How to Write an English Literature Essay
If you are taking a degree in English Literature, the importance of developing and honing your writing skills can scarcely be exaggerated. Everything you study should be geared towards making yourself a more insightful reader and better writer. Getting this right will mean not only developing a more nuanced appreciation of the things you read, but also acquiring the ability to communicate your ideas with clarity, force, elegance and style.
If you are studying English Literature, your tutors are likely to be fastidious about grammar, spelling, and punctuation, and will attach considerable importance to your command of language when marking your work.
However, ‘good writing’ within the context of an academic degree has little or nothing to do with being creative or poetic. Rather, it means being able to produce clear, cogent arguments, usually in response to a question set by your lecturer.
Writing an Outstanding Essay
The following advice is designed to help you to learn how to write an outstanding English Literature essay:
- Spend time thinking about the question and how it relates to ideas and themes explored in your lectures and seminars. Rather than simply presenting a series of disconnected thoughts, think about how you can construct a coherent and compelling argument in response to the question.
- Always keep the essay question in mind as you read and write, and make sure that everything you include in the essay contributes towards answering it. Avoid introducing irrelevant information, however interesting you may happen to find it.
- The introduction is often the most difficult part to compose, but it is well worth spending time getting it right. A strong introduction should grab the reader’s attention, clarify how you will tackle the question, and provide a clear outline of the essay to follow.
- Your writing should always be analytical rather than descriptive, and be structured around your main argument rather than the narrative of the text. You can assume that your reader is already familiar with the text, so do not attempt to summarise it.
- If the essay question includes literary terms of art that can be used in different ways, be sure that you understand them in the sense intended. If you are unclear about their meaning, be sure to discuss this with your tutor.
- Devote attention to how the argument develops between paragraphs. Each paragraph should form a step forward in your argument and build on the point made in the one previous to it.
- Try to think for yourself and cultivate your own critical voice. Be respectful of the views of other critics, but not overly deferential, and avoid adopting their arguments or interpretations wholesale.
- Devote attention to the language the author uses and the structure of the composition. Do not simply take into account what the text says, but also try to understand how it is put together, how it conveys its ideas and elicits its responses.
- Use your conclusion to recapitulate your main thesis and demonstrate how it provides an answer to the question. While it is advisable to explore a range of arguments in the main body of the essay, your conclusion should not introduce any new material or ideas.
Consult an Expert
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Look at these critical essays written by Sussex students (click on the essay image to view). Think about what we covered in the section on Critical writing and ask yourself if the essays fit with this guidance. How easy is it to follow the student’s argument? How do they use evidence to support their argument? Think about the feedback you would give and compare it with the tutor’s feedback.
- Second year student: English Literature essay
- Second year student: International Security essay
- Second year student: Anthropology essay
- Third year student: English Literature essay
- Second year student: English Literature essay
- Second year student: Biomedical Science essay
Second year student: English Literature essay
Discuss the relation between narrative style and moral judgement in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness [ pdf 117KB ]
Tutor’s feedback – 75%
This is an astute, and often sophisticated, essay which makes its arguments cogently. One of its strengths is that you are making excellent use of citation both to support your points but also to move your argument along (for example, see double ticks on pp.3-4). There is also significant independent reading to secure an original, thoughtful approach to the question. Though tendentious, the topic is broached with a real flair for critical analysis (one is well aware of the limits of Hampson’s defence of Conrad through the paragraph on p.5). Your conclusion is deft, with a very strong sense of the complexity of the issues. There is also the possibility, of course, that Conrad might identify with Marlow while at the same time undercutting his ‘racism’ not by expressing alternative perceptions but by plotting (see Peter Brooks, READING FOR THE PLOT as one way into this; Toni Morrison’s PLAYING IN THE DARK is another take on Achebe’s position).
Second year student: international Security essay
Discuss with examples how and why major international actors have been perceived as failing the victims of genocide [ pdf 98 KB ]
Tutor’s Feedback – 73%
This is a well structured and fluently written essay with a clear argument, well done. The examples are appropriate and the evidence and quotations you have chosen highlight your argument well. Excellent set of readings.
You could do more to say specifically why Bosnia, Rwanda and Armenia are cases of genocide at the start of the essay ? perhaps compare them against the UN Convention. You say they are all cases of genocide, but are they all exactly the same? Are there any differences between them that are of importance when considering outsiders’ failure to prevent/end them?
To push your argument further, think about the reasons why major international actors fail the victims of genocide: you give a few reasons, such as political and economic interests, reputation, the desire to avoid costly and indeterminate conflicts, UN bureaucratic inertia and so on. Could you systematise these at all? Are the reasons the same in each case, such that you can make a general claim, or does it vary case by case?
In the bibliography, make sure you give the publisher of books.
Second year student: Issues in Contemporary Anthropology essay
Explore the meaning of ‘radical evil’ and the ‘banality of evil’ and how they might relate to understandings of evil using the cases of Idi Amin and Adolf Eichmann [ pdf 50 KB ]
Tutor’s Feedback – 75%
Deals confidently with very complex issues (Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’ vs Zizek’s ‘radical evil’). Focuses on Leopold’s work, but extends it considerably. Rather longer than expected, but a well constructed argument, and generally well written (however p.2 ‘Disobeying orders was not an option for Eichmann…. As a result conveying their agency the other Nazi officials do not qualify as banal’ is unclear & may misrepresent Arendt’s argument p.3 some confusion over Pottier’s & Leopold’s position. ). Interesting and original attempt to compare Arendt’s analysis with Zizek’s in relation to Amin. The conclusion needs more explanation about what is meant by ‘everyday understandings of evil….what one refers to with the word in the on a daily basis’ (sic) (Shame to have such a typo in the final sentence!). Nevertheless, a very good, thoughtful and original argument.
Third year student: English literature essay
Laurence Sterne and the Erotic: The Depiction of Sensibility in ‘A Sentimental Journey’ [ pdf 99 KB ]
Tutor’s Feedback – 78%
This essay is clearly-written with a an intelligent, incisive style. The piece is well-presented and very thoroughly researched. I especially liked the essay’s alertness to the cultural and philosophical contexts of sensibility. In covering this topic, you used critical and historical sources to support, rather than to dictate, your analysis. Consequently, you convey a strong sense of engagement with, and ownership of, the material. Excellent work.
Second year student: English literature essay
Is Tess in ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ portrayed as being responsible for her own demise? [ pdf 40 KB ]
Tutor’s Feedback – 73%
Yours is a beautifully clear essay. You write very well, and your prose is delightful to read. You’ve also done your research and it shows. There is a remarkable lack of vagary about society or feminism in your piece, and you’ve picked canny quotes from your secondary sources that elucidate and situate your arguments.
You’ve also located some wonderfully specific quotations from your primary source to support your argument that Hardy’s narrator sympathises with Tess. Some of your close readings are wonderfully astute, as when you point out that Tess implores Angel, rather than commanding him. Slightly less persuasive is your assertion that Tess is the victim of Alec’s eyes; I suspect you might have found better quotations, descriptions, or incidents denouncing Alec’s gaze.
You are clearly very good at pursuing and proving an argument. I encourage you to be a bit more experimental in your next essay; perhaps choose a less straightforward topic and see where it takes you.
Please see penciled notes throughout on shortening sentences and watching for comma splices (please look this term up in a style manual if it is unfamiliar).
Second year student: Biomedical science essay
Discuss the new insights in the understanding of Haemolytic Uraemic Syndrome and its worldwide implications following the large scale outbreak of E.Coli O104:H4 diarrhea in Germany 2011 [ pdf 680KB ]
An outstanding essay which shows a complete understanding and an ability to think around the topic, especially with regards to the pathogenic features. Very good evidence and an indepth discussion, which highlights the role of the unique features of the German outbreak. Also, good use of evidence to highlight the unusual epidemiology. The essay is logical, moves step by step in the sequence of events chronologically. Excellent presentation. Very good use of diagrams, especially the one on the plasmids. Good referencing. Very minor errors highlighted on script. Download the script for more detailed tutor feedback [ 737 KB ]
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