Many students entering college think they know what writing for an English class should be like: While most students haven't taken a psychology or Science, Technology, and Society class, the majority of students have taken several English classes before college and have prior experience writing English papers. Depending on their experiences, students may believe that English writing is congenitally imprecise and emotional because it is founded on subjective opinions rather than facts because “there are no right answers.” Alternately, students may think that English papers are brittle five-paragraph essays that impoverish the texts that they analyze. While these assumptions can be hard to displace, English essays are neither unsubstantiated opinions nor life-sucking exercises in pedantry. Rather, English essays can be powerful transformations of your impressions and emotions of a text into a substantiated analysis that reveals the more profound underpinnings of that text. Read this guide to get an idea of how to get the most out of writing for English!
“Close reading is the meat and potatoes—or the tofu and seitan—of what we do.”
Although you'll be asked to write in scads of different genres for your English classes, close readings are the foundation on which all English writing rests. Close readings are essentially papers that ask you to move beyond saying that something exists in a text (for instance, alliteration), to how it's used: That is, what it suggests in relation to other elements of the text, and why that realization matters. Longer papers in English classes can take the form of open-ended research papers, or analysis of the relationships between a text and its historical moment; however, these longer papers are built upon extended close readings for which you will have developed a theoretical framework. Other genres in English include many kinds of creative writing, such as personal essays, memoirs, and poetry, as well as book reviews or letters. You may be asked to write in these creative genres in traditional English classes as well as creative writing English classes.
“We are not teaching, for the most part, content, as much as we're teaching habits of mind and skills. . . . We are asking students to become practitioners of the genres and the forms that we ourselves work in.”
The purpose of writing in English classes is to become a better writer and a better reader. In your English classes your professors don't want you to put on an analytic production just for the professor's eyes; rather, you are being asked to take a step in a larger series of conversations that will allow you to practice habits of mind and transferable analytical skills. Hopefully these habits of mind will include a deeper appreciation for the profound and subtle ways language shapes our imagined realities, as well as how our own theoretical biases affect how we read a text.
“Show me that I'm progressing. . . . I want to feel like I'm learning with the paper.”
Writing for English, perhaps more so than any other discipline, emphasizes the process or craft of an essay rather than the product. This emphasis is inherent to the discipline because English is so consummately qualitative: you are not presenting quantitative data or known observations and conclusions. Rather you are making a qualitative analysis that puts your data (your textual observations) into a meaningful pattern and then commenting on the overall meaning or effect of that pattern. In this way, the form of an English essay is just as important as its content: how you have organized your ideas and presented them is just as important as the ideas themselves. For this reason English papers should not be like lists of evidence; rather, they should show the development of an argument over the course of an essay, with each paragraph advancing the argument.
Because the writer's process of thought is so important to the English essay, your professors will tell you that good reading is the beginning of good writing and that the process of good reading is itself good thinking: how you read will be reflected in how you write—meaning that to be able to write well you yourself must think critically, take notes, and make observations while you read instead of merely absorbing the words on the page.
One aspect of English essays that can be a stumbling block to students is also the thing that can make it so rewarding: Far from having a single correct answer, texts have a multitude of possible solutions and interpretations. Because there is no absolute, definitive interpretation, many students can be caught in the difference between opinions and arguments: sometimes it can feel unnerving to make an interpretive leap because you think that it isn't 100% certain—but that's actually the nature of the claims we make as English writers: while they are substantiated, they are fundamentally arguable. An arguable claim is different from an opinion in that arguments are substantiated by textual evidence while opinions are not.
“Evidence is two parts: textual evidence (quotes and paraphrases) and analysis.”
Evidence in English is almost exclusively textual; however, textual evidence is not “evidence” in itself! When you include textual evidence it should be because its specific language or mechanical aspects are “meaningful in a way that is irreducible”; that is, it would be impossible to rephrase the language in any other way without losing some important part of the meaning. However the meaning that you see in the textual evidence is not self-evident: when you include textual evidence you must always use your own words to explain how it is meaningful to your argument.
The Oxford English Dictionary (or the OED, for short) is a great place to look for the history and meaning of words. When you encounter words in older texts that seem to have different meanings, you can see if the meaning of those words has changed over time. You can also use the OED to make a point about the double meaning of a particular word. And, of course, you can look for words whose meanings you don't know. Puget Sound students have access to the OED through Primo at Collins Library.