The Ultimate Dozen, or What Stavreva (and Most English Professors) Expect from a Good Academic Essay
1. Make sure you understand the topic. If you donít, or if you want to modify or completely re-write it, talk with your professor. Never change your topic without consulting with your professor first.
2. Leap straight into your topic in the opening paragraph. Donít waste time on the greatness of Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, or whatever. If Aemilia Lanyerís Eve is your topic, go straight to her, without stopping to admire Milton and Lanyer, or the complexities of Renaissance epic on the way.
3. You donít have to give away the structure of your essay in the opening paragraph. In fact, introductions that announce, "This essay will deal with three aspects of . . ." do not promise a good read. I do want to see, however, a clear and substantive thesis in the introduction. Note that a thesis differs from your topic. The topic is what you are writing about; the thesis--the stance that youíre taking on that issue.
4. Be specific. If you're writing on A Midsummer Night's Dream, for example, donít fill your pages with vague references about Shakespeare's mastery of language. Instead, you can reflect on the different ways in which images of the moon are used by the mechanicals or the aristocratic characters, or on the change in the meter and rhyme used by characters when they fall under the influence of the magic flower, or on the function of song in the play, etc., etc. Be concrete rather than abstract whenever you can.
5. Support your general statements with evidence from the text. If you are claiming that love is a burden for Mary Wrothís Pamphilia, point out that she compares love to a "strange Labyrinth" (sonnet 77, l. 1). Then go on and reflect on the fact that in Greek mythology the labyrinth was not simply a bewildering, but a life-threatening place, since the horrible beast the Minotaur was lurking at its center. You can develop the connotations of "labyrinth" further, using the myth. Avoid unqualified generalizations, and never make a generalization that you cannot back up with evidence.
6. Analyze, donít summarize. Plot summaries and character sketches are useless as essays. Your professor should be reasonably familiar with the events and the characters in the readings she has assigned. Rather than rehash what has happened, write about why it happens, or what is unusual or interesting about the way an event takes place, or how inept it was of the author to have let something happen. If you find that your essay is structured so that it reproduces the events of a story, play, etc., you are probably summarizing.
7. Structure your essay clearly (an outline always helps). Your thesis, not the events in the story, novel, etc., should determine the logical structure of your essay. Make sure that your paragraphs are in a logical sequence, and that the sentences are logically connected within your paragraphs. A good structural rule for essays, paragraphs, and sentences, is this: begin with your second-best argument/evidence, end with your best, and bury the dubious bits in the middle. The sad truth is that a hurried reader will focus most attentively on the beginning and the ending of your essay.
8. Decide what your audience is and be consistent about it. For most essays, you can picture your reader as a curious adult of normal intelligence, who has read the text(s) you are discussing and is familiar with literary history and literary terms. This means that you do not have to bother with explanations like "William Shakespeare, a world-known English Renaissance dramatist," plain "Shakespeare" will do. However, if you are writing about a less well-known author, it is always a good idea to use his or her first and last name when you mention them first, and from then on use the last name only.
9. Adopt a consistent tone and level of diction. Donít be chummy in one paragraph and scientifically remote in the next, or shift from formal language to slang. I prefer a tone that is reasonably formal, but not stuffy. "In the opinion of this author" is an overkill. Use "I think." I donít like the use of "we," though I have no objection to using the first person singular ("I"). (Note, however, that some professors dislike this.) Also, "I feel" doesnít work for me in a literature paper, unless you have managed to provide textual evidence for the truthfulness of your feelings. I prefer active to passive voice.
10. Define the key terms of your argument, especially if there is any ambiguity about their meaning. Avoid jargon, that is boring and fuzzy words like "conceptualize," "societal," "aspects," "characteristics."
11. Be sure that your essay is literally composed. Proofread, proofread, proofread AFTER you have run the spell check! Not only do I want to see no errors of spelling and grammar, but I want to be impressed by effective, well-balanced, and graceful sentences. As a general rule for verbs, use the present tense for literature ("Othello suspects his wife of adultery") and the past tense for historical events ("Shakespeare wrote Hamlet around 1601").
12. Iím genuinely interested in what you have to say about the topic. I wouldnít assign it otherwise. I therefore feel cheated when I read a regurgitation of my own lectures or of other criticsí interpretations. You can build on other critics' work, but make sure that you distinguish your argument from theirs. If you disagree with my interpretation or another criticsí, more power to you! Independent thinking is the ultimate goal of education! Always make sure that you credit appropriately others' intellectual property!