Checklist for Essays in 20th Century American Literature
Does your essay
- start with an issue or a character or a scene or a theme in one of the texts we've read that genuinely perplexes-intrigues-irritates-bugs you? In my experience, as both a writer and a reader of essays, the best ones attempt to answer a question that is really a question — i.e. essays in which you will be trying to get to the bottom of something that really interests you.
- have a specific argument, a main interpretive point it's trying to develop to a conclusion? i.e. if a friend asks what you're writing your paper about, could you complete the following sentence in 25 words or less? "In my essay I'm going to show my reader that ____________________." And is your argument something that can be argued about? i.e. that "'the imagination' is important in Stevens' poetry" is too obvious to be worth spending 7 pages saying. But that "if one looks closely at the various acts of the imagination in Stevens' poetry, it seems that he looks to the human mind to replace the god who has died, creating order out of chaos, walking on water, redeeming reality from meaninglessness" — that's a point readers can disagree about. Take a stand in your essays. Don't be afraid to be "wrong." Figure out what you really think about the question that interests you, and develop that idea as persuasively as possible.
- have an organization? A good essay is organized around developing its main point, so once you know that – what your last paragraph is going to say to answer the question you began with – think about the best way to lead your reader to that conclusion. A good essay stays on target, knows where it's going and how it will get there. A weak essay blurs its focus, changes the subject, or simply adds up a series of points (i.e. this and this and this, rather than first this, then this, which leads to this, which in turn leads to this, and finally this), or simply follows the storyline as the original author tells it, without having decided on the best way to develop its own argument about the text.
- have quotations from the text you're writing about in every paragraph? A good interpretive argument works back and forth, between the text's words and your ideas about what it means. Don't just tell me what you think — show me. By quoting and analyzing specific passages, phrases, textual details, you give your reader the evidence that makes your interpretation clear and persuasive.
- include page numbers for all the quotations you use? Essays for this class probably won't need footnotes, but I do need a way to check your quotations; you provide that by citing the page number(s) of each quotation in parentheses in your text. Here's an example: "At the end of 'Sunday Morning,' a voice proclaims that the God of Christianity is dead, that 'The tomb in Palestine/is not the porch of spirits lingering' (70)." If your quotation is more than 3 or 4 lines long, you should indent it (and when you indent a quotation, it does not go in quotation marks – unless the quotation marks are there in the original text you're quoting), and put the page number in parentheses at the end.
- end by identifying the work(s) it cites, so that you reader will know what the page numbers refer to. Even if you use the edition of a novel I ordered for the class, identifying the text you use in your written work is a good habit to get into. So at the end of your essay put something like this:
Willa Cather, The Professor's House (New York: Vintage, 1990)
And if you're quoting from those .pdf texts we used for Stein, Frost and Stevens, use this format:
Wallace Stevens, Class Packet (ENMC 3120, 2010)
- have a title? Make sure you give your essay a title that lets your reader know that you know exactly what the focus of your argument is. "Religion in Stevens" is not a good title, because it's so vague, and doesn't commit to a specific point; "'As a god might be': the Role of the Imagination in Stevens' Poems" is much better.