Writing English Papers
by Shasta Turner
You will be asked to write many different kinds of papers as part of your graduate coursework in English. However, the following four assignments are the most common:
Close Readings (view a sample close reading)
A close reading is a paper (usually 4 to 5 pages long, but sometimes longer) on a short poem or an excerpt from a longer poem or prose work. The objective is to engage the text’s use of language, rhyme and meter, and recurrent images or metaphors. You must decide what net effect the writer achieves in a selected passage and support your argument with quotes from the text. The assignment generally does not require outside research. Please click here to see a sample close reading assignment.
Some helpful hints:
Pick a manageable selection. As a rule of thumb, you will want to do more with less: when elucidating textual complexities, a twelve-line poem is a better choice than a two-page poem.
Provide your professor with a copy of the passage. This will enable him or her to get the "big picture" without having to hunt down your source.
Make sure you have a thesis. As with any paper you write for an English course, you should be attempting to prove an argument. Take a look at our Making an Argument handout for help.
If you need to brush up on meter, try studying the information and then taking this interactive quiz posted by Seamus Cooney of Western Michigan University.
Class Presentations (view a sample class presentation)
A class presentation is a short paper that you will read aloud in class. Lengths vary, but typical assignments include 4- to 5-page papers and 8-page papers. Usually you will write on a primary text that the class has read, but this is not always the case. For this assignment, pick one aspect of a text that interests you, formulate a thesis, and support your argument with evidence from the text. Usually professors do not require research for in-class presentations, but most students read at least a few secondary sources when generating ideas. You may incorporate these sources into your presentation, but avoid relying too heavily on scholarly books and articles—your critical voice should dominate.
Some helpful hints:
Pick an issue that will generate class discussion. Think of your paper as a springboard for conversation with your colleagues.
Remember that you will present your paper orally. Your professor and classmates won’t be able to stop and puzzle out confusing sentences or abrupt logical jumps. See the Writing Center guide to "Presenting Papers for Conferences in the Humanities" for additional tips.
You may encounter an assignment labeled a "cultural" or "historical" report. These papers follow principles of organization similar to class presentations. However, these papers usually analyze multiple primary documents (e.g.media coverage of the Spanish American War in 1898 or cosmetics advertisements in the 1940s). Please click here to see a sample of this type of paper.
Research/Seminar Papers (view a sample research paper)
A graduate research paper ideally contributes a new idea or perspective to a given field of study. These papers usually run from 15 to 25 pages, depending on guidelines given by individual professors. Your target audience will be specialists in a particular area or time period; therefore, you need not summarize the entire text or review basic biographical information about an author unless it casts new light on your argument. Many students use class research papers to generate ideas for conference papers, dissertations, and even scholarly articles. Please follow this link to read a sample research paper.
Some helpful hints:
Early in the semester, pick a text (some professors will recommend that you write on more than one text) and a topic.
Begin reading some secondary sources, and come up with a tentative argument based on your own interpretation of the text or texts. While you will probably refine your initial hypothesis a great deal, it will be useful to have some direction that helps determine which secondary sources you need (or don’t need) to read.
Talk to your professor! Make sure s/he thinks that your topic is both interesting and viable. Professors often give invaluable feedback on your research and on possible sources.
Articulate a thesis EARLY in the paper (within the first two pages). A long preamble can make your reader feel lost, especially if you haven’t yet pointed out its relevance to your project.
Identify where your topic fits into the existing literature, but avoid excessive reliance on secondary sources. Use research to help frame your argument—don’t let other scholars dictate the direction you will take.
If you use a particular theoretical, historical, or other critical framework, identify it clearly. Use such a framework only if it helps bring to light a specific aspect of your own thesis.
Start writing early! Many students feel as though "one more book" will make or break their research papers. While it is indeed important to research responsibly, crafting a good paper takes several weeks for most students. Avoid using research as a method of procrastination.
This section presents some basic tips on how to approach the review process. For a more thorough treatment of the topic, see the Writing Center handout dedicated specifically to writing book reviews, which includes a sample review.
A book review usually runs between 2-4 pages, or 1000-2000 words, depending on guidelines given by particular professors. This assignment helps you read and write critically about secondary sources. Scholarly book reviews should briefly summarize the author’s project and thesis and then analyze the value of that project. Ask yourself the following questions:
1) What critical perspective is the author using?
2) What does s/he do well?
3) What are some of the book’s weaknesses, and how important are these weaknesses?
4) How does the book contribute to its field?
5) Finally, who would be most likely to benefit from reading this book?
Some helpful hints:
Read book reviews published in scholarly journals in your field. Seeing how respected critics have organized their reviews can help you craft your own approach.
Avoid excessive summary and scant analysis.
As always, remember to organize your paper around a thesis.
See the Writing Center's Guide to Writing Book Reviews or a powerpoint presentation on Writing and Publishing Book Reviews for more information, tips, and examples.
For a sample scholarly book review click here.