ENGL 339: Shakespeare
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Writing Literature Essays for GWR Certification 
(and for High Scores on Essay Exams): Some Pointers

All good writing is not alike.  To achieve GWR certification in this class (and a high grade on the exam), your midterm or final exam essay must adhere to the conventions of this discipline.  What constitutes “good writing” in your own discipline may be very different!

A successful literary analysis essay aims to persuade the reader of the validity of an interpretation which you articulate clearly and completely in the opening paragraph and support in the body of the essay through the explanation and analysis of well chosen textual evidence.

A GWR-certifiable essay (or an essay earning a high score on the exam) MUST:

  • include an Opening Statement (intro paragraph) which makes clear what, specifically, you will argue in the essay (not just the topic under consideration, but what you will say ABOUT that topic)
  • be clearly organized into an argument that makes sense and displays adequate understanding of the material covered
  • include a reasonable amount of supporting detail (not just summary) which you interpret / analyze in support of your argument
  • be expressed in reasonably clear and generally correct prose without significant errors in e.g. spelling, punctuation and syntax.
IMPORTANT:  a GWR-certifiable essay (or an essay earning a high score on the exam) does not have to consist of new and original insights.  Most essay prompts will be variations on the Study Questions you used to prepare for class, and it is likely that a successful essay will revisit ideas raised in class discussions or in discussion board postings.  The trick will be constructing an effective and persuasive argument based on these insights and backed up with references to specific, well chosen examples from the work you are discussing. 

Opening Paragraph:  do NOT begin with a “hook” – get right to the point.  The best introductory paragraphs begin by echoing the prompt.  Be sure to identify the author (and/or director) and title of the work(s) under consideration, and explain the central idea that will be explored in the essay.  A successful essay writer is like a lawyer making an opening statement on the first day of a trial.  Be sure that you clearly articulate your interpretation up front in your opening paragraph; do not save it for the concluding paragraph of the essay.

Argumentation:  To achieve GWR certification (or a high score on your exam essay), the evidence you discuss should be organized in a way that makes sense and helps you prove the validity of your central idea.  Take a few minutes to think through your argument and jot down a paragraph outline before you begin to write.

Body paragraphs:  the evidence and argument the lawyer uses to make a successful case.  Support your interpretation with references to SPECIFIC scenes / speeches in the work you are discussing.  Be sure to analyze and interpret this evidence for the reader -- don't just mention a speech / scene and expect it to speak for itself.   You are not expected to know the plays by heart, but you should be able to cite key lines, words or images and refer to scenes / speeches / dialogue in specific enough terms that the reader knows what text you would cite if this were an open-book exam.  (You may of course quote any passages included on the Passage ID section of the exam!)

Conclusion: Your final paragraph wraps up the argument.  Remind the reader of what conclusion the body paragraphs add up to, but don't repeat all the evidence you introduced in them. Instead, tell us why this evidence matters.  You may add a final insight or twist that points beyond the parameters of your argument, but only do so if this final insight illuminates the argument you have made and is connected to it in some clearly related way. 

Prose Quality: A GWR-certifiable essay (or an essay earning a high score on the exam) may have occasional lapses of grammar, spelling, punctuation, or syntax, provided that errors of expression are not so pervasive as to make it difficult to determine what you are trying to say.  Nonetheless, it is important to leave time to PROOFREAD CAREFULLY.   Make sure that your sentences are grammatically complete (there must be a main clause, the subject and verb of which must agree with each other; avoid sentence fragments!)

An essay will NOT achieve GWR certification (or a high score on the exam), no matter how thoughtful the insights, if:

  • it does not answer the question
  • it answers only part of the question
An essay will NOT achieve GWR certification (or a high score on the exam), no matter how elegant the prose, if:
  • it consists of sweeping generalities without specific supporting detail 
  • it consists primarily of plot summary without analysis of what you describe
Final words of wisdom:
  • Do NOT begin with a “hook” – get right to the point.  The best opening sentences echo the prompt, identify the author (and/or director) and title of the work(s) under consideration, and allude to the central idea that will be explored in the essay.  Clearly articulate your interpretation up front in your opening paragraph; do not save it for the concluding paragraph of the essay. 
  • Argue the case like a lawyer!  In the body paragraphs, make your case.  Support your interpretation with evidence, which you must analyze and interpret for the reader -- don't just stick it in and expect it to speak for itself.
  • Think through your argument before you start to write (an outline helps!), and leave yourself a little time to proofread!
Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1997-2012
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