Good Essay Book In English
Interesting little-known tips for how to write a better English Literature essay
How do you write a good English Literature essay? Although to an extent this depends on the particular subject you’re writing about, and on the nature of the question your essay is attempting to answer, there are a few general guidelines for how to write a convincing essay – just as there are a few guidelines for writing well in any field. We at Interesting Literature call them ‘guidelines’ because we hesitate to use the word ‘rules’, which seems too programmatic. And as the writing habits of successful authors demonstrate, there is no one way to become a good writer – of essays, novels, poems, or whatever it is you’re setting out to write. The French writer Colette liked to begin her writing day by picking the fleas off her cat. Edith Sitwell, by all accounts, liked to lie in an open coffin before she began her day’s writing. Friedrich von Schiller kept rotten apples in his desk, claiming he needed the scent of their decay to help him write. (For most student essay-writers, such an aroma is probably allowed to arise in the writing-room more organically, over time.)
We will address our suggestions for successful essay-writing to the average student of English Literature, whether at university or school level. There are many ways to approach the task of essay-writing, and these are just a few pointers for how to write a better English essay – and some of these pointers may also work for other disciplines and subjects, too.
Of course, these guidelines are designed to be of interest to the non-essay-writer too – people who have an interest in the craft of writing in general. If this describes you, we hope you enjoy the list as well. Remember, though, everyone can find writing difficult: as Thomas Mann memorably put it, ‘A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.’ Nora Ephron was briefer: ‘I think the hardest thing about writing is writing.’ So, the guidelines for successful essay-writing:
1. Planning is important, but don’t spend too long perfecting a structure that might end up changing. This may seem like odd advice to kick off with, but the truth is that different approaches work for different students and essayists. You need to find out which method works best for you. It’s not a bad idea, regardless of whether you’re a big planner or not, to sketch out perhaps a few points on a sheet of paper before you start, but don’t be surprised if you end up moving away from it slightly – or considerably – when you start to write. Often the most extensively planned essays are the most mechanistic and dull in execution, precisely because the writer has drawn up a plan and refused to deviate from it. What is a more valuable skill is to be able to sense when your argument may be starting to go off-topic, or your point is getting out of hand, as you write. (For help on this, see point 5 below.) We might even say that when it comes to knowing how to write a good English Literature essay, practising is more important than planning.
2. Make room for close analysis of the text, or texts. Whilst it’s true that some first-class or A-grade essays will be impressive without containing any close reading as such, most of the highest-scoring and most sophisticated essays tend to zoom in on the text and examine its language and imagery closely in the course of the argument. (Close reading of literary texts arises from theology and the analysis of holy scripture, but really became a ‘thing’ in literary criticism in the early twentieth century, when T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis, William Empson, and other influential essayists started to subject the poem or novel to close scrutiny.) Close reading has two distinct advantages: it increases the specificity of your argument (so you can’t be so easily accused of generalising a point), and it improves your chances of pointing up something about the text which none of the other essays your marker is reading will have said. For instance, take In Memoriam (1850), which is a long Victorian poem by the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson about his grief following the death of his close friend, Arthur Hallam, in the early 1830s. When answering a question about the representation of religious faith in Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam (1850), how might you write a particularly brilliant essay about this theme? Anyone can make a general point about the poet’s crisis of faith; but to look closely at the language used gives you the chance to show how the poet portrays this.
For instance, consider this stanza, which conveys the poet’s doubt:
I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares,
Upon the great world’s altar-stairs
That slope thro’ darkness up to God.
A solid and perfectly competent essay might cite this stanza in support of the claim that Tennyson is finding it increasingly difficult to have faith in God (following the untimely and senseless death of his friend, Arthur Hallam). But there are several ways of then doing something more with it. For instance, you might get close to the poem’s imagery, and show how Tennyson conveys this idea, through the image of the ‘altar-stairs’ associated with religious worship and the idea of the stairs leading ‘thro’ darkness’ towards God. In other words, Tennyson sees faith as a matter of groping through the darkness, trusting in God without having evidence that he is there. If you like, it’s a matter of ‘blind faith’. That would be a good reading. Now, here’s how to make a good English essay on this subject even better: one might look at how the word ‘falter’ – which encapsulates Tennyson’s stumbling faith – disperses into ‘falling’ and ‘altar’ in the succeeding lines. The word ‘falter’, we might say, itself falters or falls apart. That is doing more than just interpreting the words: it’s being a highly careful reader of the poetry and showing how attentive to the language of the poetry you can be – all the while answering the question, about how the poem portrays the idea of faith. So, read and then reread the text you’re writing about – and be sensitive to such nuances of language and style. The best way to become attuned to such nuances is revealed in point 5. We might summarise this point as follows: when it comes to knowing how to write a persuasive English Literature essay, it’s one thing to have a broad and overarching argument, but don’t be afraid to use the microscope as well as the telescope.
3. Provide several pieces of evidence where possible. Many essays have a point to make and make it, tacking on a single piece of evidence from the text (or from beyond the text, e.g. a critical, historical, or biographical source) in the hope that this will be enough to make the point convincing. ‘State, quote, explain’ is the Holy Trinity of the Paragraph for many. What’s wrong with it? For one thing, this approach is too formulaic and basic for many arguments. Is one quotation enough to support a point? It’s often a matter of degree, and although one piece of evidence is better than none, two or three pieces will be even more persuasive. After all, in a court of law a single eyewitness account won’t be enough to convict the accused of the crime, and even a confession from the accused would carry more weight if it comes supported by other, objective evidence (e.g. DNA, fingerprints, and so on).
Let’s go back to the example about Tennyson’s faith in his poem In Memoriam mentioned above. Perhaps you don’t find the end of the poem convincing – when the poet claims to have rediscovered his Christian faith and to have overcome his grief at the loss of his friend. You can find examples from the end of the poem to suggest your reading of the poet’s insincerity may have validity, but looking at sources beyond the poem – e.g. a good edition of the text, which will contain biographical and critical information – may help you to find a clinching piece of evidence to support your reading. And, sure enough, Tennyson is reported to have said of In Memoriam: ‘It’s too hopeful, this poem, more than I am myself.’ And there we have it: much more convincing than simply positing your reading of the poem with a few ambiguous quotations from the poem itself.
Of course, this rule also works in reverse: if you want to argue, for instance, that T. S. Eliot‘s The Waste Land is overwhelmingly inspired by the poet’s unhappy marriage to his first wife, then using a decent biographical source makes sense – but if you didn’t show evidence for this idea from the poem itself (see point 2), all you’ve got is a vague, general link between the poet’s life and his work. Show how the poet’s marriage is reflected in the work, e.g. through men and women’s relationships throughout the poem being shown as empty, soulless, and unhappy. In other words, when setting out to write a good English essay about any text, don’t be afraid to pile on the evidence – though be sensible, a handful of quotations or examples should be more than enough to make your point convincing.
4. Avoid tentative or speculative phrasing. Many essays tend to suffer from the above problem of a lack of evidence, so the point fails to convince. This has a knock-on effect: often the student making the point doesn’t sound especially convinced by it either. This leaks out in the telling use of, and reliance on, certain uncertain phrases: ‘Tennyson might have’ or ‘perhaps Harper Lee wrote this to portray’ or ‘it can be argued that’. An English university professor used to write in the margins of an essay which used this last phrase, ‘What can’t be argued?’ This is a fair criticism: anything can be argued (badly), but it depends on what evidence you can bring to bear on it (point 3) as to whether it will be a persuasive argument. (Arguing that the plays of Shakespeare were written by a Martian who came down to Earth and ingratiated himself with the world of Elizabethan theatre is a theory that can be argued, though few would take it seriously. We wish we could say ‘none’, but that’s a story for another day.)
Many essay-writers, because they’re aware that texts are often open-ended and invite multiple interpretations (as almost all great works of literature invariably do), think that writing ‘it can be argued’ acknowledges the text’s rich layering of meaning and is therefore valid. Whilst this is certainly a fact – texts are open-ended and can be read in wildly different ways – the phrase ‘it can be argued’ is best used sparingly if at all. It should be taken as true that your interpretation is, at bottom, probably unprovable. What would it mean to ‘prove’ a reading as correct, anyway? Because you found evidence that the author intended the same thing as you’ve argued of their text? Tennyson wrote in a letter, ‘I wrote In Memoriam because…’? But the author might have lied about it (e.g. in an attempt to dissuade people from looking too much into their private life), or they might have changed their mind (to go back to the example of The Waste Land: T. S. Eliot championed the idea of poetic impersonality in an essay of 1919, but years later he described The Waste Land as ‘only the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life’ – hardly impersonal, then). Texts – and their writers – can often be contradictory, or cagey about their meaning. But we as critics have to act responsibly when writing about literary texts in any good English essay or exam answer. We need to argue honestly, and sincerely – and not use what Wikipedia calls ‘weasel words’ or hedging expressions.
So, if nothing is utterly provable, all that remains is to make the strongest possible case you can with the evidence available. You do this, not only through marshalling the evidence in an effective way, but by writing in a confident voice when making your case. Fundamentally, ‘There is evidence to suggest that’ says more or less the same thing as ‘It can be argued’, but it foregrounds the evidence rather than the argument, so is preferable as a phrase. This point might be summarised by saying: the best way to write a good English Literature essay is to be honest about the reading you’re putting forward, so you can be confident in your interpretation and use clear, bold language. (‘Bold’ is good, but don’t get too cocky, of course…)
5. Read the work of other critics. This might be viewed as the Holy Grail of good essay-writing tips, since it is perhaps the single most effective way to improve your own writing. Even if you’re writing an essay as part of school coursework rather than a university degree, and don’t need to research other critics for your essay, it’s worth finding a good writer of literary criticism and reading their work. Why is this worth doing?
Published criticism has at least one thing in its favour, at least if it’s published by an academic press or has appeared in an academic journal, and that is that it’s most probably been peer-reviewed, meaning that other academics have read it, closely studied its argument, checked it for errors or inaccuracies, and helped to ensure that it is expressed in a fluent, clear, and effective way. If you’re serious about finding out how to write a better English essay, then you need to study how successful writers in the genre do it. And essay-writing is a genre, the same as novel-writing or poetry. But why will reading criticism help you? Because the critics you read can show you how to do all of the above: how to present a close reading of a poem, how to advance an argument that is not speculative or tentative yet not over-confident, how to use evidence from the text to make your argument more persuasive. And, the more you read of other critics – a page a night, say, over a few months – the better you’ll get. It’s like textual osmosis: a little bit of their style will rub off on you, and every writer learns by the examples of other writers. As T. S. Eliot himself said, ‘The poem which is absolutely original is absolutely bad.’ Don’t get precious about your own distinctive writing style and become afraid you’ll lose it. You can’t gain a truly original style before you’ve looked at other people’s and worked out what you like and what you can ‘steal’ for your own ends.
We say ‘steal’, but this is not the same as saying that plagiarism is okay, of course. But consider this example. You read an accessible book on Shakespeare’s language and the author makes a point about rhymes in Shakespeare. When you’re working on your essay on the poetry of Christina Rossetti, you notice a similar use of rhyme, and remember the point made by the Shakespeare critic. This is not plagiarising a point but applying it independently to another writer. It shows independent interpretive skills and an ability to understand and apply what you have read. This is another of the advantages of reading critics, so this would be our final piece of advice for learning how to write a good English essay: find a critic whose style you like, and study their craft.
If you’re looking for suggestions, we can recommend a few favourites: Christopher Ricks, whose The Force of Poetry is a tour de force; Jonathan Bate, whose The Genius of Shakespeare, although written for a general rather than academic audience, is written by a leading Shakespeare scholar and academic; and Helen Gardner, whose The Art of T. S. Eliot, whilst dated (it came out in 1949), is a wonderfully lucid and articulate analysis of Eliot’s poetry. James Wood’s How Fiction Works is also a fine example of lucid prose and how to close-read literary texts. Doubtless readers of Interesting Literature will have their own favourites to suggest in the comments, so do check those out, as these are just three personal favourites. What’s your favourite work of literary scholarship/criticism? Suggestions please.
Much of all this may strike you as common sense, but even the most commonsensical advice can go out of your mind when you have a piece of coursework to write, or an exam to revise for. We hope these suggestions help to remind you of some of the key tenets of good essay-writing practice – though remember, these aren’t so much commandments as recommendations. No one can ‘tell’ you how to write a good English Literature essay as such. And remember, be interesting – find the things in the poems or plays or novels which really ignite your enthusiasm. As John Mortimer said, ‘The only rule I have found to have any validity in writing is not to bore yourself.’
Finally, good luck – and happy writing!
And if you enjoyed these tips for how to write a persuasive English essay, check out our advice for how to remember things for exams and our tips for becoming a better close reader of poetry.
Image (top): A child writing with a pen (2013, author: Mummelgrummel), Wikimedia Commons. Image (top middle): A Stipula fountain pen lying on a written piece of paper (2011, author: Antonio Litterio), Wikimedia Commons. Image (bottom middle): Writer (19th century, author Leonid Pasternak), Wikimedia Commons. Image (bottom): Cat with Book (Danny Ayers, 2004), Wikimedia Commons.
Remove the fanfare and most writing advice boils down to read more, write more, and get better feedback.
Let's talk about that first one. If writing is output, reading is often the most important input. You'll understand what makes Hemingway's writing exceptional (or overrated) by reading his books, not from taking his advice. Study your idols, as that is a much more rewarding and reliable strategy.
That said, there are a number of useful books on writing that can supplement your education. Here are five that I have always kept close:
1. Revising Prose by Richard Lanham
A book I recommend for its memorable examples. My favorite comes from Warren Buffet, who has a deep rooted respect for clear communication within companies. His own shareholder letters are so well written that they are often considered the gold standard for the medium.
Former SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt was so fond of Buffet's prose that he asked him to write an introduction for the SEC's official Plain English Handbook, which seeks to eliminate the jargon from disclosure documents.
Levitt tells a story of how he once asked Buffett to translate a passage from a mutual fund prospectus into English spoken by real people. The original text was as follows:
Maturity and duration management decisions are made in the context of an intermediate maturity orientation. The maturity structure of the portfolio is adjusted in anticipation of cyclical interest rate changes. Such adjustments are not made in an effort to capture short term, day-to-day movements in the market, but instead are implemented in anticipation of the longer term secular shifts in the levels of interest rates. (i.e. shifts transcending and/or inherent in the business cycle.
We will try to profit by correctly predicting future interest rates. When we have no strong opinion, we will generally hold intermediate term bonds.
Shorter, clearer, and can be more readily understood by a larger audience. A perfect example of revising prose.
2. 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Gary Provost
The book you've all seen in passing, but haven't read.
Why? Because it is the source of this famous excerpt on writing:
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It's like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.
Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals--sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader's ear. Don't just write words. Write music.
Good writing moves you effortlessly through the words. Reading suddenly becomes as quick as thought.
Part of mastering flow, this "music" in writing, is understanding the interplay between short and long sentences. Short sentences must be accompanied by expanded thinking, otherwise they slow things down to a snail's pace.
And then this. And then this. And then this. It gets old fast.
When used well a short sentence can bring clarity, heighten suspense, or place a magnifying glass on a point of interest. With the added power of spacing it can feel like it rests all alone; that it's too critical to be with anything else.
Although this example is a quote, I've always been fond of "Today You, Tomorrow Me," a story from Reddit that uses a short, memorable line to perfectly capture the intended message. The abridged summary is that a man was stranded on the side of the road and then graciously helped by a caring Mexican family. When he tried to give them money, this was the response:
He sees the $20 in my hand and [is] just shaking his head no, like he won't take it. All I can think to say is "Por Favor, Por Favor, Por Favor" with my hands out. He just smiles, shakes his head and with what looked like great concentration, tried his hardest to speak to me in English:
"Today you... tomorrow me."
Rolled up his window, drove away, his daughter waving to me in the rear view. I sat in my car eating the best f*cking tamale of all time and I just cried. It has been a rough year and nothing has broke my way. This was so out of left field I just couldn't deal.
In the 5 months since I have changed a couple of tires, given a few rides to gas stations and, once, went 50 miles out of my way to get a girl to an airport. I won't accept money. Every time I tell them the same thing when we are through:
"Today you... tomorrow me."
That line is moving and stays with you. Damn good communication, in short. You'll learn quite a few things about how to accomplish this in your own writing by reading this book.
3. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
As one reviewer put it, highlighting the best parts of this book is a fruitless endeavor as you'd be better off dipping the whole thing in yellow highlighter. No matter what style or medium, it is a book that every writer should read.
There are concerns that loom over every "new" writer that always seem foolish as time passes. Seeing a great writer's finished work is only seeing their highlight reel--their process is an enigma, and can create a sense that such talent came to them naturally, like dictation from God. Any final essay only reveals the smallest percentage of total effort: only those ideas which made the cut.
Anne Lamott's passage that owns up to the struggle of every first draft perfectly captures the importance of knowing that good writers become great through revision:
And often the right words do come, and you--well--"write" for a while; you put a lot of thoughts down on paper. But the bad news is that if you're at all like me, you'll probably read over what you've written and spend the rest of the day obsessing, and praying that you do not die before you can completely rewrite or destroy what you have written, lest the eagerly waiting world learn how bad your first drafts are.
Ditch the belief that your first drafts should be good. Brainstorm horizontally, edit vertically.
Remember that blades and words becomes sharp by filing them down. Like carving a sculpture from marble, you need excess material to revise your way to "no words have been wasted."
4. On Writing by Stephen King
From fundamental truisms on the nature of the craft to down-to-earth advice on forming a consistent writing habit, this book is a classic--you all knew it would be here.
With no need to introduce it, I'm better off sharing some of my favorite passages. First, on approaching the blank page:
You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair-the sense that you can never completely put on the page what's in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world.
Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.
On the nature of recognizing mediocrity, so that you might avoid it yourself:
We need to experience the mediocre and the outright rotten; such experience helps us to recognize those things when they begin to creep into our own work, and to steer clear of them.
What is the job of the writer? The next time you hear someone struggle to capture a moment, a feeling, an idea, you'll know:
We've all heard someone say, "Man, it was so great (or so horrible/strange/funny) ... I just can't describe it!" If you want to be a successful writer, you must be able to describe it, and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition.
Such a book wouldn't be complete without mention of the struggle. King's take? Ask yourself how far you would go for focus:
If you're just starting out as a writer, you could do worse than strip your television's electric plug wire, wrap a spike around it, and then stick it back into the wall. See what blows, and how far.
To get results other writers can't, do things other writers won't.
5. The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker
As a Harvard psychologist with notable work in the world of linguistics, I was excited for this book. While wonderfully written, it suffers from being overly-descriptive and too long--a flaw the book suggests to avoid! Otherwise it is delightful.
Within you'll find some memorable passages on the common warning signs of prose gone bad, particularly relevant to smart people who are trying to transfer their knowledge:
The literary scholars Mark Turner and Francis-Noël Thomas have identified the stance that our best essayists and writers implicitly adopt, and that is a combination of vision and conversation. When you write you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world that's interesting, that you are directing the attention of your reader to that thing in the world, and that you are doing so by means of conversation.
That may sound obvious. But it's amazing how many of the bad habits of academese and legalese and so on come from flouting that model. Bad writers don't point to something in the world but are self-conscious about not seeming naïve about the pitfalls of their own enterprise. Their goal is not to show something to the reader but to prove that they are not a bad lawyer or a bad scientist or a bad academic.
And so bad writing is cluttered with apologies and hedges and "somewhats" and reviews of the past activity of people in the same line of work as the writer, as opposed to concentrating on something in the world that the writer is trying to get someone else to see with their own eyes.
When bloated writing is used to mask weak ideas, everyone loses.
Bonus: Closely kept favorite authors
Surround yourself with great work and it will inevitably rub off on you.
Visiting and revisiting the masters of the craft is the only way to accomplish this--books on writing can only go so far.
Levels of the Game is one such example for me. John McPhee may be one of the greatest living essayists. His work is complex, stylistically masterful, and will leave most writers with an existential crisis ("That's it, I give up!").
More seriously, studying the work of McPhee and other role models has changed my perspective, and it has certainly changed my writing--one can only hope for the better.
Find the authors that speak to you and let them serve as your companion on the quest to make every word matter.
Gregory Ciotti is the lead content strategist at Help Scout, the SaaS help desk for web businesses who insist on delivering outstanding customer support.
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