Common problems in writing about literature

I’ll be out of town this weekend, so less able to answer emails quickly; I will have email, but please make sure the answer to your question is not on the assignment handout or on the syllabus.

But I thought I might give some general suggestions for avoiding the most common problems I encounter in essays:

-be sure to address each part of the instructions;

-fight the temptation to explain your translation solely on the basis of your interest or your reactions to that passage. These are obviously relevant, but remember the goal of the assignment, which is to gain insight into how specific narrational modes influence the meaning of the narrative;

– be sure to back up your claims; this sounds elementary, but it’s remarkable how often students make a big general claim before moving on immediately to the next point. Unpack your claim: explain what you mean, and use evidence from the text you’re analysing (in this case, your translation or the relevant passage from Thinks…). Do not assume your reader knows what you’re claiming, even if that assumption is reasonable;

-avoid those tempting but empty explanations like “the novel gives us three different perspectives on the same event so that we get a more complete understanding of the characters”; or “the author does xyz in order to advance the plot”;

-when referring to technical terms in your analysis, don’t assume that the terms speak for themselves. If, say, you’re talking about how “The Garden Party” uses double-vision to undermine Laura’s opinions, give examples and explain how the undermining is achieved through this specific device;and

-at 4-5 pages, the analysis section of the assignment is actually quite restrictively short. You should therefore focus on the assignment at hand. Avoid unnecessary summaries of the plot (though sometimes context needs to be established), as well as general statements about, say, other parts of the novel (unless these serve as support for one of your claims). Above all, avoid general statements about human nature, society, etc. It’s often tempting to begin an essay with some grand claims like “since the beginning of time…” or “In our globalized world…” or “Our society has a complicated relationship with x…” but remember this about generalizations: generally, either they’re too obvious to state, or they’re false.


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