Getting an A on an English Paper

Jack Lynch,
Rutgers University – Newark

Close Reading

An English teacher's heart will go pitter-pat whenever he or she sees close engagement with the language of the text.

That means reading every word: it's not enough to have a vague sense of the plot. Maybe that sounds obvious, but few people pay serious attention to the words that make up every work of literature. Remember, English papers aren't about the real world; they're about representations of the world in language. Words are all we have to work with, and you have to pay attention to them.

The problem's most acute in poetry. Here, for instance, is the opening of Gray's famous “Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard”:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
   The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
   And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

The surface-level meaning is something like this: “At evening, when the curfew bell rings, the cows and the plowman go home and leave me in the dark.” Many students read passages like this, “decode” them into something they can understand, and then ask, “Why didn't he just say that?”

That's usually a dismissive rhetorical question, with the implication, “Why is that nasty old author making my life difficult when he could have said it simply?” But in fact “Why didn't he just say that?” can be a great question, and you should learn to take it seriously. Why did he say it in the denser way? Answer that, and you're on your way to a good thesis. (Hint: with good writers, the answer is almost never “Because he had to rhyme” or “Because he couldn't do it any better.”)

An incomplete list of things to look for:

Here's a useful exercise: take an important sentence or two in the work you're analyzing, and look up every word in the Oxford English Dictionary. (Okay, if you're in a hurry, you have my permisison to skip the and is.) Paradise Lost uses the word individual: what did it mean when Milton wrote? What does Frances Burney mean when she writes, “We have been a shopping, as Mrs. Mirvan calls it”? Is the name of the prodigiously endowed “Dick” in the pornographic novel Fanny Hill (1759) a dirty joke, or just a coincidence? The OED will let you know.

Learning to read closely, with attention to the history of words and the meanings lurking in their etymologies and connotations, will go a long way toward making your paper solid. For starters, it helps you avoid the awful problem of generalization. And individual words aren't the only thing to study carefully. Unusual word-order, for instance, is almost always significant. Shifts in person, number, or tense may be loaded with meaning.

The deeper you dig into the text, the more things you'll find. So keep digging, and don't be content with a surface-level reading.

from Jack Lynch's guide,
Getting an A on an English Paper

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