Write a short (3-4 page) original essay that examines some aspect of any work we have read this semester.  This is not a research paper; instead, it should be your own thoughts and insights into the work, with one exception: begin the essay with a "prompt"--an excerpt from a critical article or a book review that addresses the same topic you want to write about.  In other words, you're going to read a few secondary sources until you find an aspect of the writer's work that a critic or scholar has already commented on, and then use that to prompt your own ideas.  By the way, the prompt doesn't need to be about your specific writer; it can be about writing in general.  Examples:


[your title]
 Black Speech as Poetry in the Stories of Tony Cade Bambara

[your prompt]
"Miss Bambara writes with a marvelous vitality; her style, which draws its bite and verve from everyday black speech, comes close to poetry." 
--Anne Tyler, "Farewell to the Story as Imperiled Species," 
in The National Observer, 9 May 1977, pp 3-4.
[your intro]
The stories in Toni Cade Bambara's collection Gorilla, My Love are usually narrated by one of the characters, and typically those narrations follow the conventions of Black American English.  The sentences are rhythmical, there is use of repetition and figurative language, and in places, even rhyme.  Indeed, though the works are prose, the language is at times more like poetry. . . .


[your title]
"This is a True Story":
Art & Truth in The Things They Carried

[your prompt]
"Literature is invention.  Fiction is fiction.  To call 
a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth. 
Every great writer is a great deceiver. . . ."

--Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature
Harcourt, p. 5.

[your intro]
Picasso is reported to have said that "Art is a lie that helps us see the truth."  But what are we to make of a fiction writer who admits not that he is lying, but rather claims--in a book that is ostensibly fiction--that he is telling the truth?  For readers of Tim O'Brien, this question strikes at the heart of one of the key themes of The Things They Carried. . . .

Developing Your Essay

An essay has three parts, as you know: intro, body, conclusion.

The intro can do several things, but the least it must do is (1) identify the author and title of the work youíre discussing, and (2) include a thesis (what is this paper going to be about?  The reader should know by the end of the intro).

The body will develop the ideas of the intro by using specific examples from the story, stories, or novel you're writing about.  Give plenty of examples (see "Quoting" below).

In a paper this short, a summary conclusion is a waste.  Your reader (me) doesn't need to be reminded of what he just read.  Instead of summarizing, save something good for the end--an interesting thought, a definitive statement, a strong quote from the text, or a comment on the prompt (return to the beginning).  It helps some writers to write the conclusion first.  Try it, if you get stuck.  (By the way, it also helps some writers to write the body before the intro, and save the intro for last.  Do what works for you).


Two rules: (1) the best way to support your assertions is to quote directly from the text, and (2) don't overquote!

These rules may seem contradictory.  They're not.  Regarding (2), summarize and paraphrase often; quote only the most vivid language.  That's especially true for block quotes (long quotes); they should be avoided in such a short paper unless absolutely necessary, and even then, quote judiciously--use ellipsis and partial quotes; quote only what you need.

For this informal paper, we don't need formal MLA documentation.  Just use page numbers in parenthesis.  Examples:

partial quote
Vonnegut introduces Heath as "a red-headed Cockney midget" who repairs shoes for a living (105).

full quote
Finally Carver's narrator snaps: "I couldn't take anymore tonight" (109).

quote within a quote
Use double quotes to indicate where you start quoting, and change the text's dialogue double quotes to single quotes:

Bambara captures Manny's despair: "He shook his head.  'I muffed the goddamn shot.  Ball bounced off the rim . . .'  He stared at his hands.  'The game of the season.  Last game' " (39).

Notice on all the examples above that the parenthetical citation goes after the quote but before the period.  Exception: see next example.

 Block quote (long quote)
If it's necessary to quote five or more lines from the text, indent it ten spaces from the left.  Do not indent from the right.  Use ellipsis to leave out what is unessential; use brackets to insert your own words for clarification; do not put quote marks around the quote (the indention shows it's a quote, so you don't need quote marks); and put the page in parentheses outside the period.  Example:

In the aftermath of the argument, Inez tries to remember her life's most happy moments:

She recalled being extremely happy eating lunch by herself in a hotel room in Chicago, once when snow was drifting on the window ledges.  There was a lunch in Paris that she remembered . . . rain streaming down the big windows, rain blowing in the trees . . . Jessie [her daughter] crowing with delight and pointing imperiously at a poodle . . . . Harry [her husband] unbuttoning Adlai's wet sweater, kissing Jessie's wet hair, pouring them each a half glass of white wine.  (58)

If you have questions about formating a quote, look it up in any good handbook, or ask me.

Critical Essay Style

Here are two conventions of writing about literature:

(1)  Keep the "I" out.  This is not a personal essay; the focus should be on the work, not on yourself.  If you need to mention something you noticed, the convention is to use "we" or "the reader."

(2)  Use present tense.  Maurice kisses Sarah; Carver writes about alcoholics, Blevins is shot by the Mexican officer.  At the end of the play, Hamlet dies, and he will always die every time you read that part.  Literature exists in the ever-happening Now (even though Carver is dead and can no longer write.  Thus the immortality of authors.).  So use present tense in your sentences, and unless demanded by grammatical structure, don't change the tenses of whatever you quote.

Essay Format

  • typed, doublespaced, one-inch margins, font: 14 pt max, 12 pt minimum.
  • please use a conventional and easy-to-read font, such as Times, Helvetica, Bookman, Palatino, etc.--not a script or all-italic font.
  • your name, Engl 4300, Spring 2000 typed at top left; do not use a title page
  • title centered, preferably in boldface
  • for the "prompt," use a small font (10 or 9 pt) after the title (see examples above); then put a dash and the author, title, and pub data.
  • fold lengthwise with page one showing on the outside (so your name is visible).  Do not use a binder or folder.  Staples are optional.
  • number your pages!
  • SAVE your final draft electronically so you can easily make revisions and corrections if needed.
I am happy to help by reading rough drafts or brainstorming with you--just let me know.

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