How to write an English Literature Essay

The complete guide to writing a 2:1 standard university essay

What if you had to mark your own essay? What if you were tired and had read fifty essays already that day? At the heart of writing a good English Literature essay is readability.

  • Avoid writing an essay that is a regurgitation of facts, lecture notes or other people’s opinions.
  • If you wouldn’t want to read your essay, you can be sure that no one else will.

The second important point to bear in mind when writing your English Literature essay is planning. Don’t start writing without a goal or an idea of the key points to cover:

  • Write key points and ideas down before you start.
  • Plan your paragraphs.
  • Look at the whole picture before you begin.
  • What is your argument?
  • Who is your reader?
  • When should you aim to have the first 300 words written by?

These are all practical questions and suggestions that will not only help you write a good essay, but also keep you from drowning in a sea of words and ideas. Of course, it doesn’t matter if you want to change direction or modify your argument once you have begun, but it’s helpful to start out with an idea of where you’re going.

Structure

Paragraphs:

  • A basic but important point is the size of your paragraphs. If you have re-read a paragraph and gotten lost on the way then it is probably time to consider dividing it into two paragraphs.
  • Paragraphs are there to help you and your reader: they divide up your thoughts and neatly section each strand of your argument into readable nuggets.
  • You should neverhave a paragraph that is longer than an A4 page.

Flow:

  • Make sure that the transition between your paragraphs and sentences makes sense. One thought should seamlessly follow on from another in your English Literature essay.
  • Helpful ‘connective’ words and phrases are: ‘in addition to this’, ‘despite of this,’ ‘however’, ‘on the other hand’.

Argument:

  • Unless you have been asked to summarize a piece of text, every English Literature essay you write should have a clear argument.
  • Remember, your argument should not be a one-sided rant; it should include several possible sides of the discussion. A great English Literature essay is a lively and thought provoking conversation with the text/s at hand.

Literary Techniques

Bear in mind that an English Literature essay should show your love of words and language. Remember to look out for and make interesting points about literary uses of sibilance, onomatopoeia, anaphora, alliteration etc. This is especially relevant, but not exclusive to, writing about poetry.

Referencing

  • Make sure you credit any critics and texts that you quote and source material that you use in your footnotes and bibliography.
  • Even if you are only quoting one text throughout your essay it is good form to reference the page numbers of the text you are using so that your reader can look up quotes that you have used. Make sure you properly notate in your footnotes the publisher and the edition of the text you are using.
  • Where possible draw on your knowledge of other texts and make thoughtful and relevant comparisons.

Quotations

  • Wherever possible use short, sharp, punchy quotations, either a word or part of a sentence.

You must at all times ensure that quotes are woven into the body of your English Literature essay.

E.g. When King Lear appears at the end of the play, carrying Cordelia’s body, he can only ‘howl’ with grief at the ‘men of stone’ whom he is confronted by.

  • Each quote that you use from any kind of text (reference, criticism or source material) should be properly footnoted so that you don’t:

a) Get accused of plagiarism
b) Confuse your reader

  • Where you feel that it is necessary to quote larger chunks of text to illustrate your point you should make sure to do the following:
  • Set your quotation in the centre of the printed page and leave a blank line before and after the complete quotation.
  • Don’t just use the quotation in the hope that it will speak for itself: pick out interesting words/sentences from long quotations and write about how they emphasize the point that you are making.
  • For longer quotations you can also use a single ‘comma’ quotation marks, although it is also acceptable to use the “double comma quotation marks.”