The most important preliminary steps for choosing a topic are:
• Formulate a title
Formulate a guiding question
• Formulate a main argument (after a careful consideration and thorough reading of primary and secondary literature)
• Find an outline
Note: Every essay needs a coherent argument. It should provide an answer to the guiding questions. Each part of the outline and every paragraph within the essay is supposed to support or discuss the main argument.
Ideally, your essay should rise from your concrete observations about at least one primary
text that matches the topic of the seminar. You might find the comparison of two primary
texts (preferably of the same genre) productive.
– Read the primary text(s) thoroughly, ideally several times. In doing so, you SHOULD MAKE a long list of excerpts from the primary text in a separate document
– Infer headings for each of these quotations
– Based on these headings, infer the major themes and think about theoretical concepts to analyse them
– Seek and consult secondary literature on these themes and concepts and make further excerpts from secondary literature
– Try to get on overview of the secondary literature on the work, the author, the context, and the period
– If you have not done so yet, narrow down your options and settle for one essay topic.
– Put finger to keyboard and formulate a paragraph or two to see whether
you are getting anywhere with your topic. If not, reconsider your focus
and topic. In addition, draft your outline.
– Contact me after you have gone through these steps and have formulated a paragraph or a main idea.
Writing is a thinking process. Important ideas tend to emerge or fall into place only
once you have started writing. Therefore, my advice is to start writing as soon as you
can and be ready to rewrite. The result will reward you for your efforts.
4.3.4 Structure of the essay
The essay is a distinct and capacious genre. The term derives from Latin meaning
‘weighing out’ and Old French meaning ‘to test’, ‘try’ or ‘make an attempt’. Freely adapted from Montaigne (‘Essais’ 1580-95), an essay consists of an introduction, a main body and a conclusion. Each part has a specific function, all of which are equally relevant.
Nonetheless the INTRODUCTION is especially important and the following points are intended to help you composing:
– Introductions address the following questions: What is your topic? Why is it
relevant? How do you approach the topic? What is your line of argument?
– At the same, it is important to keep your reader in mind. Writing an essay is like
an attempt to convince someone of the importance of your topic: Why should
someone else bother to read your essay?
– Introductions either mention or prepare your main line of argumentation. You
might think that you want save your greatest idea for the end. This is also possible,
BUT I advise you to mention your main idea from the start. Perhaps this idea is
the result of a long thought process and you want to keep the reader in suspense?
My advice is for your essay neither to retrace your writing experience nor the
analytic evolution of your argument (the messy part of writing should remain
hidden): essays should convey the highest level of analysis that you have reached
from the start, that is, in the introduction. Accordingly, introductions usually
formulate or anticipate the main idea and course of argument. Alas, the beginning
of your essay will require considerable, repeated, or sometimes, complete revision.
In fact, it is best to write the ‘proper’ introduction at the same time as the
conclusion, namely once you have finished the main body and know exactly
what your line of argument is.
– avoid a dictionary definition right at the beginning of your essay, or at least try to
get rid of it in the final version since they are often formulaic.
– avoid sweeping generalizations
– if you compare two primary texts, they should be mentioned in the introduction
– abstractions should rise from your concrete observation about a text, for example
madness in Jane Eyre, or individualism in Robinson Crusoe.
Here is a good example of an essay introduction:
Topic: How does genre affect gender?
“In Medieval texts, genre can be seen to pre-govern ideas about gender
representation. In both Beowulf and The Life of Saint Agatha, female figures are
presented in opposition to the patriarchal societies that they inhabit. However, the
characters of Grendel’s mother and Saint Agatha are simultaneously defined by
differing gender qualities, constructed according to the genres of the heroic epic
and hagiography. I will consider how these texts force readers to rethink gender
categories and suggest that these characters, despite their differing representations
according to their respective genres, are similar in their role as marginalized
females who present a threat to the male-ruled world. As I will demonstrate, the
threat that the female outsider poses to the masculine societies they encounter is
what unites these two texts.”
• It does not help to start with the obvious (negative example: “In the following essay I am going to analyse passages from the novel….”)
• The relevance and context of your chosen essay topic can be difficult to explain, but an introduction cannot do without this effort.
NOTE: Formulating or enumerating questions alone won’t do either. (For instance, please avoid starting an essay like this: “In this essay I want to answer the question to what extent Big Brother in Orwell’s 1984 manages to control people’s sensory perceptions? Is ‘Big Brother’ at the top of the sensory hierarchy?”)
4.3.5 Basic stylistic requirements
Every essay requires:
– a title that indicates your topic
– unequivocal citations, references and a bibliography according to one coherent citation style guide, preferably MLA style 7th or 8th edition