Writing about Literature
The Writing Process
Moving From Evidence to Claims
If you are focusing first on evidence, start by rereading the literary work in a more strategic way, searching for everything relevant to your topic—words, phrases, structural devices, changes of tone, and so forth. As you read (slowly and single-mindedly, with your thesis in mind), keep your pen constantly poised to mark or note down useful facts. Be ready to say something about the facts as you come upon them; immediately write down any ideas that occur to you. Some of these will appear in your essay; some won’t. Just like most of the footage shot in making a film, many of your notes will end up on the cutting-room floor. As in filmmaking, however, having too much raw material is preferable to not having enough.
No one can tell you exactly how to take notes. But here is one process that you might try. Be forewarned: this process involves using notecards or uniform sheets of paper. Having your notes on individual cards makes it easier to separate and sort them, a concrete, physical process that can aid the mental process of organizing thoughts and facts. If you are working on a computer, create notecards by putting page breaks between each note or by leaving enough space so that you can cut each page down to a uniform size.
- Keep your thesis constantly in mind as you reread and take notes. Mark all the passages in the text that bear on your thesis. For each, create a notecard that contains both (a) a single sentence describing how the passage relates to your thesis, and (b) the specific information about the passage’s location that you will need to create a parenthetical citation. (The information you need will depend on the kind of text you’re working with; for specifics, see Parenthetical Citation.) Also, make cards for other relevant, evidentiary facts—like aspects of a poem’s rhyme scheme.
- Keep reading and taking notes until you experience any of the following:
- get too tired and lose your concentration. (Stop, take a break, come back later.)
- stop finding relevant evidence or perceive a noticeable drying up of your ideas. (Again, it’s time to pause. Later, when your mind is fresh, read the text one more time to ensure that you didn’t miss anything.)
- find yourself annotating every sentence or line, with the evidence all running together into a single blob. (If this happens, your thesis is probably too broad. Simplify and narrow it. Then continue note taking.)
- become impatient with your note taking and can’t wait to get started writing. (Start drafting immediately. But be prepared to go back to systematic note taking if your ideas stop coming or your energy fades.)
- find that the evidence is insufficient for your thesis, that it points in another direction, or that it contradicts your thesis. (Revise your thesis to accommodate the evidence, and begin rereading once more.)
- When you think you have finished note taking, read all your notecards over slowly, one by one, and jot down any further ideas as they occur to you, each one on a separate notecard.
Use your notecards to work toward an outline. Again, there are many ways to go about doing this. Here’s one process:
- Sort your cards into logical groups or clusters. Come up with a keyword for that group, and write that word at the top of each card in the group.
- Set your notecards aside. On a fresh sheet of paper or in a separate document on your computer, write all the major points you want to make. Write them randomly, as they occur to you. Then read quickly through your notecards, and add to your list any important points you have left out.
- Now it’s time to order your points. Putting your points in order is something of a guess at this point, and you may well want to re-order later. For now, take your best guess. Taking your random list, put a "1" in front of the point you will probably begin with, a "2" before the probable second point, and so on.
- Copy the list in numerical order, revising (if necessary) as you go.
- Match up your notes (and examples) with the points on your outline. Prepare a title card for each point in the outline, writing on it the point and its probable place in the essay. Then line them up in order before you begin writing. If you’re working on a computer, use the search function to find each instance of a keyword, phrase, or name. Then cut and paste in order to arrange your electronic "cards" under the headings you’ve identified.
- At this point, you may discover cards that resist classification, cards that belong in two or more places, and/or cards that don’t belong anywhere at all. If a card relates to more than one point, put it in the pile with the lowest number, but write on it the number or numbers of other possible locations. Try to find a place for the cards that don’t seem to fit, and then put any that remain unsorted into a special file marked "?" or "use in revision."
Before you begin drafting, you may want to develop a more elaborate outline, incorporating examples and including topic sentences for each paragraph; or you may wish to work directly from your sketchy outline and cards.