Advice on Writing

Guidelines for Essay Writing

Pick one of the essay questions, and respond to it in an essay of 7–8 pages. Make sure to have a thesis, and to flesh out your argument and support it with examples from the text. Refer to the “Advice for Writing” section.

Papers must be submitted in a 12-type font (preferably Times New Roman or Arial); your essays must also be double-spaced. Use the MLA guidelines for citation (For more on the MLA format, visit the Purdue Online Writing Lab).

When I return your essay, you have two days to decide if you’d like to revise it. If you do, we will schedule a meeting to discuss your paper, and work together to make plans for revising it. You will then have a week to submit your revision. You must revise at least one of your first two papers. You cannot submit a re-write without talking to me first.

1st Essay Questions

  1. Journeys play a significant role in both The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Odyssey. What is the significance of the journey in each text? What does each character gain from his journey? Discuss the purpose and symbolism of the journey in each text, and the dialectic between home and travel that each text presents.

  2. In our class discussions, we spoke of the strong female characters in both The Odyssey and Gilgamesh. How do these female characters complicate our own assumptions about ancient cultures?

  3. What does literature teach us? Is it an effective teacher? And if so, does it follow that it should be monitored and controlled, for the sake of society? Defend your point of view with examples from the Plato and Aristotle readings we have done.

2nd Essay Questions

  1. All the readings in this section deal in one way or the other with social laws. Pick two texts, and compare and contrast some aspects of the laws proposed in them. How do they perceive and represent the role and duties of the individual in society? If these texts seem to share similar social concerns, what are they?

  2. The relationship of the master to his disciples forms a crucial part of the frame for The Analects, The Bible, and Rahula’s representation of the Buddha in What the Buddha Taught. Discuss the similarities and differences of these relationships in two of the texts.

  3. Writing about the characterization of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, the editors of the NSRV Bible say, “Ancient writers often characterized persons as types, and the narratives of their lives reflected a view that individuals had fixed characters from birth rather than personalities that developed through life” (1747). Is this true of Matthew’s characterization of Jesus? What “fixed” elements can you see in the character of Jesus, as depicted by Matthew? Is this true of the characterizations of Confucius and Buddha in the Chinese and Buddhist traditions, respectively? How does the representation of the central character in each of these texts contribute to the belief system constructed by each of these philosophies?

Final Essay Questions

  1. Discuss the different kinds of love depicted in The Divine Comedy and in The Ramayana. How does the religious and social context of each text shape the way that these forms of love are represented?

  2. What is the role of the writer/scribe, or the storyteller in The Arabian Nights and Don Quixote? What is the role of the reader, or the audience member?

  3. Much of our discussions this year have involved story-telling as a device to teach or to convey religious, social and moral concepts; how effective are stories as teaching tools? What are some of the possible hazards of using a story to teach or instruct?

  4. Now that you have read a selection of texts from across different cultures, do you think that some topics or themes are universal? If yes, what are they? If not, why not? If you believe that there are universal topics, make sure to give specific examples from at least three of the texts we have studied over the course of this semester, and make sure to point out not only where these texts intersect, but how they differ.

  1. Many of us probably think that writing works this way: you “have an idea” and then you “write it down.” I want you to question that assumption. In an important sense, you don’t really know what your ideas are until you’ve written them down and phrased them just right. Writing can be a process of discovering what it is you have to say, not just of communicating a prefabricated idea that’s sitting up there in your brain. As long as it’s up there in your brain, the idea doesn’t really exist in any form communicable to another person—which is the point of writing, after all. It exists, at best, in potential, but it hasn’t been subjected to the rigorous test of enunciating it. So use your writing to figure out what you want to say and how you should link each thought to the next. This may mean that, rather than making a complete outline of your argument and then filling it in with your prose, you simply start writing and see where you go. As you proceed, you may find (you’re likely to find) that you actually want to move in directions different from the one you originally imagined yourself taking. That’s fine. But when you’re done, go back to the beginning and make sure the introduction of the essay fits the directions you actually wound up taking.
  2. Don’t assume that you can’t use the first-person voice. “I think” or “it seems to me” is OK, as long as you have reasons to back up what you think. I’d rather have you sound like a distinct individual than an impersonal bureaucratic committee. This advice also applies to the passive voice: make active voice constructions your default ones, and reserve passive for the rare times it really comes in handy.
  3. Begin your work process by saying to yourself, “In order to assemble a persuasive argument about this topic, the passages in the work I’m writing about that would really need to be looked at are ….” In other words, make a list of all the potentially useful passages in the work that address the question you’re trying to answer. Then prioritize your list to focus on those that seem most important, i.e., least permissible to omit from a 7-plus page essay. This exercise provides training in qualitative assessment of information. It can also help safeguard you against the criticism that you have omitted passages that might seem to contradict your argument.
  4. Quote from and/or paraphrase portions of the text to support your claims as much as possible. Don’t think of your task as one of arriving at the tersest statement of a book’s “meaning”; think of it as one of engaging with some issue raised by the book in sufficiently satisfying detail. Occam’s razor doesn’t apply here. Back up and/or illustrate your assertions by showing how they are borne out by the work you’re discussing. More richly detailed essays, those that take the trouble to respond very fully to the text and to the questions posed in the assignment, will receive higher marks than those that give minimal or very general responses. And it never hurts to write more than the minimum number of pages required.
  5. Many of you may have been taught the model of the “5-paragraph essay” (opening paragraph, 3 paragraphs of “body,” closing paragraph). That was fine then. College-level work, and above, takes on more complex subjects or looks more deeply into subjects you may have encountered earlier. This means that the 5-paragraph model, rather than helpfully providing structure, can become a cage, involving a boredom-inducing level of repetition (here’s what I will say, here I am saying it, here’s what I have said). You want to persuade your readers, not hit them over the head. Acknowledge the greater sophistication of your material, your approach, and your imagined audience by bidding the 5-paragraph model a grateful farewell.
  6. Don’t write for the professor. Write for an imaginary reader who is somewhat familiar with the text you’re discussing but needs some reminding about what happens when and so forth. When you discuss a particular passage or incident in the text, make sure to contextualize it for this imaginary reader. When you move from one part of the text to another, help the reader move with you by providing a sufficient transition. Always be asking yourself if what you’re saying will be clear and persuasive to the imaginary reader.
  7. Keep your opening paragraph focused on the specific claim your paper is making. Don’t begin with vast generalizations (e.g. “Throughout the history of Western literature”) when your real subject is something specific about a particular text.
  8. People often think that academic writing is unlike the kind of writing they might need to do in the “real world.” But one way in which the writing in this class is exactly like the writing you might do in a professional context is that it is being read by someone busy who has a lot of other things to read and who will hold you responsible for what you present.
  9. Speaking of what you present, how you present your work is very important. Make sure to use a 12-point font of some legible type (Times New Roman or Arial are the easiest to read). Make sure to always have a title for your essay, and to always number the pages.

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2011