1. You must have a clear and specific thesis, stated early in your paper, preferably in the first or second paragraph. This thesis should be argumentative and should not be observational. The difference between these two types of thesis may be represented by the following examples:
Observational Thesis: “William Wells Brown’s Clotelle, Paul Laurence Dunbar’s ‘We Wear the Mask’ and W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk all provide examples of the double.” This is observational because it is obvious, and because it merely makes a statement about (i.e., it only describes) what all the texts have in common. “The double” is the object of the thesis sentence and not the subject.
Argumentative Thesis: “‘The double’ as found in William Wells Brown’s Clotelle, Paul Laurence Dunbar’s ‘We Wear the Mask’ and W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk represents the cultural predicament faced by African Americans during Reconstruction.” This is argumentative because it takes an observation (that all these texts share the figure of the double) and uses it to make an argument (i.e., a point which goes beyond the descriptive) about how that observation relates back to all the texts. “The double” is the subject of the thesis sentence (i.e., it has a verb which follows it) and not the object. An argumentative thesis takes an observational thesis to the next level. A good way to change an observation to an argument is to look at an observation and ask, “and so?” or “so what’s my point?” The best argumentative theses are the most specific: they use very specific similarities between texts as their observations, and make arguments on the basis of them.
Do not leave your thesis until the final paragraph. If you write your paper in one take, at one sitting, often you will only realize what your paper’s overall point is at the very end of your paper. I strongly recommend that you do not turn in a paper which looks like this. This means that you may have to revise your paper at least once before turning it in. If you do arrive at a thesis only at the end of your paper, a good way to fix this is to take the conclusions from your final paragraphs and apply them to your opening paragraphs, and then make sure each of your paper’s paragraphs make reference to these conclusions in turn.
2. You should refer to your thesis in each paragraph, preferably at both the beginning and end of each paragraph. Each paragraph should have what some teachers call a “topic sentence” – some sentence, usually at the beginning of a paragraph, which states that paragraph’s main point, or the point which makes that paragraph’s discussion different from every other paragraph’s discussion. But each paragraph should also have a “thesis-connecting sentence” – a sentence which connects that paragraph back to your whole paper’s main overall point, and ties each paragraph into your whole paper’s overall thesis. Each paragraph should have its own mini-discussion, of course, but each paragraph should also have some relationship to your overall argument, and you should make that relationship clear.
3. Each paragraph should include at least one quotation from your text(s). Every paragraph needs a point, and every point needs proof. The best kind of proof – the best kind of evidence that what you’re claiming is the case is, at least in your paper, actually the case – is a direct quotation from the text. Thus, every paragraph should have a quotation. Your quotations must be properly cited, complete with page numbers. They must also be incorporated and not unincorporated:
Unincorporated quotation: Frances E.W. Harper illustrates how slaves were able to transmit information under their masters’ very noses. “In conveying the tidings of war, if they wished to announce a victory of the Union army, they said the butter was fresh, or that the fish and eggs were in good condition.” (Iola Leroy, 9) These two sentences are totally separate (i.e., unincorporated) and the quotation exists as an isolated sentence with no source, dropped in like a sound bite.
Incorporated quotation: Frances E.W. Harper illustrates how slaves were able to transmit information under their masters’ very noses. “In conveying the tidings of war,” Harper writes, “if they wished to announce a victory of the Union army, they said the butter was fresh, or that the fish and eggs were in good condition.” (Iola Leroy, 9) The quotation is broken up by a clear indicator of its source, and it is made into a full sentence (i.e., incorporated) of its own.
Any paper which does not include regular quotations (preferably one per paragraph) will not receive a very good grade. Any paper which includes no quotations whatsoever will not receive a passing grade.
4. Your paragraphs should be of reasonable length. There is of course no universal rule governing the length of the “perfect” paragraph, nor should there be: there is an art to writing, whether it be poetry or English papers. But some general customs do apply: anything consisting of three sentences or less is too short, and anything which fills over half a full page in size is too long. Paragraphs, like papers, make their arguments in steps, and if in each paragraph you have a topic sentence, a quotation, and a thesis-connecting sentence, then you already have three sentences – and you haven’t even discussed anything yet. (If you come from a business-writing background – used to writing in bullet points or other very short, digestible “thought bites” – this may be a particularly important guideline to remember.) Conversely, if you have a paragraph which goes on for over a full page or more, then you clearly don’t have only one main point which that paragraph is trying to convey, and you’re trying to do too much. (If you tend to write your papers in one take, very quickly, or at the last minute – used to throwing all of your thoughts down in a rush with little attention to your overall paragraph structure – this may be a particularly important guideline to remember.) Paragraphs are the main argumentative unit of an English paper; a paragraph is to a paper what a sentence is to a paragraph, and, just as with sentences, there are “fragment” paragraphs as well as “run-on” paragraphs. You should avoid both.
5. Ground your paper in the text(s). Most of your paragraphs should be directly concerned with authors, plots, characters, themes, symbols, conflicts, and other literary things, and not in the abstractions which surround them: “society,” “history,” “culture,” and so on. This means avoiding what I call “Since the Dawn of Time Stories” – papers which attempt to account for all of human history in their argumentative sweep. Do not attempt, for example, to write about “all” of slavery, “all” of American history, or even “slaves” in general; instead, you should write about specific authors and their texts. Sentences, paragraphs, and papers should begin with and regularly return to authors, characters, etc., as their subjects. Instead of saying, for example, “African Americans have always resisted racial oppression,” you should say, for example, “The authors Brown, Dunbar, and Harper all show a variety of ways in which African Americans resisted racial oppression.” This may seem like a subtle difference, but it’s a crucial one. You should, of course, remember that neither you nor your authors are writing in a vacuum, but a good English paper is all about the literature.
6. Try to achieve a reasonable degree of balance between the different texts you discuss. While it’s often difficult to devote exactly equal time and space to each of your required texts, you do want to shoot for a paper which is not terribly unbalanced – three pages of a five-page paper devoted to one text and half a page for each remaining text, for example, is not a good balance. A good paper distributes its discussions of all its texts as evenly as possible across all its pages.
7. Don’t be afraid to have an opinion, but phrase your opinions in terms of analyses of the text(s). While I don’t forbid using the first-person singular pronoun “I” in papers, I do think it’s largely unnecessary: I will know it’s you making your points, and often “I” statements lessen the impact of a good solid analysis. Don’t feel the need to qualify your opinions by saying “I think that,” “I feel that,” “it seems as if,” or other similar phrases. A good rule of thumb is to go through each paper and look for moments where you tend to apologize for having your own opinion, and delete the phrases that precede your actual point. Act as if you’re right, and your argument will usually be better off. (the essay should be writing about Gorilla, My love)
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