This handout was developed for students writing papers in the Shakespeare survey, but could easily be modified for any other literature course.  It is based on common errors I see repeatedly in student papers and aims to provide a helpful, if abbreviated, answer to the question: What makes a successful literature paper?  Students often ask me “what I’m looking for” in papers, and I respond by emphasizing that a successful literature paper is based not on my personal whims, but on some key principles.  Depending on the level of the class, I develop the most important of these principles further with classroom exercises.

Ten Things To Do Right in Your Paper (in roughly decreasing order of importance):

  1. Explain your quotations.  Every time you quote lines from the text, you need to explain why those lines support your argument by explaining not only what they say but how they say it.  The longer the quotation, the more explanation it demands.  Close analysis of the text is the backbone of a successful English paper.  Don’t assume that your reader sees the same thing that you see in a quote.
  2. Make a contestable and specific claim (thesis) that demonstrates your insights into the topic.  This should be a claim that a reasonable reader could potentially disagree with.  After you finish writing the paper, revise your claim to ensure that it still makes sense.
  3. Be specific.  Instead of talking about “several different matters” or “various ways,” say what you’re referring to.
  4. Respond to the paper topic.  For example, if a topic asks you to examine a scene, the bulk of your paper should deal with that scene. Although you can connect it to other issues in the play, you shouldn’t spend the majority of your paper explaining those other issues.  You can assume that your reader is already familiar with the play and with the material covered in lectures, so you can refer to larger issues without going into great detail.
  5. Define your argument’s key terms and use them consistently throughout the paper.  No one is impressed by overuse of the Microsoft thesaurus.
  6. Enhance your credibility by acknowledging and responding to potential reader objections.  Be particularly aware of textual evidence that complicates or contradicts your argument.
  7. Integrate quotations from the text into your sentences by indicating why the quotation is important to your argument.  Don’t change pronouns, verb tenses, etc in the quotation, as these changes make it impossible for you to analyze details.  Shakespeare’s details are important; you should adjust your grammar to his, not adjust his to yours.
  8. Quote poetry with proper line break notation.
  9. Use rhetorical questions very sparingly.  It’s much better to turn these questions into statements: what are you saying?
  10. Control your punctuation and sentences.  A sentence should hold a distinct idea, not six.  Either the semicolon (;) or the em-dash (—) can be used to link two distinct but related sentences, but these should be used sparingly.