Writing about Literature
The Writing Process
Assessing the Elements
The first step in revision is to make sure that all the elements or working parts of the essay are indeed working. To help with that process, run through the following checklist in order to identify the strengths and weaknesses of your draft. Try to answer each question honestly.
- Is there one claim that effectively controls the essay?
- Is the claim debatable?
- Does the claim demonstrate real thought? Does it truly illuminate the text and the topic?
- Does the introduction establish a clear motive for readers, effectively convincing them that there’s something worth thinking, reading, and writing about here?
- Does it give readers all (and only) the basic information they need about the text, author, and/or topic?
- Does the introduction clearly state the central claim or thesis? Is it obvious which claim is the thesis?
- Does each paragraph state one debatable claim? Is the main claim always obvious? Does everything in the paragraph relate to, and help to support and develop, that claim?
- Is each of those claims clearly related to (but different from) the thesis?
- Are the claims/paragraphs logically ordered?
- Is that logic clear? Is each claim clearly linked to those that come before and after? Are there any logical "leaps" that readers might have trouble taking?
- Does each claim/paragraph clearly build on the last one? Does the argument move forward, or does it seem more like a list or a tour through a museum of interesting observations?
- Do any key claims or steps in the argument seem to be missing?
TIP: You may be better able to discover structural weaknesses if you:
- re-outline your draft as it is. Copy your thesis statement and each of your topic sentences into a separate document. Then pose the above questions. OR
- read through the essay with highlighters of various colors in hand. As you read, color-code parts that could be restatements of the same or closely related ideas. Then reorganize to match up the colors.
- Does the conclusion give readers the sense that they’ve gotten somewhere and that the journey has been worthwhile?
- Does it indicate the implications of the argument, consider relevant evaluative questions, and/or discuss questions that remain unanswered?
- Is there ample, appropriate evidence for each claim?
- Are the appropriateness and significance of each fact—its relevance to the claim—perfectly clear?
- Are there any weak examples or inferences that aren’t reasonable? Are there moments when readers might ask, "But couldn’t that fact instead mean this?"
- Is all the evidence considered? What about facts that might complicate or contradict the argument? Are there moments when readers might think, "But what about this other fact?"
- Is each piece of evidence clearly presented? Do readers have all the contextual information they need to understand a quotation?
- Is each piece of evidence gracefully presented? Are quotations varied by length and presentation? Are they ever too long? Are there any unnecessary block quotations, or block quotations that require additional analysis? (For more specific explanations and advice on effective quotation, see EFFECTIVE QUOTATION.)
Though you want to pay attention to all of the elements, first drafts often have similar weaknesses. There are three especially common ones:
- Mismatch between thesis and argument or between introduction and body
Sometimes a first or second draft ends up being a tool for discovering what your thesis really is. As a result, you may find that the thesis of your draft (or your entire introduction) doesn’t fit the argument you’ve ended up making. You thus need to start your revision by reworking the thesis and introduction. Then work your way back through the essay, making sure that each claim or topic sentence fits the new thesis.
- The list, or "museum tour," structure
In a draft, writers sometimes present each claim as if it were just an item on a list (First, second, and so on) or as a stop on a tour of ideas (And this is also important ...). But presenting your ideas in this way keeps you and your readers from making logical connections between ideas. It may also prevent your argument from developing. Sometimes it can even be a symptom of the fact that you’ve ceased arguing entirely, falling into mere plot summary or description. Check to see if number-like words or phrases appear prominently at the beginning of your paragraphs or if your paragraphs could be put into a different order without fundamentally changing what you’re saying. At times, solving this problem will require wholesale rethinking and reorganizing. But at other times, you will just need to add or rework topic sentences. Make sure that there’s a clearly stated, debatable claim up-front and in charge of each paragraph and that each claim relates to, but differs from, the thesis.
- Missing sub-ideas
You may find that you’ve skipped a logical step in your argument—that the claim you make in, say, body paragraph 3 actually depends on, or makes sense only in light of, a more basic claim that you took for granted in your draft. In that case, you’ll need to create and insert a new paragraph that articulates, supports, and develops this key claim.