A Brief Guide to Writing Critical Papers in Literature Classes

Adapted from a handout by Dr. Koster

Professors spend more than half of our professional lives responding to student writing. Getting a good paper from a student is always a pleasure for a teacher, and getting a bad one—or even worse, a boring one—makes us wonder why we are doing this anyway. This page is an attempt to help you write better papers for us, so that our reading, and your grades, are pleasant experiences for us all. Let's break this down into steps to help you succeed with your writing.

A critical paper is your attempt to write literary criticism: that is, to explain and interpret elements of works of literature in a way that increases the reader's appreciation of their value and artistry. This means that you will have to choose works of literature that contain such elements, and deal with them carefully and clearly. You are not writing a book report (extended plot summary, six pages on "What Happens in Othello", etc.). A good rule of thumb is this: no more than 10% of a critical paper should retell the plot.

These papers cannot be written over night and probably not even in a weekend. Give thought to the paper in plenty of time to think out the idea, talk to your professor about it, find appropriate reference materials, draft it, polish it, correct it, and submit it in time. These classes are offered by an English department—yes, that mean that how you say it and how well you say it affect your grade along with what you say. Be wise—revise! Many professors in the English Department use a variation of the Winthrop Rubric for Freshman English as our grading guidelines for critical papers, so be familiar with those.

The critical paper must in some way deal with the subject of the class. You should not write on Emily Dickinson in ENGL 203 or 208 unless you are connecting her with British literature or World Literature. Writing on King Arthur in ENGL 511 is probably not appropriate unless you are connecting it with the Knight's, Squire's, or Wife of Bath's Tales. On the other hand, you may find it illuminating to compare an author from outside your class with one inside it—for instance W.E.B. DuBois's The Souls of Black Folk with Othello or Things Fall Apart, etc, or Iago and Chaucer's Pardoner, or to compare Anne Bradstreet's miscarriage poems with other seventeenth century British poems on the same subject. That's why checking with your professor in advance is such a Good Idea—if he or she is not open to your approach, then you can change topics before it's too late.

Likewise, if you wish to revisit an idea you've written about in another class, check with your professor to make sure that you can find a fresh take on the subject. What was suitable for ENGL 211 may not be considered appropriate in ENGL 504 or ENGL 529, and what worked in high school is usually not suitable at the college level.

What kind of thesis does a critical paper require?

Critical papers are thesis-driven; that is to say, they make a case about some aspect of the work of literature and they present evidence and reasons to support that case. A paper whose thesis is "There are flood stories in Genesis, Gilgamesh, and Ovid" or "Many interesting characters are seen in the Canterbury Tales" doesn't really make a case; it just states an obvious fact. As Jon Stewart would say, "And your point is?" If your paper doesn't start from something that people can challenge and wrestle with, there's no way it can successfully make its argument; all it can do is rehash the obvious (and get a weak grade). Your papers would end up simply showing where the flood stories are in the three works, or pointing out the Chaucerian characters you find most interesting, but no really argument would take place. That's an informative paper, not a critical paper, and it won't meet your assignment.

But if you revised that thesis to say "The flood stories in Genesis, Gilgamesh, and Ovid tell us something important about these three cultures" or "The women in The General Prologue show us something important about gender in late fourteenth century England" you're getting closer; your job now is to be specific about what that 'something important' is. If your thesis ends up being a strong argument like "The flood stories in Genesis, Gilgamesh, and Ovid illustrate the major differences between Hebraism and Hellenism" or "The women in The General Prologue show us why using the three estates to critique the Canterbury Pilgrims doesn't work" you have something people can really wrangle with, and you're all set to write an excellent paper. Now you have a claim that predicts a strategy for your argument (these illustrate major differences or these show why a classification device doesn't work) and you'll know what to use as your supporting points (what the differences are and how they connect to these two world views or what the weaknesses are in applying these classifications to women) in order to prove your case.

What kind of development does a critical paper require?

Now you're ready to develop the paper. The best critical papers engage in a dialogue with the text; that is to say, they use plenty of actual quotes as well as paraphrases from the works you are discussing as concrete evidence to support your points, but each of those pieces of evidence is examined and discussed; the sources aren't just "plunked" in for the reader to figure out. Put yourself in the reader's place; show them how your case is unfolding. Making an outline—either as a prewriting or revising tool—often helps. Make sure there are clear and obvious transitions from one point to the next; as a rule, professors don't read minds well.

On the other hand, don't fall into the trap of writing an eight-page draft that cites half-a-dozen influential critics but never once cites the primary text on which you're focusing. Remember that your sources need to support your argument—they're the witnesses who back up the case you are presenting to your audience. When you engage in a dialogue with the text, when you show your reader that you understand the connections between the text and your arguments, you make a much more persuasive case and help them believe your point of view.

Where do I get help?

When you're developing a paper, you should stop in during your professor's office hours with your notes and/or outlines and/or drafts so that they can give you as much feedback as possible. Remember that a lot of people may feel this urge, so please don't wait until the last minute to come by and whimper "I can't think of anything to write about!" Check your syllabus for their office hours and e-mail addresses. As always, smart writers use the services of the Writing Center to help them develop their papers and shape them into excellent final form.

What about outside sources?

In some classes you may be given the option of using outside sources in your critical papers or of building the interpretation on your own. If you want to use outside sources (and for papers of more than five pages you will undoubtedly need them), please remember to document them in the MLA style. You will find a number of resources on the English department's English Major's Handbook page to supplement materials you will find in the library. Remember that not all material on the Internet has passed the scholarly review process; it's a good idea to balance Internet material with peer-reviewed material from respected professional journals. The online resources page for most of your classes will guide you to bibliographies in the field if you wish to use them.