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Assignments - English III Honors(Archived)
Guide to Good Writing
Due Date: 8/20/2014
Subject: English III Honors

Gordon’s Guide to Great Writing



A thesis is a good thing. Your paper should make a point, not merely provide information or state the obvious. “Victor Frankenstein is a Promethean hero” is not much of a thesis; it’s pretty much a given, particularly considering that the subtitle of Frankenstein is “The Modern Prometheus.” “Mary Shelley uses the figure of the Promethean hero in order to examine the consequences of Romantic individualism” is a thesis because it makes a claim that can be either supported or refuted. “Authors create unconventional heroes and heroines because they make more interesting characters” is not much of a thesis; unconventional heroes and heroines are, almost invariably, more interesting than conventional characters. “The heroines of Victorian novels encounter both internal and external obstacles in their attempts to define themselves; they can never entirely transcend the attitudes of their society” is a thesis. “Donne uses cacophonous sounds and violent metaphors in ‘Batter My Heart’ to convey the intensity of his internal religious struggle” is a thesis because it analyzes the significance and function of the poem’s devices.


A good thesis test is to append (in a draft stage only) the phrase, “I am going to argue that . . . “ before your thesis statement. Such a phrase will often make a non-thesis sound absurd. The other test to ask yourself throughout your paper or essay is “What’s the significance of this?” or the short version, “So what?” The thesis must have some point, and each point you make in relation to the thesis must have some point. Your paper should consist of a logically developing, unified argument, not a list of random observations. Each part should not only have a direct bearing on the thesis, but it should make explicitly clear to the reader just what the relationship to the thesis is. It’s not the reader’s job to figure out how a particular point relates to your thesis; it’s your job to explain it.



Transitions are helpful to the reader. When I see a paper in which almost every paragraph begins with the word “another” or “also,” I want to stop reading immediately. A list of main points or pieces of evidence does not make a paper. Each section should build on the last so that the connections between the ideas are clear. This is where transitions enter the picture.


Avoid plot summary. In an English paper or essay, you can generally assume that your readers (your teacher and classmates) are familiar with the work(s) being studied. If you find yourself saying, first this happens, and then that happens, your are summarizing the plot, not analyzing. You should, of course, refer in detail to particular passages, quotes, and episodes that have a direct bearing on the thesis; but you do not need to tell the reader what happened to Jane Eyre at each stage of her life. The only exception to this would be if you have a good reason to think your reader will be totally unfamiliar with the work. For instance, a paper on Star Trek’s Data as a contemporary version of Frankenstein’s creature should briefly introduce who Data is and should briefly summarize the portions of the episodes that support your thesis.


A paper without quotations is incomplete. No matter how brilliant your analysis, it is insufficient without quotations. Quotations serve as evidence to support the claims you are making and as illustrations of your main points. They also make your paper more interesting and show the reader that you have done your work. A list of quotations is not enough, however. You need to spend some time analyzing them in detail and explaining their significance both to the topic sentence of the paragraph and to the thesis of the paper as a whole. Avoid ending a paragraph with a long block quotation. Any long quote that is long enough to be included in your paper deserves at least a few lines of analysis. In particular, a block quote at the end of a paragraph leaves the reader with only an incomplete understanding of the purpose of the quotation and affords no transition to following paragraph. Always follow a long quotation with your own discussion of its significance to your argument before going on to another topic.



Depth is preferable to breadth. Given the choice between writing a superficial and general discussion of five novels and an in-depth discussion of two, I would recommend the latter. The best parts of a paper are the ones with detailed, thoroughly developed analyses. If you choose too large a topic, you are just asking me to think of all the items you should have discussed but did not. A narrow topic, however, can be thoroughly developed with many concrete details and interesting, thoughtful analyses.


Remember the art of persuasion. You are trying to persuade your reader of your point of view, or at least, convince your reader that your point of view is a valid one. Part of the way you do this is by defining a strong thesis, supporting it with detailed analyses of quotations and passages, writing fluently and articulately, and presenting a paper that looks professional. You might also consider the opposing position to your own and take it into account. In the process, you may find yourself developing a thesis that accounts for the work’s complexity in a more effective fashion. You also want to avoid vast generalizations that just beg to be refuted. Statements that begin with “all” or “every” (as in “All Victorian marriages were. . . .” or “Every Romantic poet. . . .”) will get you in trouble. . . guaranteed.


Avoid looking silly. Consistently misspelling an author’s name, a title, or a major character’s name throughout a paper makes you look silly. Not knowing the gender of an author, such as W. H. Auden or George Eliot, makes you look silly. Making serious errors in describing a scene in a novel or play or part of a poem makes you look silly. Misreading a line of poetry because you did not understand the literal meanings of the words makes you look silly. . . or simply careless, which makes just as bad an impression on the reader. When in doubt, look it up or ask. I won’t think you’re silly if you ask me if W. H. Auden is a man or a woman, but if you consistently refer to him as “she” in a final paper, I won’t think very highly of you. (By the way, George Eliot was a female.)



A finished paper has essential ingredients. These are the components your paper needs to be complete. First, the paper needs a title that is informative enough to give the reader some idea where the paper is going. It is fine to include the titles of literary works in your title, but you may not use only the title of the work. Next, think of the introduction as the road map for the reader. Set up your topic with introductory material:

·         mention the author’s name and the title of the work in the first sentence

·         briefly discuss the main points of the paper

·         state the thesis.

When you introduce the works, you need not go into the rhapsodies about the “superb tragedy of Hamlet by the incomparable Elizabethan playwright William Shakespeare.” A simple Shakespeare’s Hamlet will do. The author’s first name should be included in the first mention of the author. After that, the last name only may be used. The body of the paper must have topic sentences. Just as your paper has a thesis, each paragraph of the body should have a topic sentence that clearly states just what it is you are trying to get across. Lastly, the paper needs a conclusion. A paper that just stops leaves the reader hanging. If you have discussed more than one work, you should mention all titles in the conclusion. This serves to tie the paper together, to reveal the significance of your discussion, and possibly to raise some new avenues for future exploration.   Bear in mind that your title and introduction are the first parts your reader sees, and your conclusion makes the final impression. They should be as good as you can possibly get them.


All quotes must be properly documented. Use your MLA guides to determine the format. If only one work is cited, it may be placed on the last page of the essay. More than one should be entered on a Works Cited page. Remember that anytime you use someone else’s words or ideas, you must give credit to that person, whether you quote or paraphrase. Not to do so is plagiarism, a serious academic offense.


If quoting a short story, document the page number (123). If quoting a poem, document the number of the line or lines (22-34). (Actually write out the word “line” or “lines” the first time you document a poem so that the reader is aware that you are doing so. After that, use only the Arabic numbers.) When documenting a play, include act, scene, and line numbers (3.6. 11-19). Generally, when you write your essays, the author’s name will have already been identified and therefore not necessary for the parenthetic documentation. However, use general guidelines for all other material.



Using Quotations

Lead ins

Always lead into a short or long quotation with one of your own sentences. Generally, the punctuation mark before a quotation should be a comma or colon within your own sentence. Quoted material cannot stand by itself as a grammatical unit; these are called “ghost quotations,” and your paper will be penalized five points.


Do not use an ellipsis at the beginning or end of a quotation. The reader already understands that you are taking material out of context. The ellipses are only necessary if you omit works in the middle part of the quote. (Although he feels his “soul . . . grappling with a palpable enemy,” Victor’s mind is soon filled with “one thought, one conception, one purpose.”) If you omit the end of a sentence with a long quotation, you need to add a fourth dot as the period.


Use square brackets to indicate words or parts of words (such as verb endings) that you are inserting into quotations have been changed to help them fit your own sentences. This technique should be used sparingly. (His imagination sees “The Frost perform[ing] its secret ministry” with nature.)


·         Quotations of one or two lines of poetry or fewer than four lines of prose should be incorporated into your own text, set off by quotation marks. As much as possible, they should be clearly and fluently incorporated into your own sentences.

·         Short quotations of poetry should be set off by quotation marks, with individual lines separated by a slash with a space on either side. Retain the capitalization of the original. (Coleridge has determined that his infant shall “learn far other lore, / And in far other scenes!”)

·         Short prose quotations should be set off by quotation marks and incorporated into your own text.


·         If you include a quotation within a quotation, be sure to use single quotation marks.

·         Verse quotations of longer than two lines must be in block form. The entire quotation is indented ten spaces from the left and is not set off by quotation marks, as the indentation serves the same purpose. Reproduce the verse exactly as it is in the original with the same punctuation, capitalization, and line endings.

·         Long prose quotations (4 lines or more) must be set off in block format. Again, indent 10 spaces and omit the quotation marks.

·         When you document a block quotation, the end punctuation of the quoted material is placed before the parenthetic documentation.



·         the use of first or second person. This weakens your argument.

·         expletives: Expletives have no grammatical function in a sentence. Do not use “there” or “here” in the place of a subject. Write “Many books covering the personal life of William Shakespeare are available” rather than “There are many books available covering the personal life of William Shakespeare.” Do not use “it” unless it has a specific referent or antecedent. Avoid “It is commonly assumed that Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets.” Instead, try, “Critics commonly assume . . . . “

·         Arabic numbers: Spell out numbers under 100 unless they are included in a date or address.

·         Contractions and abbreviations: Contractions are generally too informal for the kinds of papers you are writing. Acronyms may be used after the word is spelled completely the first time it is used.

·         Eliminate the verbs in passive voice.






·      Your choice!