How to Write an Essay About Any Book in English Class: Part 1
I Hate Writing!
As a high school English teacher and online tutor, I've come to believe English literature is at the bottom of the "favorite subjects" list for most students. When prompted as to why, most will say point blank, "I hate writing."
When it comes to the process of constructing an essay, English class is actually a lot like math. That is to say, there's a formula, that when followed, is nearly always going to produce an essay that works. Following this formula is easy. Mastering this formula can take a student from a non-writer to an above-average writer. And it is truly as simple as following a few steps, filling in a few blanks, and completing paragraphs by counting sentences.
Writing a Theme Statement
So your teacher has informed you that a three page paper "On Romeo and Juliet" is due Friday. It is now Thursday night and you haven't even begun. You have no idea where to start.
Writing an "A" essay, easily and quickly, is all about asking the right questions. If your teacher has given you a fairly broad assignment, like the one above, the first rule you need understand is that summaries will no longer cut it. Teachers and professors don't want to see that you understand the plot of a story. That was your 4th grade teacher. High school and college is more about analyzing themes (big picture ideas from a story that are applicable to real life) and an author's literary merit (as in, what kind of techniques are used to accomplish the goal).
When tackling a generic essay assignment, the best place to begin is to create a theme statement. This is a one sentence statement that explains something the author is trying to convey about life, the world, humanity, or something else, through the story. Asking and answering the right questions will guide you into writing a proper theme statement, which can then become a great thesis statement (you know, that magical sentence in your introduction that defines your entire essay).
Yeah, great, I get that. But how do I start?
Step 1: Ask the Right Questions
It is time to start thinking about literature as having meaning outside of the story itself. It is time to interact with a text in a more personal and worldly way. It is time to write an essay that does more than summarize. To get started, answer these questions based on the text you are studying:
- What theme subjects does the text discuss? Note, we're not talking about plot here. We're talking about themes. This means things like love, power, revenge, growing up, death, freedom, war, etc. Make a list.
- Which theme subject from #1 do I like, understand, and feel comfortable analyzing with this book? Pick one or two.
Step 2: Ask Some More Questions, Brainstorm Answers
I like to tell my students that if they spend the most time in the planning stages of writing an essay (thinking, brainstorming, organizing) then the rough draft will practically write itself. The best brainstorming is, again, sparked by asking and answering the right questions. The following questions, if answered using as much information from the book--and your brain--as possible, will lead you to a great theme statement which will be turned in to your essay's thesis statement. Insert the theme subject(s) you chose in step one into the blank and answer these questions using evidence from the plot of the book:
- What are all the causes of [theme subject] in this story?
- What are all the effects of [theme subject] in this story?
- If you chose two subjects to work with, how do these two subjects interrelate?
- Based on the ideas generated in questions 1-3, what do you believe the author is trying to teach us, or say generally, about [theme subject] through this book?*
- Craft ideas in #4 using some key words and narrow down your answer to one sentence.
Question #4, above, is the most important question to answer well. If you can narrow down a universal idea based on the plot the of the book, you have effectively written a theme statement. But this is tricky. First, this idea needs to be somewhat broad. It must be applicable beyond the story (as in, a lesson, thought, or truth that applies to life) so it cannot contain direct references to plot details. However, this idea also needs to be specific enough that it isn't something that could be said about absolutely any book on the planet. Finally, it must be proven using examples from the story. Confused?
Let's go back to Romeo and Juliet for a second, and see how steps one and two are illustrated in the following example.
- What subjects are discussed and dealt with in Romeo and Juliet?
- Which of the above subjects do I want to discuss?
...fighting and family...
- What are the causes of fighting in the story?
...Capulets and Montagues hate each other from a long time family feud, a grudge that has never been settled
...many characters fight over petty insults...
...Montagues and Capulets fight out of a long time hatred of one another
- What are the effects of fighting in the story?
...decree from the Prince to harshly punish all public fights...
...Romeo and Juliet must hide their love for one another and marry in secret...
...Tybalt kills Mercutio...Romeo kills Tybalt...Romeo is banished...Juliet fakes her death...Romeo kills Paris then himself...Juliet kills herself when she sees Romeo is dead...
...LOTS of people die
- How are family and fighting related?
...two families who have a long time grudge against one another fight out of hatred
- Based on the above ideas, what do you think Shakespeare is trying to say about fighting and family through this play?
...it is a bad thing...lots of people will get hurt or die...
- Narrow down ideas using more effective vocabulary.
...Fighting between families almost always leads to destruction.
That final sentence in #5 is your theme statement. With a couple more steps, this theme statement can become a great thesis statement and an excellent essay.
Ready to move on? Read How To Write an Essay for Any Book in English Class: Part 2