The Principles of Good Expository Prose


Trying to Get an A out of Railton

[Here are many of your tips for making the third essay the best yet. I've cut out a few words, but otherwise left your suggestions as you wrote them.]

1. Make sure you find a topic that really interests you. It can perplex you or inspire you, but the more you have feelings for a topic the easier it is to come up with good analysis and development.

[Only one of you mentioned this, but it's still the best advice I can give you about where to start writing a good paper.]

2. Start early enough so you can write a draft and edit it.

Don't procrastinate so long that you don't have time to revise your paper at least once.

3. Have a tight focus.

[This is the idea I seem to have gotten across most successfully. A lot of you came up with versions of this advice. Here are some of the other ways students put it:]

Have a common thread that links all your paragraphs together and concludes the paper concisely.
One topic -- one direction! Argue what you know and argue it well. Remember, you have to choose one point you want to prove. Prove it.
You must always, always have a clear and concise thesis, one in which you have and present an effective argument for or against something.

[Not all the tips were good ones. A couple responses suggested I haven't been clear enough about what I mean by "having an argument and sticking to it." For example, someone wrote:]

Make sure you bluntly mention the one main theme of your paper in every paragraph of the essay.

[If you did that, I'd probably write something like "repetitious" in the margin, or "you've said this before; why say it again?" Repeating a point is not at all the same as having a point and developing it. I like much better the way one of you put it:]

Make sure that each paragraph plays a specific role in developing the larger thesis.

[Another bad tip on the issue of "having a tight focus" was this:]

Don't try to compare two novels within a 7-page paper. Even if you think it's a good clear concise topic, odds are it won't end up that way. It's too big to tackle.

[I'm sorry if I sent this signal to you. I do think that it's much easier really to get to the bottom of a question if you focus on one work in a short essay, but I also try to keep "rule #1" in mind at all times -- i.e. write on a topic that really interests you. If you're most interested in something that involves a comparison, then you should work to find a way to define the focus, to make the question specific enough so that you can really do justice to the topic and two works in one short paper. That's tricky, but not impossible, so I wouldn't say don't ever compare two works, but rather: make sure that's what you most want to do, and then do it well!]

4. Long and lengthy first paragraphs are not the way to go. It's better to have the first paragraph get right into the basis of the paper, not using general sentences to begin the paragraph.

[A possible way to begin was suggested by one of you:]

In the introduction, use one of your best quotes (supporting your main point in the paper).

[That's only one strategy for beginning, but I certainly agree that it's better to begin with a specific quotation or incident from the text than with a big generalization.:]

5. Don't let the order of the book dictate your organization -- use examples that back up what you're saying, but put them in the order that suits your argument best.

6. Never generalize important points. Be as specific as possible, using details and passages from the text.

[I was glad to see that a lot of you mentioned this idea. A paper about a work of literature is an analysis of a text -- in other words, is about words. Novels are words on pages -- and unless you're quoting and discussing specific passages, you're probably too far from the novel itself. Other students put the idea this way:]

Make sure there are specific quotations in every paragraph.
Make sure every important idea is supported by the text; quotations are the way to do this.
Try to use numerous quotes that will support and enhance your argument.

[And a couple of you pointed out that you can't expect the quotations to do your job -- i.e., it's not enough to quote good examples, you also have to explain what, to you, they mean:]

6a. Go into great depth about what the specifics mean in the larger context of your argument about the novel;
Explain your quotes more than a minimal amount -- too much is better than too little.

7. Before printing out final copy, read it out loud.

8. Make sure your title summarizes your whole argument.

[Only one of you mentioned the title, but to me a good title is one dependable sign of a good essay. It doesn't have to be clever, but it does have to let your reader know that you know exactly what your essay is about. And no one mentioned including a Work or Works Cited at the end, but I want to believe that's because you all will remember to do that until your dying day.]

Works Cited

Various Good Rules by Various Good Students in ENLT 214M (Charlottesville: 1997)