evidence—there’s no extra gun floating around, no
additional ache or pain that’s not explained by the illness you've
decided on. That’s how we know it’s an adequate diagnosis of the
illness or solution to the crime. Equally, all the evidence used to
support the argument is necessary to the argument and is the best
possible evidence that can be brought to the argument.
A large part of the assessment of your essay will depend on
the quality of the evidence you collect, and another portion of the
assessment of your essay will depend on how well you construct the
explanation from it. These features are more important than the
actual topic that you go after. Sometimes, at least in my experience,
students think that I'm looking for them to find a certain mean-
ing in a work or experience a particular feeling—that doing these
things is key to unlocking the mysterious ideal essay I'm supposedly
keeping safe and secret in my brain. But that’s not what I value in
a student’s essay, or in an essay by a colleague or peer: I'm looking
for well-gathered evidence pulled together in a compelling and con-
vincing argument. Even if the essay topic is set for you, the value of
THE PURPOSE OF AN ESSAY ABOUT LITERATURE
what you have to say about the topic will depend on the power of the
clues you gather and the persuasiveness of the argument you make
out of them. Because of the importance of evidence and argument
in literary studies, much of this book is devoted to how to conduct
research in and about the literary works that you read and how to
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