Writing a Literary Essay
An important competence aim for this course is to write essays or articles on literary or cultural issues, and the evaluation of this competence will be a dominating element of your final assessment. Your text can be a hand-in, a part of a full-day test or the written exam. In all cases, it is important that you show that you are able to present a good text both with regard to composition and language. This takes practice and skill, but not as much talent as you may think. These are some basic guide-lines to improve your essay-writing.
Plan and Idea
It is imperative that you have a good plan for what you want to present. Spend some time to put down all the elements you want to include in key words. It is NOT a good idea to start writing right away with a vague idea of where the article is going to lead, hoping that the text will sort itself out as you go along. Your disposition may be a list of pros and cons of some issue, or the different elements you want to include in your presentation of a topic.
Once you have sorted and ordered the elements, you should stick to your plan, but you must keep an open mind for changing the disposition, for example the order of points, when you see how your text is coming along. Your word processor is a perfect tool for this; it gives you the opportunity to cut and paste and to edit during and after the process, so your text comes out as a coherent, logical and readable product.
This means the order of the points you are going to focus on. For example, if you are going to present an author and / or a literary work, there is a traditional and safe way of going about it. You may want to start out with a brief presentation of the author before you follow the usual points of text analysis (brief plot summary, setting, characters, theme, title, mood, and so on). A comparison between e.g. two novels, stories, films or film versus book is another usual assignment. A word of advice is to separate the two elements in a well-balanced composition; after which you sum up with a conclusion. Remember also that your presentation should be well structured with paragraphs and a clear coherence between the different parts.
This is usually what separates a good essay from a bad one. Step one is to remember that this is a formal context and you that you definitely should avoid colloquial language, for example snappy phrases that are meant to communicate with the reader (“Now, what do you think of that?” or “Guess what happened next, - you’re in for a surprise, my friend.”) Next, you should abandon abbreviations, (that’s, they’re, it’s and so on) these belong in informal contexts like dialogues and informal letters.
But what is more important are your vocabulary and your choice of words and expressions. Some writing practice and feedback from your teacher will soon improve your written language and vocabulary. A simple starting point here is to get control of your sentence structure. Some students seem to think that the more words they put into a sentence and the longer the sentence is, the better. That is rubbish! It may look impressive to you, but remember that your sentence must be comprehensible and logical to the reader, not only to the writer. Keep it brief and to the point.
Many students depend on a dictionary. A dictionary may be a good tool but there are pitfalls. Be careful when you look up a Norwegian word, because the dictionary does not know what you want to express, and will just present a selection of possible translations of that word, so beware and don’t trust your dictionary in all cases. A thesaurus is a better tool; this will give alternatives for the English word that first pops up in your head. For example, there are plenty of words that will cover “dark”; a good thesaurus will help you find the exact alternative you want.
A good variety of linking words (in addition, moreover, on the other hand, furthermore are examples of linking words.) is also what may give your essay the final touch language-wise. A linking word will connect your points and make your account come out as a logical and coherent text. Check the related link for information and tasks on linking words and text cohesion.
Once you think you have finished a product it is essential to go back, because this is really what may improve your essay. Be critical and be hard on yourself! (Is this clear? Is this sentence ok, or should I rewrite it? Do I use the same expression too often? Can I put this more simply? Do I repeat myself?) If this is done properly it may well take more time than the actual writing, but it is crucial that you do it. For a home project or hand-in this should not be a problem (a long as you start in time…) But for a school assignment it could be a challenge, because there is a limited amount of time on your hands. Be effective, plan your work according to the time you have, and save at least the last hour for editing. Use your word processor for all it is worth. However, don’t always trust your correction programme, because it does not know what you are trying to say. For example, it will not separate between were and where, since they both are normal English words – and you will not get a signal if you go for the wrong alternative.
Today there is so much information easily accessible on the net that it is easy to get lost, and in fact difficult to choose which background material you should use. It is usual to list your sources at the end of a text, but what is more important is to be critical of what you use and how you include it. It is perfectly all right to quote some source, but what is NOT all right is to steal some text and present it as your own. The cut-and-paste method is not the way to go, and will easily be revealed, usually with unwanted consequences…
Formal writing skills can be learned. It is not as much a question of talent as for example creative writing. There are some basic rules to be observed, and it takes practice, feed-back and more practice. A summing-up in key words:
- A good plan and strategy
- Disposition in key words
- Composition, coherence, and balance
- Avoid abbreviations and informal language
- Brief and to the point
- Use a thesaurus
- Linking words
- Edit and rewrite
- Self-criticism (see yourself as the reader)
- Be careful with sources
Note: Don’t mix the English word “essay” with the similar Norwegian term. A Norwegian “essay” is a “personal essay” in English. The English “essay” is simply an article or a factual text.