John Stenzel

Some Hints on Essay-Writing in Literature--Stenzel

Issues specific to the Paraphrase assignment

Whenever you do a paraphrase-and-explication assignment, please make your paraphrases clear: print out the original in triple-space, then neatly hand-print your version between the lines; OR if you type both, clearly indicate (with typeface or even highlighting) your version. Do not indulge in goofball typefaces that will strain the eyes and patience of your reader (as you can tell, I have a weakness for Palatino, Times Roman, and Garamond as particularly readable typefaces).

Answer the question(s)--show me how this scene fits into the play as a whole, and how a close reading of your passage illuminates the scene. Don't just say "This is an interesting and pivotal scene," but rather something more specific: "Embodying the language of lordship and good governance, Kate's final speech puts a subtle spin on themes developed throughout the play." Likewise, "The speech is full of vivid imagery" becomes "Falstaff reduces 'honor' from a high chivalric concept to a useless item in a first-aid kit--'Can honor set to a leg? No."--or a funerary ornament--'honor is a mere scutcheon' (V.i.131, 140).

Verb Tense

Action in plays takes place in a perpetual present tense: "Petruchio reveals his method in this soliloquy" or "Hal knows that he will reject Falstaff in the end." You can use present perfect to indicate action before another action: "Petruchio has kept his purposes hidden until now, but he reveals his method in this soliloquy"; to show future developments, use future tense: "Petruchio will extend this behavior-modification to an alarming level, until Kate is thoroughly confused."

In the interests of "showing, not telling," use examples from the text to illustrate your points, but don't rely on long quotations strung together with minimal connective tissue. Instead, tend to quote shorter bits, and make them work for you--think of fingers pointing into the quotation from in before and after, picking up specific words or phrases and integrating the quotation into your argument.


Quotations that take up less than three lines of typing are integrated into text, and have slashes to indicate line breaks when quoting poetry: "What mockery will it be, / To want the bridegroom when the priest attends / To speak the ceremonial rites of marriage?" (III.i.4-6). Quotations longer than three lines get indented and single-spaced, and don't need quotation marks--and the act-scene designation follows the last line. Once you've established exactly where you're quoting from, you may then simply put the line number in parentheses (after the quotation mark but before the sentence's main punctuation)--but if you go outside that scene for a point, indicate it clearly. Don't overuse ellipsis dots (spaced periods). Look them up in the punctuation section of a handbook, and remember that they mainly function to tell a reader that the quoted section does not stand alone in that form in the text--and only when the reader might otherwise be confused. For example, "Petruchio makes 'a sermon of constancy to her'" doesn't need ellipses to start, because no one would think a sentence would start with "a" (lowercase) in that way. Problems arise when your quotation starts with a proper name or other capitalized word. Have the verbal agility to get yourself out of punctuation problems you can't solve with a handbook, but push yourself to develop as a writer of well-crafted prose!

Tools of the Trade: Subjects and Verbs

Whenever possible, use strong subjects and active constructions, rather than weak verbal nouns or abstractions and weak passive or linking verbs: instead of "Petruchio's denial of Kate of her basic necessities would seem cruel and harsh...," try "By denying Kate the basic necessities of life, Petruchio appears cruel and harsh--but he says that he is just putting on an act." Don't forget that words and even phrases can serve as strong sentence subjects: "Petruchio's 'I'll buckler thee against a million' injects an unexpectedly chivalric note, especially since it follows hard on the heels of his seemingly un-gentlemanly behavior." And remember--use regular quotation marks unless you're quoting material that contains a quotation itself (in which you use single quotation marks, as I have here!).

In General, Avoid the Swamp of Published Criticism

Please do not try to sift through the many hundreds of pounds of critical inquiry about the scene or the play. I am most interested in what you bring to the plays, not the ways in which you try to spew back your versions of what "experts" have written to get tenure or score points with other tweed-jacketed types. Honest confusion and honest mis-taking are part of the learning process, so don't try to seek out some other "authority" for your proof. One of the surest ways to make readers cranky is to make 'em wonder "I know this doesn't sound like this person. I know I've read this exact same idea before. Grrrr." Don't go there.

For the purposes of this course, feel free to let your analytical process become part of your subject matter: you can acknowledge the ways in which your viewpoint changed, and the ways in which looking up terms in OED enriched your understanding of the play. Don't try to adopt an artificially sterile or scholarly tone, when the assignment calls for an account of the ways you make meaning in this scene. On the other hand, don't let your paper become a string of "the OED defines this word as x, which surprised me"--such repetitive figures can become tiresome and mechanical. This means you may use the I-voice: just don't let your writing get monotonous.

Parting Thought

I will be making more writing-related resources available online, but do recognize that there's only so much you can do in the "reading" line, before you have to face the brutal fact of writing itself. Take the responsibility for becoming a better writer, and enjoy what truly can be a lifelong process of improving your craft.
Coded and uploaded 4/23/1999, slightly amended 4/2001