Checklist for American Renaissance Essays
Does your essay
- 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 ____________________."
- 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: "There may be supernatural phenomena in some Poe stories, but far more often
his narrators are terrified by their own minds: when the narrator of 'The Tell-Tale Heart' says
'it haunted me day and night,' he's not talking about a ghost, but about to 'the idea' which has
'entered [his own] brain' (228)."
Here's another example, showing how to refer to page numbers when you're quoting more than one
author in your essay:
"When Tom is sold away from his cabin, he takes his Bible with him, and as the riverboat carries
him deeper into the South we are told what a crucial resource it is on his journey: 'his Bible seemed
to him all of this life that remained, as well as the promise of a future one' (Stowe, 174). Long-
fellow's Evangeline doesn't carry a Bible with her, but the text of his poem keeps using it to describe
the new world she journeys through. On the banks of the same Mississippi Tom is carried down,
for example, the grape vines 'Hung their ladder of ropes aloft like the ladder of Jacob,/On whose
pendulous stairs the angels ascending, descending,/Were the swift humming-birds' (Longfellow, 59)."
- 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:
Edgar Allan Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings,
ed. David Galloway (London: Penguin, 2003)
- 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 Emerson" in not a good title,
because it's so vague, and doesn't commit to a specific point; "'Religion by revelation to us':
Emerson's Use and Ab-use of the Bible" is much better.