If one waits for the right time to come before writing,
the right time never comes.
—JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL
Assigned to write an essay on Hamlet, a student might well wonder, “What can I say
that hasn’t been said a thousand times before?” Often the most difficult aspect of
writing about a story, poem, or play is feeling that we have nothing of interest to
contribute to the ongoing conversation about some celebrated literary work. There’s
always room, though, for a reader’s fresh take on an old standby.
Remember that in the study of literature common sense is never out of place. For
most of a class hour, a professor once rhapsodized about the arrangement of the contents
of W. H. Auden’s Collected Poems. Auden, he claimed, was a master of thematic
continuity, who had brilliantly placed the poems in the order that they ingeniously
complemented each other. Near the end of the hour, his theories were punctured—
with a great inaudible pop—when a student, timidly raising a hand, pointed out that
Auden had arranged the poems in the book not by theme but in alphabetical order
according to the first word of each poem. The professor’s jaw dropped: “Why didn’t
you say that sooner?” The student was apologetic: “I—I was afraid I’d sound too
Don’t be afraid to state a conviction, thotigh it seems obvious. Does it matter
that you may be repeating something that, once upon a time or even just the other
day, has been said before? What matters more is that you are actively engaged in
thinking about literature. There are excellent old ideas as well as new. You have
something to say.
Most people read in a relaxed, almost passive way. They let the story or poem carry
them along without asking too many questions. To write about literature well, however,
you need to read actively, paying special attention to various aspects of the text.
This special sort of attention will not only deepen your enjoyment of the story, poem,
or play but will also help generate the information and ideas that will eventually
become your final paper. How do you become an active reader? Here are some steps
to get you started:
» Preview the text. To get acquainted with a work of literature before you settle
in for a closer reading, skim it for an overview of its content and organization.
Take a quick look at all parts of the reading. Even a book’s cover, preface, introduction,
footnotes, and biographical notes about the author can provide you
with some context for reading the work itself.
Take notes. Annotate the text. Read with a highlighter and pencil at hand,
making appropriate annotations to the text. Later, you’ll easily be able to review
these highlights, and, when you write your paper, quickly refer to supporting
• Underline words, phrases, or sentences that seem interesting or important, or
that raise questions.
® Jot down brief notes in the margin (“key symbol—this foreshadows the ending
for example, or “dramatic irony”).
• Use lines or arrows to indicate passages that seem to speak to each other—for
instance, all the places in which you find the same theme or related symbols.
(If you prefer not to mark up your book, take notes on a separate sheet of paper,
being sure to jot down the appropriate page numbers for future reference. This
method will allow a lot of room for note taking.)
• Read closely. Once you have begun reading in earnest, don’t skim or skip over
words you don’t recognize; sometimes, looking up those very words will unlock a
* Reread as needed* If a piece is short, read it several times. Often, knowing the
ending of a poem or short story will allow you to extract new meaning from its
beginning and middle. If the piece is longer, reread the passages you thought
important enough to highlight.
Planning Your Essay
If you have actively reread the work you plan to write about and have made notes or
annotations, you are already well on your way to writing your paper. Your mind has
already begun to work through some initial impressions and ideas. Now you need to
arrange those early notions into an organized and logical essay. Here is some advice
on how to manage the writing process:
® Leave yourself time. Good writing involves thought and revision. Anyone
who has ever been a student knows what it’s like to pull an all-nighter, churning
out a term paper hours before it is due. Still, the best writing evolves over
time. Your ideas need to marinate. Sometimes, you’ll make false starts, and you’ll
need to salvage what you can and do the rest from scratch. For the sake of your
writing—not to mention your health and sanity—it’s far better to get the job
started well before your deadline.
m Choose a subject you care about. If you have been given a choice of literary
works to write about, always choose the play, story, or poem that evokes the
strongest emotional response. Your writing will be liveliest if you feel engaged by
m Know your purpose. As you write, keep the assignment in mind. You may
have been asked to write a response, in which you describe your reactions to a
literary work. Perhaps your purpose is to interpret a work, analyzing how one or
more of its elements contribute to its meaning. You may have been instructed
to write an evaluation, in which you judge a work’s merits. Whatever the
assignment, how you approach your essay will depend in large part on your
m Think about your audience. When you write journal entries or rough drafts,
you may be composing for your own eyes only. More often, though, you are
likely to be writing for an audience, even if it is an audience of one: your professor.
Whenever you write for others, you need to be conscious of your readers.
Your task is to convince them that your take on a work of literature is a plausible
one. To do so, you need to keep your audience’s needs and expectations in
® Define your topic narrowly. Worried about having enough to say,
students sometimes frame their topic so broadly that they can’t do justice to it
in the allotted number of pages. Your paper will be stronger if you go more
deeply into your subject than if you choose a gigantic subject and touch on
most aspects of it only superficially. A thorough explication of a short story is
hardly possible in a 250-word paper, but an explication of a paragraph or two
could work in that space. A profound topic (“The Character of Hamlet”)
might overflow a book, but a more focused one (“Hamlet’s View of Acting” or
“Hamlet’s Puns”) could result in a manageable paper. A paper entitled
“Female Characters in Hamlet” couldn’t help being too general and vague, but
one on “Ophelia’s Relationship to Laertes” could make for a good marriage of
length and subject.
Prewriting: Discovering ideas
Topic in hand, you can begin to get your ideas on the page. To generate new ideas
and clarify the thoughts you already have, try one or more of the following useful
m Brainstorming- Writing quickly, list everything that comes into your mind
about your subject. Set a time limit—ten or fifteen minutes—and force yourself
to keep adding items to the list, even when you think you have run out of things
to say. Sometimes, if you press onward past the point where you feel you are
finished, you will surprise yourself with new and fresh ideas.
gold = early leaves/blossoms
Or gold = something precious (both?)
early leaf = flower (yellow blossoms)
spring (lasts an hour)
Leaves subside (sink to lower level)
Eden = paradise = perfection = beauty
Loss of innocence?
What about original sin?
Dawn becomes day (dawn is more precious?)
Adam and Eve had to fall? Part of natural order.
Title = last line: perfection can’t last
Innocence can’t last
m Clustering- This prewriting strategy works especially well for visual thinkers. In
clustering, you build a diagram to help you explore the relationships among your
ideas. To get started, write your subject at the center of a sheet of paper. Circle
it. Then jot down ideas, linking each to the central circle with lines. As you
write down each new idea, draw lines to link it to related old ideas. The result
will look something like the following web.
Listing. Look over the notes and annotations that you made in your active
reading of the work. You have probably already underlined or noted more information
than you can possibly use. One way to sort through your material to find
the most useful information is to make a list of the important items. It helps to
make several short lists under different headings. Here are some lists you might
make after rereading Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” Don’t be afraid to add
more comments or questions on the lists to help your thought process.
leaf (“early leaf”) green
flower gold (“hardest hue to hold”)
gold is hard to hold
early leaf lasts only an hour
leaf subsides to leaf (what does this mean???)
Eden sinks to grief (paradise is lost)
dawn goes down to day
gold can’t stay (perfection is impossible?)