Monday, April 03, 2017

A backward writing process

You're writing your essay backward, I tell my student, but I'm not sure she understands so I try to explain:

You're coming up with the points you want to make in your literary analysis and then going to the text to find a few quotes to toss in to support your points, which makes your essay vague and bland and superficial. 

Instead of starting with your ideas, start in the text--the poem, the play, the story you want to illuminate. Don't try to write about the whole thing. Choose a passage--a stanza, a scene, a bit of dialogue--or several passages linked by a common image or character or conflict or some other thread. 

And then before you write a thing, dig into that passage as if you're mining for gold. Look at the words, hear the rhythms and sounds, examine the metaphors and structural elements and every little thing about the passage until it speaks to you, I mean really speaks to you--not in the kinds of shallow cliches easily found in online summaries but in wordless meaning piercing deep into your soul. Only then should you start to write. 

If it's easy, you're doing it wrong. 

If every single sentence in your essay sounds like a clumsy paraphrase of an online summary, you're doing it wrong.

If I can't hear the text in your essay, you're doing it wrong.

If you're trying to write about a literary text before you have immersed yourself so deeply in the text that you feel as if you're drowning, you're doing it wrong.

She nods and smiles--she's getting it! And then she says, "Does this mean I should put in more quotes?"

And all I can think is Maybe this time I'm the one who's doing it wrong.


Stacey Lee Donohue said...


Bardiac said...

Are you sure we aren't secretly sharing students?

Bev said...

Hmmm....maybe there's a collective unconscious among college students that pops up in similar circumstances across space and time.