Writing About Literature

Writing Essays - an Overview

I know that you have all completed English 101, so most of the following information will be review. But if you need a refresher, you might find this overview helpful.

There are many sections here. Click on the link to the section you want, so you don't have to scroll all the way down the page looking for it.

Formatting Your Paper in MLA Style
Selecting and Narrowing a Topic
Develop an Effective Thesis
How to Develop the Paper? (Abstract vs. Concrete / General vs. Specific)
Openings: How to Begin an Essay (and How Not To)
And What About Conclusions?
Who Am I Writing This For?
Outline for the Persuasive Essay
Oh My Gosh, I Hate Research!
When (and Why) Do We Need to Do Research?
Credible? Authoritative? Expert?
Quick Review: What Do We Do With This Evidence?
The Other Kind of (Required) Documentation: In-Text Citations
Now About That "Use Direct Quotations" Thing...
The Works Cited List
To Recap
Okay, let's get to it: The Research Project
Where can you find the books you need?
Where can you find the magazine and newspaper articles you need?
Using the Internet
How Do I Know if a Website is Credible and Reliable?"
Keep Track of your Research As You Go
Using Index Cards
Interviewing an Expert
Other Libraries
From Notes (or Index Cards) to Outline
From Outline to Draft
Balance your Sources
And here are a few FAQS with answers that you may find useful

Formatting Your Paper in MLA Style

Your paper needs to be formatted correctly, in MLA format. This means more than just adding a Works Cited list. The paper needs to look a certain way.

There's more about the Works Cited list in a later section of this page. See the links above to find that section.

Selecting and narrowing a topic

Reading over the assignment instructions carefully is your first step. You need to make sure that you are writing about the assigned subject. That is the first way of focusing your topic, but it's just a start. You want to make sure you are writing about something very specific, something that makes a point, something that is narrow enough to write about in incredible detail for the assignment length.

I received an e-mail from one of the online English 103 students, and the question is such an important one, I thought I'd share it and my response; it should help you as you shape your own topics and thesis statements for this first essay. The chief problem is that the student has not narrowed the focus, and the paper will be dull and general, not built up of very precise, concrete, detailed examples. Yes, Student X is not the student's real name. And, yes, the e-mail has some errors, but let's just look at the question about topic / thesis.

The topic the student wanted to address was #6, from Writing Assignment 1: "Argue for or against eliminating grades in elementary schools. (Alternately, argue for or against eliminating grade levels in elementary schools.) Give at least 3 reasons to support your argument, and be sure each reason is supported by at least one piece of evidence. You are only required to give your side of the argument."

Hi Professor, I am going to write about how I have always hated school and haven't gotten good grades in it. I'm also going to write about how I think grades should be eliminated because they make people (kids) feel so bad. And everyone judges you for your grades. But I still think we need grades so kids know how they're doing in school. Does this seem like a good topic?
Student X

Ah, where to begin? This was my response:

It's clear that you have strong feelings about this topic.
Remember that you must focus on just one side of the argument. So you'll have to choose a side: grades SHOULD be eliminated, or grades SHOULD NOT be eliminated. It sounds as if you feel grades should be eliminated, and you seem to have more to say about that, so maybe, for this paper, you should take that side. But that's your choice.
Also, be sure to keep your focus on the topic, rather than on your own experiences. This is a paper about the issue of whether or not grades should be eliminated, not about how you felt about grades.
You can, however, use yourself as ONE example, among others. If you are arguing that grades should be eliminated, you can use, as one of your reasons, the damage grades do to children's belief in their ability to succeed. Then you can show us how grades made you feel. But not just you: find some other examples of kids who were damaged by grades; there is plenty of information about this in articles on this topic.
Why do you need to find other examples besides your own? Because if you use only your own experiences as an example, anyone can knock your argument down by saying, "Well, I had the opposite experience, so I think you're wrong." But if you have lots of examples, maybe even some statistics from studies on the topic, then it's more convincing.
Now, back to something I said earlier: "show us how grades made you feel." Make sure you SHOW us, rather than just telling us. Give as much exact detail as you possibly can.
Here's an example of how you might do this:
When I was in third grade, I had a very hard time memorizing the multiplication tables. I tried, but I just couldn't remember all the numbers. Then came the big test. When I got it back, it had a big red "F" on the top. I was so embarrassed and ashamed. The girl sitting next to me looked over at my paper and giggled. I turned it over really fast, but it was too late. My face got hot and I slumped down in my chair and tried not to cry. I felt sick to my stomach. I knew then that I'd never be any good at math, and I never was. Every test after that only made it worse. No matter how hard I studied, that big red F showed me I could never do it. My experience is shared by many other students, and not just in math.
That last sentence is a transition which leads you from your own experience into the bigger picture-to show how you are only one example among many. Then you give the rest of the evidence: other stories, statistics, results of studies, quotes from authorities, and so forth.
Does this make sense?

I know that's a long response, but here are the main points:

My students are required, whenever possible, to avoid the summary and paraphrase and just use direct quotations. There are a few reasons:

So just to reiterate, because this is important: each time you give a quote or a specific piece of information from a source, you MUST cite that source. In other words, you MUST give credit to the source, to show where you got this piece of information. Here's an example: "The California Supreme Court on Monday cleared the way for Gov. Jerry Brown's criminal justice reform measure to make the November ballot" (Nichols). This is a direct quote, taken word-for-word from an article on a website on the Internet. Any time you quote directly-that is, you use an author's exact words-you MUST put those words in quotation marks (that's what shows the reader they are someone else's words).

You must also cite the source. That means you have to tell the reader where you got that quote. The citation is the word in parentheses after the quote: (Nichols). Nichols is the last name of the author of the article. If the article came from a print source, such as a book or paper magazine, you would also have to include a page number: (Nichols 13). But since few Internet sources have page numbers, the author's last name will suffice.

What about when you aren't quoting directly? If you are using specific facts that you got from a source other than your own brain, you have to cite your source. Here's an example:

In the United States, there are more than 2.3 million people in prison (Wagner and Rabuy).

This is not a direct quote, but since that number came from a source outside your brain, it needs to be cited.

One note about quoting directly: if you put quotation marks around someone else's words, that means they are the person's EXACT words, right down to the punctuation marks. If they misspell something, you misspell it too. Copy it exactly as it's written.

The Works Cited List

We've already talked a bit about the Works Cited list, and some of you may also have learned about this in other classes. But just to be sure everyone knows all they need to know, here's a brief lesson:

I know you all think the Works Cited list was made up by English teachers cackling together over a bubbling cauldron with the sole purpose of torturing you beyond endurance. But that's not quite true. I can't speak for the cauldron part, since I wasn't at those meetings, but the real purpose of the Works Cited list is to give your readers the information they need to judge the reliability of your sources, and to allow them to find your sources if they want to.

When you write your essay, you will use information from other sources. You will (as we have already discussed) use in-text citations to show which sources you used. But those in-text citations do not give the complete information about the sources; they are used like abbreviations. To get the full information about the source, you need to flip to the back of the paper, to the Works Cited list.

Let's say you have a quote in your essay like this: "A one-page internal 63-year-old memo about a UFO report involving three alleged flying saucers and alien bodies recovered in New Mexico is making the rounds again this week" (Spiegel).

The in-text citation is "Spiegel," so if I want to know more about this source, I would flip to the Works Cited list at the back of the essay. I would look down the list until I found an entry beginning with "Spiegel."

This is important: whatever is in the parentheses in your in-text citation MUST match the beginning of the citation in the Works Cited list. So your Works Cited entry for this source would look like this:

Spiegel, Lee. "FBI UFO Document Is The Most Popular Of All Its 'Vault' Files." Huffington Post, 27 Mar. 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/27/fbi-ufo-document_n_2965993.html. Accessed 23 June 2014.

In the Works Cited list, only include works you've actually cited in the paper. (A bibliography is a list of all the works you consulted, but you are not required to submit a bibliography for this paper. You only need to submit a Works Cited list.)

Alphabetize the Works Cited list.

For a sample Works Cited list, see the Purdue OWL website at this link: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/01/

There are also exercises you can do in the Writing Lab to make yourself more comfortable with doing Works Cited lists in various formats. But there's no need to memorize all the types of entries. Just keep the Purdue OWL or a current handbook nearby so you can look up what you need.

Make sure you have the format correct for each citation. Some teachers don't care much about format. Others care A LOT! So in this class, we will pay close attention to format, so you're ready for those teachers who care A LOT.

Look It Up

Do not guess. Do not invent. Do not think you "just know" how to do a Works Cited page.

They are not hard to do; they just require you to look at examples and follow instructions. Always have the Purdue OWL site or a college writer's handbook in front of you when you have to do one of these. Look closely; follow carefully.

To Recap

Try to use direct quotations whenever possible. Be sure you surround the quoted passages with quotation marks. Be sure you have parenthetical citations after your quotations (remember, you may use some designators, but mainly use parenthetical citations because it is standard, simple, and expected by your teachers). Be sure you have a proper Works Cited page.

About that Works Cited page: everything on it should be cited in the paper; if an item appears on the Works Cited page, you are saying you "cited" from it. Do not load up the page with things you did not use in the actual paper (note: a bibliography is different, but let's not confuse things here).

All of the documented quotations, if they are from credible sources, will enhance your paper by providing specialized information and by supporting your own ideas with authoritative, expert evidence.

That is what a research paper is all about, and this information is true forever, for every class, for the real world after school when you write a research report (if you do); DO NOT FORGET THIS NEXT SEMESTER OR EVER. Yes, formats change (in psychology you use APA format, for example), and sometimes the nature of the research is different (in hard sciences you often are conducting hands-on, not book, research, and that has its own challenges/requirements). But, for the most part, this information can be carried over throughout school and well into the real world.

When in doubt about any of this, ask your teacher. Some may require paraphrase. Some may have modified format requirements. It's always safest to ask.

Okay, let's get to it: The Research Project

There's something that strikes fear into almost everyone's heart when they hear that phrase. Mine too. But it's not just because of the research--it's because it's a big project, and big projects always look huge and therefore intimidating.

So break it down into small tasks:

  1. Do the research.
  2. Write the paper.

Wait--what?? Those are huge tasks! Let's break it down into much smaller tasks, and for now, let's just focus on doing the research. And further, let's just use, as an example, how to do the research for your Conspiracy Theory research project assignment.

  1. Think about the kinds of sources you can use: books, newspapers, magazines, the internet, personal interviews with experts who know about your conspiracy.
  2. Go find the books you need.
  3. Go look in the magazines and newspapers that you need.
  4. Find some people who know about your conspiracy and interview them (you may or may not be able to do this or choose to do it; more on interviews later).

Well, that's better, but still sort of big and overwhelming, especially if you've never done it before. We need to break it down into still smaller tasks.

Where can you find the books you need?

You can find books in libraries. The easiest library to get to for most of you will be the Harbor College library. So here's how you find the books you need there. You can follow a similar procedure in other libraries. Follow along in your own browser as we do these steps, so you can see how it's done:

  1. Go to the Harbor College homepage: www.lahc.edu
  2. Look at the menu on the top of the page and find the "Academics" link.
  3. Click on it and you will get a dropdown menu; scroll down that and click on "Library."
  4. On the Library page you will see, right in the center, a heading that says "Search All" and right above it, a link that says "Books." Click that.
  5. This will take you to a search page. Fill in the search terms you want. Since we're using Roswell as our sample conspiracy, let's fill in "Roswell" without changing anything else, and click "Search" and see what happens.
  6. Well, we got 10 results, some of them completely irrelevant. But there are some useful things there: #1 is The Roswell Crash: What They Don't Want You to Know / Kal K Korff. That looks like it might have some good information we can use. So click on that (the title is a link).
  7. That takes you to a description of the book and a table of contents, and sure enough, there's a lot of information on cover-ups at Roswell. The description also tells you where in the library to find the book and whether it's checked out or not. Now you have several sources where you can get information for your research paper!

Where can you find the magazine and newspaper articles you need?

Maybe you don't want to use all books. Magazines and newspapers have tons of information too. But in this digital age, most libraries don't keep a lot of paper versions around for too long. So the best place to go to find them is the databases.

"Databases" sounds intimidating to many people. But it's not. A database is just a collection of information (data). In this case, the databases are simply digital collections of paper magazine and newspapers. The magazines and newspapers have all been put into collections online that you can search. Simple.

Here's how you do it:

  1. Go back to the Library's home page (http://libguides.lahc.edu/library).
  2. At the top, under "above the "Search All" button," click "Databases."
  3. If you haven't seen this page before, take a minute to scroll down and look at all the resources. You may not need all of them for this class, but you'll see things you might need for other classes, or just for fun (I like the "Kanopy" site a lot--you can get tons of free movies there).
  4. For our purposes in this class, the best place to start is "EBSCO-All." Click that link.
  5. Again, if you haven't been here before, click on "Publications" at the top of the page and take a second to scroll down and see how many resources are available and what they are. You may find sources you can keep in mind for other classes or future classes.
  6. If you look down this page, you will see that you can limit your search in very practical ways.
    • You can choose to limit your search to Full Text. I always cherck that, since I want to see the whole article.
    • You can choose to limit your search to Peer Reviewed Journals. This might be useful, depending on the topic. But since our UFO topic isn't that specialized, let's leave that unchecked.
    • You can choose which publication type to limit your search to; I'll stick with "All," since I want as much information as I can find, at least to start with.
    • You can choose to limit your search to a certain language. I'm going to choose "All," just because I'd like to know if anyone has actually written an article about Roswell in, say, Lithuanian.
    • There are many other choices, but that's usually as far as I go. Feel free to explore them.
  7. In the top search box, type Roswell and change the searh field box next to it to "Subject Terms." In the next box dow, type UFO and change the search field to "Subject Terms." Click "Search."
  8. You should get 84 results. The 10 on the first page relate directly to Roswell, and you can click on "HTML Full Text" to read them online. Some of the others on the following pages relate to Roswell, some do not. You can click through them to see if any are useful. Either way, now you have even more sources to use for your paper!
  9. But it gets better: Click on the source called "A Saucer Scorned." Then, on the right side of the page, look for the "Tools" list. You can print the article or email it to yourself for later, among other things.
  10. Under "Tools," click "Cite." A list of citations for this article will pop up in many formats. Scroll down to MLA format (that's the format we're using for this class). Copy and paste the citation into your own Works Cited page. Make sure the indentations have been preserved, and you're done. Now you don't have to figure out how to cite this source--it's been done for you! Yay! Less work!

Using the Internet

Today, most people who want to do research go straight to the Internet. It's easy and quick and free and you can do it in your pajamas from the comfort of your own home. The Internet is a wonderful thing, with its endless knowledge and information. Nowadays, if you're stupid and uninformed, it's your own fault. With sites like TedTalks and OpenCulture.com, you can learn anything you want any time. You can take courses from Harvard and Stanford and M.I.T. for free. It's amazing!

But in with all of that amazing knowledge, there's a lot of worthless, misleading, biased, or simply inaccurate information. When you're using books or databases, you can usually be pretty sure you're getting reliable information, because it's been fact-checked and edited and evaluated by professionals who know their fields. But anyone can post anything on the Internet-it's unfiltered and unchecked. That's a good thing for freedom of information, but it does place the burden on you to judge and evaluate what you see.

How Do I Know if a Website is Credible and Reliable?

The Internet has millions of websites. Some are reliable sources of information; others are not. But it can be hard to know the difference.

Here are a few things to look for in measuring reliability:

Here are some things NOT to do:

Even with these pointers, it can be hard to know if Internet sources are reliable or not. If you are in doubt, ask your instructor or a librarian for help.

One last word of caution: even the most reliable sites can make mistakes. Check everything! If you can't find a fact in two independent sources, don't use it.

And while we're at it, that "independent sources" thing is important. For example, let's say you find a statistic on Website A and want to check it. You go to Website B, and voila! There it is again! So you're good, right? Maybe. But first, check to see if the Website A got the fact from Website B. If it did, you're back at square 1.

Here's an example: an article on livescience. com says, "The percentage of U.S. adults who smoke cigarettes was 17.8 percent in 2013, a drop from 20.9 percent in 2005, and the lowest rate of smoking since researchers began tracking this figure in 1965, according to the report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)."

Let's say you want to verify this statistic. You cannot go to the CDC website, because they are the ones who provided the statistic in the first place. You need to verify that from some other source.

By the way, articles you find in the library's databases almost all come from reliable sources.

Keep Track of your Research As You Go

Take notes as you research on index cards or on photocopies or on your computer. You will be finding a lot of information, and you will quickly find that it gets hard to remember where you saw something if you don't keep your information organized.

Keep a working Works Cited list on index cards or on your computer (you will need this for your final Works Cited page).

The Works Cited page shows your reader where your source information came from which is doubly important:

  1. it keeps you from plagiarizing--a kind of writing theft that can get you an "F" in a course, even, in some cases, expelled from the school...don't do it!
  2. it lends weight, authority, credibility to your paper.

The information on how to put together the finished Works Cited page can be found at The Purdue OWL Website (be sure you select the MLA style sheet for this class), and of course there is more information above, in a earlier part of this page.

Using Index Cards

Long ago, when I went to college (yes, in those days there were no computers. The Earth was still cooling, and I had to dodge dinosaurs on the way to school), I was taught to use index cards to keep track of information. It's a bit old fashioned nowadays, but it still works really well. I still use it when I have a long article to write that involves a lot of research. So I'll pass it along to you. If it's helpful, feel free to use it. If you prefer to use another method of organizing, that's fine too-as long as you keep track in some way.