Aug 18 2010
This is mainly aimed at high school and college English courses, but you might find this advice helpful in other subjects as well.
1. The first paragraph should introduce what you will be arguing and what sort of evidence you’ll be using to back up your assertion. In an English class, you’re not talking about every aspect of a book, so identify your focus. Do NOT merely provide a fact (“The Great Gatsby is a 20th century American novel set in West Egg, New York”). Focus on what you’ll need to make your argument. For example, “West Egg symbolizes the American dream” and then talk about what happens there and how that demonstrates what the author is suggesting about Gatsby’s attempts to break into the upper class.
2. Summarizing the book is usually besides the point. The teacher has already read the book, so the summary probably isn’t necessary. Do talk about plot events that advance your argument, though.
3. In most cases, teachers want you to discuss literary effects rather than your personal feelings and preferences. In 99% of cases, teachers don’t care whether you liked the book or not. So, instead of saying something like “I thought it was annoying how sarcastic the narrator was,” talk about something the sarcasm accomplishes. PS: The teacher already knows you don’t like the book. Shakespearean plays didn’t make the assigned reading list because of their youth appeal.
3.1. In most cases, teachers frown upon first-person English papers. Unless you’re specifically writing a paper about yourself, like “What I Did on Summer Vacation,” I’d recommend avoiding words that refer to you, such as “I,” “me,” and “my.” They’re usually red-flags for the author interjecting personal feelings. Note: first-person is more acceptable when discussing how you conducted a scientific experiment because you’re not discussing your opinions but rather providing important information about your experiment.
4. Be specific. Do NOT use all-but-meaningless words like “positive” and “negative.” For example, instead of saying “The voice is negative,” describe one or more of the “negative” aspects you’re talking about. For example, perhaps the voice is depressed, resigned, resentful, disappointed, condescending, contemptuous or cynical instead. “Vivid” is another red flag that suggests the student is writing a meaningless sentence to waste space.
5. Proofread! Read through your paper for typos at least once before turning it in. Using a spellchecker alone is not sufficient. A spellchecker can’t help you pick between”two” (the number), “too” (too much) and “to” (pretty much everything else). Grammar-check is 90% worthless.
6. Start each paragraph with a topic sentence saying what the paragraph is about. For example, in this blog post, each paragraph starts with a tip and then the following sentences provide further details about why it matters or how to pull it off in your work.
7. Umm, read the books. Paper based on SparkNotes or a friend’s notes are frequently hilarious, but not in a good way.
Anything I missed?