Writing About Literature: Reviewing Your Work and Revising Again

 

from The Norton Introduction to Literature, Shorter Third Edition by Carl E. Bain, Jerome Beaty, and J. Paul Hunter (1982), pp. 912-916.

Precisely how you move from one draft to another is up to you and will properly depend on the ways you work best; the key is to find all the things that bother you (and that should bother you) and then gradually correct them, moving toward a better paper with each succeeding draft. Here are some things to watch for.

Thesis and central thrust:

Is your main idea clear?

Do you state it clearly, effectively, and early?

Do you make clear what the work is about?

Are you fair to the spirit and the emphasis of the work?

Do you make clear the relationship between your thesis and the central thrust of the work?

Do you explain how the work creates its effect rather than just asserting that it does?

Organization:

Does your paper move logically from beginning to end?

Does your first paragraph set up the main issue you are going to discuss and suggest the direction of your discussion?

Do your paragraphs follow each other in a coherent and logical order?

Does the first sentence of each paragraph accurately suggest what that paragraph will contain?

Does your final paragraph draw a conclusion that follows from the body of your paper?

Do you resolve the issues you say you resolve?

Use of evidence:

Do you use enough examples? Too many?

Does each example prove what you say it does?

Do you explain each example fully enough? Are the examples sufficiently varied?

Are any of them labored, or over explained, or made to bear more weight than they can stand?

Have you left out any examples useful to your thesis?

Do you include any gratuitous ones just because you like them?

Have you achieved a good balance between examples and generalizations?

Tone:

How does your voice sound in the paper? Confident? Arrogant? Boastful?

Does it show off too much? Is it too timid or self-effacing? Do you ever sound smug? Scared? Too tentative? Too dogmatic?

Would a neutral reader be persuaded by the way you explain?

Would such a reader be put off by any of your assertions? By your way of arguing? By your choice of examples? By the language you use?

Sentences:

Does each sentence read clearly and crisply?

Have you rethought and rewritten any sentences you can't explain?

Is the first sentence of your paper a strong, clear one likely to gain the interest of a neutral reader?

Is the first sentence of each paragraph an especially vigorous one?

Are your sentences varied enough?

Do you avoid the passive voice and "there is/there are" sentences?

Word choice:

Have you used any words of whose meaning you are not sure?

In any cases in which you were not sure of what word to use, did you stay with the problem until you found the exact word?

Do your metaphors and figures of speech make literal sense?

Are all the idioms used correctly? Is your terminology correct?

Are your key words always used to mean exactly the same thing?

Have you avoided sounding repetitive by varying your sentences rather than using several different terms to mean precisely the same thing?

Conciseness:

Have you eliminated all the padding you put in when you didn't think your paper would be long enough?

Have you gone through your paper, sentence by sentence, to eliminate all the unnecessary words and phrases?

Have you looked for sentences (or even paragraphs) that essentially repeat what you have already said -- and eliminated all repetition?

Have you checked for multiple examples and pared down to the best and most vivid ones?

Have you gotten rid of all inflated phrasing intended to impress readers?

Have you eliminated all roundabout phrases and rewritten long, complicated, or confusing sentences into shorter, clearer ones?

Are you convinced that you have trimmed every possible bit of excess and that you cannot say what you have to say any more economically?

Mechanics:

Have you checked the syntax in each separate sentence?

Have you checked the spelling of any words that you are not sure of or that look funny?

Have you examined each sentence separately for punctuation?

Have you checked every quotation word for word against the original?

Have you given proper credit for all material -- written or oral -- that you have borrowed from others?

Have you followed the directions your instructor gave you for citations, footnotes, and form?

Final Revisions:

The most effective way to revise in the final stages is to read through your paper looking for one problem at a time, that is, to go through it once looking at paragraphing, another time looking at individual sentences, still another for word choice or problems of grammar. It is almost impossible to check too many things too often, although you can get so absorbed with little things that you overlook larger matters. With practice, you will learn to watch carefully for the kinds of mistakes you are most prone to make. Everyone has individual weaknesses and flaws.

Here are some of the most common elements that tempt beginning writers:

1. Haste (Don't start too late, or finish too soon after you begin.)

2. Pretentiousness (Don't use words you don't understand, tackle problems that are too big for you, or write sentences you can't explain: it is more important to make sense than to make a big, empty impression.)

3. Boredom (The quickest way to bore others is to be bored yourself. If you think your paper will be a drag, you are probably right. It is hard to fake interest in something you can't get excited about; keep at it until you find a spark.)

4. Randomness. (Don't try to string together half a dozen unrelated ideas or insights and con yourself into thinking that you have written a paper.)

5. Imprecision (Don't settle for approximation, either in words or ideas; something that is 50 percent right is also 50 percent wrong.)

6. Universalism (Don't try to be a philosopher and make grand statements about life; stick to what is in the story, poem, or play you are writing about.)

7. Vagueness (Don't settle for a general "sense" of the work you are talking about; get it detailed. Get it right.)

8. Wandering (Don't lose track of your subject or the work that you are talking about.)

9. Sloppiness (Don't sabotage all your hard work on analysis and writing by failing to notice misspelled words, grammatical mistakes, misquotations, incorrect citations or references, or typographical errors. Little oversights make readers suspicious.)

10. Impatience (Don't be too anxious to get done. Enjoy the experience; savor the process. Have fun watching yourself learn.)

 

Flexibility:

Being flexible -- being willing to rethink your ideas and reorder your argument as you go -- is crucial to success in writing, especially in writing about literature. You will find different (and better) ways to express your ideas and feelings as you struggle with revisions, and you will also find that --in the course of analyzing the work, preparing to write, writing, and rewriting -- your response to the work itself will have grown and shifted somewhat. Part of the reason is that you will have gotten more knowledgeable -- maybe even smarter -- as a result of the time and effort you have spent, and you will have, by the time you finish, a more subtle understanding of the work. But part of the reason will also be that the work itself will not be exactly the same. Just as a work is a little different for every reader, it is also a little different with every successive reading by the same reader, and what you will be capturing in your words is some of the subtlety of the work in its capability of producing effects that are alive and therefore always changing just slightly. You need not, therefore, feel that you must say the final word about the work you are writing about -- but you do want to say whatever word you have to say in the best possible way. You can turn all of this into a full-time job, of course, but you needn't. It is hard work, and at first the learning seems slow and the payoff questionable. A basketball novice watching the magic of a Julius Erving may find it hard to see the point of practicing layups, but even creative geniuses have to go through those awful moments of sitting down and putting pen to paper (and then crossing out and rewriting again and again). But that's the way you learn to make it seem easy. Art is mostly craft, and craft means methodical work. As one of our most accomplished poets once put it:

 

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, as those move easiest who have learned to dance.

 

Writing will come more easily with practice. But you needn't aspire to professional writing to take pleasure in what you accomplish. Learning to write well about literature will help you with all sorts of tasks, some of them having little to do with writing. Writing, like most other meaningful exercises in the educational process, trains the mind, creates habits, teaches you procedures that will have all kinds of long-range payoffs that you may not immediately recognize or be able to predict. And ultimately it is very satisfying, even if it is not easy, to be able to stand back and say, "That is mine. Those are my words. I did it. I have gotten it right. I know what I'm talking about, I understand, and I can make someone else understand." Communication through words is one of the activities that make us distinctively human.

One final bit of advice: do not follow, too rigidly or too closely, anyone's advice, including ours.

We have suggested some general strategies and listed some common pitfalls. But writing is a very personal experience, and you will have talents (and faults) that are a little different from anyone else's. Learn to play to your own strengths and avoid the weaknesses that you are especially prone to. Pay attention to your instructor's comments; learn from your own mistakes.

 

A SUMMARY OF THE PROCESS

 

Here, briefly, is a summary, step by step, of the stages we have suggested you move through in preparing a paper about literature.

 

Stage One: Deciding what to write about

Read the work straight through, thoughtfully. Make notes at the end on any points that caught your attention.

Read the work again more slowly, pausing to think through all the parts you don't understand. When you finish, write a three- or four-sentence summary.

Read the work again, carefully but quite quickly. Decide what you feel most strongly about in the work, and write down the one thing you would most want -to explain to a friend about how the story (or poem or play) works, or (if the work still puzzles you) the one question you would most like to be able to answer.Decide how the statement you made at the end of your third reading relates to the summary you wrote down after the second reading.

Write a one-paragraph "promise" of what your paper is going to argue.

 

Stage Two: Planning your paper

Read the work at least twice more and make notes on anything that relates to your thesis.

Read through all your notes so far, and for each write a sentence articulating how it relates to your thesis.

Transfer all your notes to note cards of uniform size.

Read through all your notes again and record any new observations or ideas on additional note cards.

Set aside your note cards for the moment, and make a brief outline of the major points you intend to make.

Sort the note cards into piles corresponding to the major points in your outline. Sort the cards in each separate pile into the most likely order of their use in the paper.

Make a more detailed outline (including the most significant examples) from your pile of note cards on each point.

Reconsider your order of presentation, and make any necessary adjustments.

Begin writing.

 

Stage Three: Rewriting

Go over your writing, word by word, sentence by sentence, and paragraph by paragraph, in draft after draft until your writing is worthy of the ideas you want to express.

 

SOME FINAL THOUGHTS

 

Why write about literature? There are two kinds of answers to this question in a literature course. One is that your instructor will probably insist on it; In fact, your college probably insists on it one way or another, as a requirement for graduation. But there's a larger reason that lies behind your instructor's (and your college's) insistence. That is because writing is a way of knowing, or of coming to know. In a very real sense, you do not actually know whether you know a particular thing until you can explain it to someone else. Are you ever tempted to say: "I know what that poem means, but I just can't explain it"? That's a clear sign that you need to read it again, maybe several more times, and try to figure out how to talk about the meaning, or the effect, or the total intellectual and emotional experience of the poem. No interpretation will be the poem, of course, or the perfect equivalent of the poem, but as you learn to interpret more precisely and more readily, you will discover that your experience itself is richer. You will "get" not just vague sensations of pleasure or pain, but more clearly defined responses that will let you know that you know. The old adage that the way to learn something thoroughly and permanently is to teach it to someone else is especially applicable to attempts to interpret literature by writing about it. Years from now you will remember very well the stories, poems, and plays that you write about, while others that you simply read will have slipped away from you. But even more importantly, you will have exercised and refined your skills of knowing by applying them in a concentrated way; doing a good paper on one poem or one story or one play will make you a better reader of the next work of literature you read, of whatever kind. Reading literature, even for students who begin with indifference, usually turns out to be a pleasure; writing about literature sometimes does not. We will not try to kid you: writing about literature is not easy, even though it does use words to describe other words. And even for people who get very good at it, it is hard work. But it can also be very satisfying work if you take the time and trouble to do it well and endure the frustration of confronting your weaknesses and mistakes. You can learn to do it, but it may take a lot of effort and some unsuccessful attempts along the way. You will soon develop your own habits and learn to play to your own strengths and capabilities.

 

Here is a checklist of some things to keep in mind

I. Begin early. Last minute means last resort.

2. Complete your analysis before you begin to write. It is easier to write when you know what you think.

3. Plan. Don't wait for divine inspiration or trust to luck.

4. Outline. Be sure you know where all your thoughts go and how they fit together.

5. Limit your subject. A paper that is about everything is about nothing.

6. Think clearly all the way to the end. Do not let your sentences or paragraphs trail off into uncertainty, vague attempts to sound impressive, or a hope for supernatural intervention.

7. Argue. A discussion with a friend or roommate will normally clarify what you think. Strong feelings are not enough to make a paper work, but vigor reinforces clarity.

8. Prove. Assertions are for headlines; an essay has to give evidence and convince its audience.

9. Be clear. Fog enlarges objects but does not enhance prose. "Partly cloudy" is not a favorable forecast for your paper.

10. Be varied. Do not write the same paper every week of the term. Once you know what you can do well, experiment with other possibilities. You will learn more by taking risks, even if sometimes you do not succeed, than you will by repeated success in the same rut. And most teachers will respect your attempt to improve yourself rather than basking in repeated reflection of past glories.

11. Be hard on yourself. Never settle for a sentence that almost makes sense or a word that is almost right.

12. Rewrite. Getting something right in words takes time and patience. Most papers take several drafts before they begin to seem smooth. It takes a lot of work to sound effortless. Let your prose 11 c6ol" between drafts whenever possible; you will find trouble spots more easily when you are a bit removed from the thoughts behind the writing. Sleeping on a paper is not always a good thing (it depends on what you do when you wake up), but it can help provide the distance that can lead to good critical judgment. It is better to find your own problems and correct them than to read about them in your instructor's comments.

13. Type. The chances are that your instructor does not have a degree in hieroglyphics and did not work as a decoder in World War 11.

14. Proofread. Who wants to read a paper you did not care enough about to read yourself? Proofread again. Find your mistakes before, someone else does. It is less expensive.

16. Read it one more time

Handouts I HOME