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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Workshop Wednesday - Paper Polish

See? I knew I'd have trouble sticking to a posting schedule. I missed last week's Workshop Wednesday with the weather and book release, but I'm back this week. And I promised to talk about polishing up essays. Man - that sounds dry and dull. Sorry. Next week, we'll shoot for more exciting. As for today, let's keep this painless and informative.

If you think talking about writing papers is boring, imagine how boring it is for a professor to grade hundreds of them. How many essays begin with: "Shakespeare's Henry V is a play about..." Even if a paper is very technically correct, it doesn't stand out, or make a stunning first impression, with a generic lead-in like this. Because creative writing has always been my "thing," and because I knew that was where my writing skills were the strongest, I worked a certain level of storytelling into every formal paper. What I noticed - professors loved it. It's a technique I encourage when helping students with their essays. And even if it sounds daunting, it doesn't have to be. It can be simple, and it can make the whole process more fun.

The Introduction
Every essay begins with an introductory paragraph or paragraphs that set the stage for the essay, and close with a thesis statement. My rule - let your opening sentence read like you're about to tell a fictional story. A technique for non-fiction essays, using an anecdote - a short story that illustrates the themes you want to discuss - can be modified here and used in a literary essay. Think of a creative way to introduce the book, play, poem you're writing about. This is why it's helpful to come up with a scene-by-scene synopsis, like I mentioned before. Then you know the plot backward and forward, and can hammer it into the shape you want.

In the Henry V paper I helped with, the paper opened like this:

In an antechamber in the king's palace, the Bishop of Ely, in discussing King Henry to the Archbishop of Canterbury, observes, “Wholesome berries thrive and ripen best neighbour’d by fruit of baser quality: And so the prince obscured His contemplation under the veil of wildness” (I.I).

We're easing the audience into the topic. There's a bit of intrigue - we want to know about Henry now, about his past, his future, what kind of king he is.

I wrote a paper for college - and I'm shocked I still remember this - about the short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. (Love that one, by the way) My opening line was:

A man stands on a bridge, awaiting the gallows.

It's short, it's to the point, and it immediately sets up the scene in the reader's mind. Now, instead of talking about a plot of a story, you're seeing the story, and are automatically more invested. You're letting the reader know up front that this is not just another dry analysis.

Other ideas:
- Open with a quote from the text.   "I am no bird," Jane says, "and no net ensnares me..."
- Open with the reader reaction from the time of the book's publication.   "Shakespeare's audience thought..."
- Open with an obscure fact about the text.

Always be Analyzing
Profs hate it when you summarize the entirety of the text. Mainly because it serves little to no purpose. So the thing to keep in mind is, when you're recounting events of the story, analyze them as you talk about them. You can kill two birds with one stone.

Instead of:
Kind Henry gives a speech to his men before the battle. He calls upon their patriotism, loyalty, and masculinity, beseeching them to win the day for England.

Phrase it like this:
He works hard to keep up appearances, so to speak, and adapts his leadership to the moment at hand.  In this moment, he is the noble patriarch of England, plying his men with nostalgia, nationalism, and love, even appealing to their masculinity. He delivers his St. Crispin’s Day speech with such eloquence and emotion, one could not but think him a man of the people, a leader for the ages, a just and moral man with a certain chivalrous code of honor. But at the end of the battle, it is not Henry the king, but Henry the modern strategist who keeps the field. As an extremely pragmatic monarch, Henry has all of the French prisoners executed when it appears that the fate of the battle is uncertain.

In the second example, we're discussing his motivations, and touching on his dual nature, rather than just telling the audience what happened - we're also telling them why it happened. Henry, we say, is a conflicted leader, waffling between tactics, mercurial and changeable, adapting to the moment at hand. That is what the audience wants to know - not what Henry did, but what his actions say about him as a character.

I think, because essays are seen as so formal, writers can be hesitant to add flavor to their analysis. Remember: every lit essay is more or less one person's opinion, and the more strongly you argue that opinion, the more descriptive and passionate you sound, the better able the reader is to understand your point of view, and grant it merit.  Instead of giving a general statement about Henry's speech, take a stance on it, and react strongly to it in your writing.

Don't Forget the Prickly Things
There's nothing worse than working for days on a paper, getting the tone just right, only to have points deducted for a grammar mistake you overlooked. Ugh.

Be sure to brush up on your MLA formatting.

Always have someone else read your work - what makes perfect sense in your head might be confusing to readers. Adjust it until it is completely clear to your readers - then it will be clear to your professor.

When in doubt, double check your grammar and punctuation against a handbook. (Note - not promoting this site, but it seems pretty helpful.)

Last of all, practice makes perfect. Practicing techniques on material you love and are passionate about will prepare you to talk about any work of art.


  1. This is good stuff!!!! You could be doing work for students by helping them with their essays. Have you considered Tutoring Students?

    1. I actually do some - more along the lines of essay help than tutoring. I'm always open to expanding that into a business - need to find a way to connect with people who need that kind of help.

  2. You should be an English teacher. Way better advice than anything I ever got from a teacher.

    1. If I wouldn't have to go back to college to become an English teacher, that'd be a real possibility. I could talk about this kind of stuff all day. Lol. Thanks :)