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Lecturer's advice

Alan Dilnot, Lecturer In this section, one of your lecturers - Alan Dilnot - answers Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about researching and writing essays in first-year English subjects.

FAQs: Click on those topic areas that are of interest to you, or that you need to know more about.



1. How well do most students do in the practice essay?

Summary: Students generally receive scores in the Pass/Credit range, and improve with the second assignment.

In the first-year English Literature, the quality of the first assignment (the practice essay) is often disappointing. The most common problems are lack of unity, inadequate argumentation, and informal presentation. Marks higher than 14 out of 20 are rare, and many students score 10.5 or 11.

Students clearly learn useful tips from this, however, and the second assignment (the first full-length essay) usually indicates a marked improvement, with more succinct and directed writing, in a style more appropriate to tertiary-level work. Many students move up a grade, from pass to credit, or from credit to distinction.

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2. Why do we do a practice essay anyway?

Summary: To give you practice in writing a line of argument that clearly sets out your response to the text, but that also takes into account differing viewpoints.

I hope that students will use their research to develop a focus for their own response to the literary text, and that they'll discover that more than one response is possible and legitimate. I hope that during the writing of the essay students improve their ability to argue a case, and that, in doing so, will take account of conflicting opinions.

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3. How can I avoid "just describing"?

Summary: Don't just talk about what happens, give an analysis of why it happens.

Perhaps the most frequent problem students have is a tendency to just describe what happens in a text, when they should be attempting an analysis of why it happens. An example of "just description" is when you tell the story in your own words, or you provide a summary of the nature of the characters, but you neglect to indicate what the theme of the story is and how the various elements in the story contribute to making the theme more evident.

The theme of the story is not usually encapsulated in some direct statement. The theme of a story emerges through your interpretation of the various elements in the story. These elements can include, for example, metaphors that are used, and particularly symbolic moments, actions, or objects in the text.

So what a student's analysis should be aiming to produce is the crucial ideas that lie at the centre of the story. If you simply tell the reader of your essay what happens in the story you've not assisted the reader in any way to understand the story better, because the reader could have done that himself or herself.

One way of indicating why something happens in a text is to look at the arrangement of the plot, but also to look at the psychology of the characters and the traits of a character that push or predispose that character to act in a certain way. Through that you're getting close to indicating why something happens in the story rather than just telling us what happened.

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4. How do I relate to the world of the text?

Summary: Distinguish between the conditions and values of your own world and those of the text.

Another problem that students frequently have when they are writing on literature is that they don't distinguish between the values and conditions of the world in which they themselves live - in the present day, in a particular part of the world - and the conditions and values of the world of the text. In understanding the "world of the text", we also need to distinguish between the world in which the text is produced (for example, the world as it was when the novel, Jane Eyre, was written) and, most importantly, the conditions of the world as it is set up and depicted within the novel.

For example, one of the underlying themes in Jane Eyre is that women have to fight harder than men do in their world - in the world of the novel - to make themselves heard and to leave a mark on the world. Men in the novel may or may not be treated sympathetically, but they are more likely to be in positions of power than women are, and they tend to set up situations in which the lives of women are circumscribed. If you don't recognise that the conditions of Jane's world are different from your own then you're going to be blind to some of the important concerns of the novel.

Generally speaking, literature of the distant past is more likely to inhabit a world that is different from our own than literature of the present. A case of a different kind is Wide Sargasso Sea ( WSS). Wide Sargasso Sea was produced much nearer to our own time (1966), but the action in the novel is set back in the first half of the 19 th century.

The author, Jean Rhys, has in fact made exactly the kind of imaginative leap from her own time to the time of the characters in the novel that readers of literature need to make. In any case, a 21 st-century reader of WSS needs to make some allowance for social relationships as they were in the West Indies in the early part of the 19 th century - and affected as they were by ethnic and racial antagonisms and hostilities.

Some of these issues are presented as being extremely complex in the world of WSS. Now we've got to ask ourselves what a world would be like in which these were important factors. So that's the kind of imaginative leap that students often need to make when they are writing on a work of literature.

It might still be the case that a student could allow for the fact that the text's assumptions about human relationships are normal for the time, but nevertheless the student might still want to say, "that's wrong, that's an inadequacy in the world view of the text". They can say that, but it requires quite a lot of confidence on the part of the student, and also they would need to have faced their own value system to make that kind of judgement.

One of the reasons for studying Literature is to broaden mental horizons, and that involves questioning the assumptions of your own time and place, your own culture. You need to be aware too that there are possibilities for criticism of the world in which you live. The text gives you an opportunity to evaluate your own assumptions. The really worthwhile literature very rarely simplifies its moral positions; it usually shows awareness of the complexity of the issues being talked about and this will overlap with the world we live in.

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5. What is the difference between the author and the speaker?

Summary: The person who "speaks" in the text is often the "narrator", or a character in the text, and is not the same person as the author of the text.

There's one other thing that students need to be mindful of and that is the difference between the author and the speaker. For example, there is a temptation to think that the person who speaks in Jane Eyre (that is, Jane Eyre herself because she's telling her own story) is the author, Charlotte Bronte. That is, we tend to think that the character Jane Eyre is authoritative, has the last word, and therefore that we should accept what Jane says in judgement of other people. If we believe Jane Eyre to be a "reliable" narrator, it ought to be because of who she is, because of what we know about her character, not because she is Charlotte Bronte's "representative".

The difference between the speaker and the author is crucial in respect of poetry. Because so many poems are short and so many poems use the first person, and because there are times where the poet has used identifiably biographical experiences, the temptation is to say that it is the poet himself or herself who is speaking.

I don't object actually to students saying "the poet says" as an unidentified or general "poet speaker", but what I do object to is "John Donne or William Wordsworth was feeling this on a particular day..." So the distinction between the speaker and the author is a useful one; it allows for much more flexibility and sensitivity to interpretation of the literary text.

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6. How can I improve my writing?

Summary:

  • Make sure that you have a unified argument
  • Link your ideas
  • Remind yourself of the key terms of the topic

It's important when you are writing your essay to make sure that it is a unified piece of work. In other words, what you are arguing for in your opening paragraph - or the claims you make about the piece of literature that you are interpreting - these need to be supported and developed in the succeeding paragraphs. The conclusion of the essay should relate to the opening paragraph, so if you find that the key terms in the opening paragraphs are not visible in the concluding paragraph, that might be a sign that you've wandered from the point. So be definite in your exposition at the beginning of the essay and make sure that you carry over the sense of your argument from paragraph to paragraph. Don't get led away into generalities.

The best thing to do when you are writing an essay is to remind yourself of the key terms of the topic that you are writing on. Ask yourself in relation to each of your own paragraphs: Is this a paragraph that is relevant to the topic that I undertook to answer? You don't ask yourself whether the paragraph is relevant to something important, say in Jane Eyre, which it may well be, but what you ask yourself is whether the paragraph is relevant to that aspect of Jane Eyre that you were going to discuss. So relevance to the topic takes priority over relevance to the text.

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7. What analytical framework should I use when reading texts?

Summary: Be guided by the individual assignment topic. Generally speaking, most of your essays will be very text-focused.

There are so many different legitimate ways of going about reading a text, analysing it, and describing it, so the safest guideline for the student is to look at the parameters set up by the topic and stick with them, because different topics may require different reading approaches.

The subject booklet alerts students to the various ways a text might be interpreted. We supply some passages of critical readings. The bits of criticism that we print there come from various times in the 20 th century, but they do show different sorts of approaches. They show how opinions of Jane Eyre and Rochester and Bertha and our understandings of the three have changed over time.

In fact, there's one passage there which looks at the way in which the novel has been revalued since the onset of feminism. It summarises what some of the critical articles have said about the novel. A student who is conscientious can discover that there are a variety of approaches for examining texts.

What is common to most approaches nowadays is that they are in the end text-focused. That is, they don't feel comfortable in making assertions about the text unless they can back it up from the text. Even deconstructionists, who very typically look at what's not said in a text, are looking at what's there in order to uncover what's not there - so it's still text-focused. That is, deconstructionists allow for the things that are not being said which are nevertheless active in the text.

For example, what is not said is important in Jane Eyre because Bertha Mason's story is literally not described. This is why the later novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, which tells Bertha Mason's story from her own perspective, is so valuable because it is an attempt to fill in the gap. It is signalled to us as we read Jane Eyre that there is something we're not being told. So Wide Sargasso Sea comes along and says, "so here is what was not said in Jane Eyre". By putting the two texts together we do actually have quite a good opportunity to use quite recent critical approaches.

So, unless the topic indicates otherwise, you should ensure that your analysis is supported by the text itself.

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8. What will you look for when marking my essay?

Summary:

  • That you know the text well
  • That you have understood the question
  • That you have a clear statement of your argument
  • That you have supported your argument with references to the text and, if appropriate, secondary sources
  • That you have come to a clear conclusion about the issues

An essay should reveal a student's understanding of both the text and the question being asked about the text. Your essay should state its objective succinctly, should support its claims by reference to the text and should feature an appropriate conclusion.

We do look very much for unity, relevance, and coherence (see the answer to Question 3, What kind of problems should I look out for?)

The assertion that you should support your argument with reference to the text is an obvious one, but it is important to handle your references to the texts in an efficient and succinct way. You don't need to have lengthy quotations; you can make a reference to a chapter or to an incident in the chapter and simply give a page reference for where that incident will be found.

Quotations that are too lengthy can interrupt the flow of your argument and they also suggest that you have run out of ideas for yourself and you are trusting that the passage you quote will speak for itself and therefore save you a bit of analytical effort. So students should be sparing with your quotations, make them short and sharp and make sure they do relate to the point.

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9. How much should I read for my essay?

Summary: You must read and re-read the primary text, but it's up to you if you want to read secondary sources. These can be very helpful, but not strictly necessary.

Many students are uneasy about the amount of material they need to read for their particular essay. It is, of course, important to know the primary text in detail, so you must read it, and then you must read it again, and perhaps you might read it once more after that.

As to secondary sources - that's a more difficult matter to decide. The course booklet recommends a limited amount of reading in addition to the primary text. This further reading is not intended to supplant the primary text or to supply the whole answer to the essay question, but rather to help the student understand what the imortant critical issues are. The booklet states that it is possible to tackle the essay questions successfully without having recourse to secondary sources.

Some students can write very good essays without consulting any secondary sources at all. That probably won't happen absolutely for your essays on Jane Eyre, because if you think about it, your edition of Jane Eyre gives you an introduction - you might read part of it, if not the whole of it - and there are annotations in your edition of Jane Eyre and these notes sometimes present a point of view. Some editions of Jane Eyre actually include critical articles in the back. If you are reading introductions, notes, critical articles, you are probably being influenced by them and therefore you ought to indicate that.

One way of indicating that you are acknowledging your sources is through your bibliography. In the bibliography, you list all the works that you have read in relation to your primary text. This might include the introduction and editorial notes to your edition of the text.

If you do use secondary sources, the best way to use them is in what I would call the "yes, but" manner. That is, you don't take a critic, "Critic A", and say, "Critic A has said the final word on this topic so I will just tell you what Critic A says and I agree absolutely and wholeheartedly with Critic A". That's that not very rewarding for you or for the reader; in fact, it allows you to escape the challenge of being confronted by the primary text yourself.

So, a better manner is to say, "Critic B has made this assertion about Jane Eyre. There is something to be said for this, but it fails to recognise, or is deficient in this respect or respects...". This shows that you have read the primary text and it shows that you've read a secondary text about the primary text with intelligence and discrimination. It shows that you recognise the strengths of the argument put forward by the secondary source, and that you've got a mind of your own.

After a while it will become second nature to you and you will do it in all of your courses. In challenging somebody else's argument, you're entering into the world of scholarship; you're entering into the world of debate and the clash of ideas. The expectation is that through the clash of ideas, through discussion, a greater insight into whatever it is that we're discussing will emerge.

So, use secondary sources as a starting point or as a stimulation for developing your own point of view and if you do that and if - very importantly - you acknowledge all the sources that you've used, you won't be in any danger of being accused of plagiarism. Plagiarism is where you take somebody else's ideas and pass them off as if they were your own. That is, you copy them out more or less verbatim, but you don't signal through footnotes or through the bibliography that you've actually used somebody else's ideas. This is to be avoided at all costs and severe penalties apply.

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10. What final piece of advice do you have?

Summary:

  • Analyse the topic
  • Summarise arguments on either side
  • Review your work to assess the strength of your argument

First, identify the key concepts in the set topic. In the planning stages, if you've got any doubts about your understanding of the topic, it is quite reasonable for you to ask to see your tutor and check to see whether your interpretation of the meanings and purpose of the topic are along the right lines. What the tutor won't do for you is read a final draft of your essay and give you a tentative mark for it. The drafting of your essay is your own responsibility.

Once you have identified the key concepts in the set topic, make sure that you stick to them throughout your essay. Make sure that you have taken account of possible objections to your case. If you know what the opposite argument is then you'll be able to strengthen your own argument. So, in preparing to write your essay, make a list of points for and against the main proposition.

Make sure, also, that your selection of evidence is appropriate and if you make some assertions that are quite strong - especially if you make some generalisations - wait a day or two and come back to them and see if you still feel that they are valid. Do you still find your argument convincing? How and where can you strengthen your case?

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