Sometimes your instructor will give you a paper prompt. Here’s some advice on how to write in response to a prompt. And here are tips for responding to specific terms in prompts such as “analyze,” “compare,” “define.”
When your instructor doesn’t provide a detailed prompt, you will have to come up with a topic on your own. Are some topics better than others, and why? And what kinds of arguments do writers in the humanities make about those topics?
Arguments in the humanities are usually made in order to draw connections, whether these are connections between elements within a text, between texts, or between a text and one or more of its contexts.
- Within a text: how does some textual element (form, character, image, theme) contribute to the meaning of the work as a whole?
- Between texts: the classic format is “compare and contrast” (though you still need to make an argument based one or more elements of your comparison rather than simply identifying similarities and differences), but you might think also about how one text might influence, translate, or adapt another.
- Between a text and context: contexts might include one or more facets of the historical, social, political, economic, or even the biographical. Literary theories and critical methodologies might also provide interpretive contexts for your argument.
In most humanities essays, emphasis is placed on how these connections work, and why they are important for understanding a text. The most interesting questions, in other words, are not ones that can simply be answered “yes” or “no,” or “good” or “bad,” but ones that invite you to analyze how and why. Even when you are asked to evaluate a text as a work of art or an ethical performance, your evaluation must be based upon a considered discussion of the terms of your judgement and how the text you are discussing fulfills or falls short of these expectations.
You’ve probably heard of “writing as a process,” but this phrase can be used to mean different things. The writing process is often imagined as moving only in one direction: you read a text, come up with a thesis statement, gather evidence that proves that thesis, outline your essay, and then write that essay in a fixed five-paragraph structure, consisting of an introduction with a single-sentence thesis statement, three body paragraphs that contains your analysis of evidence you’ve found in your text, and a conclusion that restates your thesis statement.
This is sometimes the way that “writing as a process” is taught in high school. But at the college level, writing is best practiced as a recursive mode of inquiry. The process of writing shapes the way we think about and investigate our objects of study. Ideally, your thesis will deepen and develop over the course of writing a paper, becoming more nuanced as you return to the text again and again to consider additional evidence and further implications of—or perhaps objections to—your argument. Unlike in mathematics or logic, your goal when writing in the humanities is not to “prove” your argument, but to explore or examine an idea.
You might think of an essay in terms of the critical moves of its argument:
- Your essay should advance a single argument, which is also often called a thesis. Your thesis should be focused–if you’re analyzing a novel in a five-page paper, for example, you’ll need to focus on perhaps just a single scene, character, or repeated detail. Your thesis should be supportable—it has to rely on textual evidence rather than your subjective opinion or speculation. And your thesis should not be obvious-—it needs to be an argument about a text that you could imagine an intelligent reader disagreeing with.
- Your thesis is important not only as a statement that appears in your introduction, but also as the main claim that you make over the course of the entire essay. The supporting claims that you make in your body paragraphs may be able to stand on their own, but they should all be in service of the main claim. Hence, your main claim should not be limited to the initial form that it takes as the thesis statement in your introductory paragraph, but rather should evolve over the course of the paper as you establish your supporting claims.
- Then, there are the actions you take to make those supporting claims, which include summary, description, observation, contextualization, analysis, and interpretation. You’ll also want to think about the logic of the organization of these moves: how your sub-claims relate to your main claim. For more on working with textual evidence, see How can I use textual evidence to make an argument?
- To make your argument stronger and more complex, you may want to include counterclaims (claims that someone else might make against your argument), rebuttals (answering the questions raised in those counterclaims), and qualifications (acknowledging the limitations of your argument).
- One of the most challenging and crucial components of an argument is articulating what’s at stake. Sometimes the stakes of an argument are referred to as an answer to the question “so what?” Such significance will provoke your reader to think: “I see why this matters. I never thought of it that way”; or “You make a good, relevant point that enriches my reading of the text”; or even “I’m not entirely convinced, but you made me see this text in a new light.”
The most effective pieces of textual evidence are interpretively rich: they allow you to make compelling, unexpected, and nuanced claims that push your argument in new directions. (For more on using close reading to find those pieces of evidence, see Reading Between the Lines.) Depending on the particular focus of your paper, a good piece of evidence might exhibit some significant formal quality you want to draw attention to (things like alliteration, rhyme schemes, repetition, unexpected syntax, etc.) or reveal the psychology of a character. Avoid quoting textual evidence simply to summarize the plot, showcase general or widely known information about the text, or (of course) just to take up space in your 5-page paper requirement.
Some tips for using textual evidence to support an argument:
- Make sure to foreground your interpretation of the quoted material—sandwiching quotations in your own thought is a great way to do this.
- Quote only those textual details that exemplify the aspect of the text you are discussing.
- If you’re citing a written text, only give the most relevant bits of a quotations, using ellipses to “hide” irrelevant material within or between quoted sentences or lines. (Obviously, take care not to “hide” a part of the text that contradicts the quote you’ve chosen or the interpretation you are making about it!) Ellipses are just one way to handle that problem; click here for more on using quotations with clarity and style.
- It’s worth saying again: avoid using textual evidence to summarize the plot, to demonstrate general or widely known information about the text, or as filler to meet your minimum required word count!