Sample TSM Senior Freshman (2nd year) Handout
ITALIAN DEPARTMENT, TRINITY COLLEGE DUBLIN
TSM LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE COURSE
HOW TO WRITE A FRESHMAN LITERARY ESSAY: SOME HINTS
- Read the essay title carefully.
Make sure you understand the particular meaning of the terms it uses. Many "critical quotations" in essay titles are deliberately provocative or paradoxical: they may be half true and half false, they may be internally contradictory, or they may make unjustified assumptions about the text. If you're asked to describe the conflict between individual and society in a certain book, for instance, ask yourself first if the book really presents such a conflict. On the other hand, if the title contains some particularly good critical insight, try and think out exactly why it is good.
- Read the text carefully.
Take it in on many levels: literal meaning, symbolic structure, literary technique, relation to the historical world, organisation and significance of ideas or hidden argument, characterisation and balance of human factors. Try to determine what it is, how its content and its form are related, what it tells you about the author, his/her literary intentions and traditions, and yourself.
- Apply the essay title to the text.
Try to answer the questions inherent in the title, by picking out those aspects of the text which explain, illuminate, confirm or deny the title's assumptions or stated critical judgements. How do you react to the title now?
- Plan your essay by the following steps:
a) Analyse your own reactions.
b) Build up your reactions into ideas.
c) Build your ideas into a coherent progression, which is then the 'argument' of your essay.
('Argument' here means not controversy but the reasonable development of a point of view. If ideas clash, try to sort out their contradictions, or else re-formulate them. Often the clash of ideas and feelings can tell you more about the text.)
- Use the critics.
Scan the scholarly books and articles on your title-subject and text, looking for facts and arguments to throw light on your subject. Use them to help you define your terms, and to come to grips with the text itself. Quote where it really helps your argument (even by contrast or disagreement). Acknowledge each critical borrowing by author, work and page.
- As you write, check that each section is really part of your argument.
Always point out exactly where you're going.