Wednesday, January 22, 2014
WW - Planning a Paper
Last week I said I wanted to talk about paper-writing, so let's dive right in. I'll put the rest of the post under the cut so I don't clutter up the main page with teacher-y stuff.
My brother is quite a good writer, but he tends to get stuck when he's beginning an essay. It's overwhelming, sometimes, to know where to start when staring at a blank page. I've come up with a kick-starting strategy that works for him, and that's what I'll share today.
- Start with the prompt. It doesn't matter the specifics of the prompt, the information you include in your paper will be, essentially, the same. The last paper I worked was about Shakespeare's Henry V. The prompt was: Discuss King Henry. Open-ended prompts can be tricky because you have no guidance; it's all on you. Don't let that be a deterrent right at the start. This paper was a character study, and in any character study, you have to compare and contrast the facets of said character. I knew going in that, whichever way the paper leaned, Henry would be discussed as a man, a military leader, a king, a son, a politician, even a friend. So to begin, put the prompt on the back burner and set about the business of getting to know Henry really well.
- To help my brother, I started an outline. Together, we went through every act and scene in the play, and I jotted short notes about what Henry did and said in each scene. Tedious, yes, but it cuts through the formality of Shakespeare's flowery speech and gets down to brass tacks. One thing to keep in mind about Shakespeare: his characters lie to themselves and others, so it's important to look at their actions, not just their words.
- With this outline, we went through and labeled our bullet points, noting the way Henry's words in one scene would contradict his speech of the next scene. Some moments were selfless, others very selfish. He vacillated between being truly noble and being nothing but practical. We had "noble moments" and "real moments" color-coded. Very quickly, the character takes shape as one who is conflicted, and dynamic, and pragmatic. He's a complex dude, Henry, and we began taking more notes to that effect, framing out rough sentences, building our case. I say do this with every character study. You create a list of attributes by classifying a character's actions. And this also gives you a possible thesis. Henry could be argued as a conflicted figure, with dueling natures, or one who is totally pragmatic and changes his behavior on purpose to suit his cause. Either case could be argued. Boom - thesis.
- Next, my brother picked out all the things other characters said about Henry. It's important to understand how the other characters feel about the subject of your paper. (You could go on for paragraphs about the way Henry is perceived by his people, and how that helps or hurts his cause as their king).
- Pull some meaty quotes straight from the text and add them to your outline as support for Henry's actions, proof that he's done and said what you claim he has.
- Then it's time to start writing. Using your outline, just start writing sentences, and then paragraphs, without worrying about organization. Write any and everything that springs into your mind. Doing this sort of "free writing," fleshing out the framework of your outline and inserting relevant quotes, your thoughts will build one on top of the other and you will, hopefully, find yourself going off on little tangents. Good. Tangent away! Write, write, write, and you can cut, paste, and organize later. The most important thing is to get all your thoughts on paper.
- The more prep work you do up front, the less you will struggle when it comes to meeting word count or page number requirements. This strategy works not just with literature analysis papers, but with research papers and business essays too. Research, research, research: there's no such thing as too much information when you get started. And outlining doesn't have to be an organized process: you list topics you want to touch on, adding, tweaking as you go.
The hardest part is getting started. You have to take a daunting assignment, and break it into manageable bits so it doesn't overwhelm you. Sometimes it helps to journal about the paper topic, or sit with someone and just talk about the assignment, organizing your thoughts in a relaxed, free-form environment. A lot of times, watching a film of the text (you do have to read it first, sorry) gives you a whole new perspective. Seeing and hearing the characters can only deepen your understanding, so long as you keep your paper limited to the text, and don't include possibly-different sequences from the film in your writing.
Next week, I'll talk about polishing it up. That's where you can be a little creative.