Writing about Literature

The Writing Process

Getting Started

Scrutinizing the Assignment

For student essayists, as for most professional ones, the writing process usually begins with an assignment. Though assignments vary greatly, all impose certain restrictions. These are designed not to hinder your creativity but to direct it into productive channels, ensuring that you hone certain skills, try out various approaches, and avoid common pitfalls. Your first task as a writer is thus to scrutinize the assignment. Make sure that you fully understand what you are being asked to do (and not do), and ask questions about anything unclear or puzzling.

Almost all assignments restrict the length of the essay by giving word or page limits. Keep those limits in mind as you generate and evaluate potential essay topics, making sure that you choose a topic you can handle in the space allowed. Many assignments impose further restrictions, often indicating the texts and/or topics to be explored. As a result, any given assignment will significantly shape the rest of the writing process—determining, for example, whether and how you should tackle a step such as "Choosing a Text" or "Identifying Topics."

Here are three representative essay assignments, each of which imposes a different set of restrictions:

  1. Choose any story in this anthology and write an essay analyzing the way in which its protagonist changes.

  2. Write an essay analyzing one of the following sonnets: "The New Colossus," "Range-Finding," or "London, 1802." Be sure to consider how the poem’s form contributes to its meaning.

  3. Write an essay exploring the significance of references to eyes and vision in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. What, through them, does the play suggest about both the power and the limitations of human vision?

The first assignment dictates the topic and main question. It also provides the kernel of a thesis: In [story title], [protagonist’s name] goes from being a ________ to a ________ OR By the end of [story title], [protagonist’s name] has learned that ________. The assignment leaves you free to choose which story you will write about, although it limits you to those in which the protagonist clearly changes or learns a lesson of some kind. The second assignment limits your choice of texts to three. Though it also requires that your essay address the effects of the poet’s choice to use the sonnet form, it doesn’t require this to be the main topic of the essay. Rather, it leaves you free to pursue any topic that focuses on the poem’s meaning. The third assignment is the most restrictive. It indicates both the text and the general topic to be explored, while requiring you to narrow the topic and formulate a specific thesis.

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