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Writing the English Essay: Substance and Style


Table of Contents:

I. The English Essay


II. Steps in Writing an English Essay

III. Using Secondary Sources

IV. Documentation


What is an English Essay?

An English essay is an essay whose subject is a work or works of literature in English. There are many approaches to the formal study

and analysis of literary texts that can be used in writing about them,

but most English essays start with the essay writer closely and actively reading, responding to and thinking about the text(s) being written about.

The English essay grows out of this enounter  between you and the  text(s), and is dependent as much or more on this encountert than it is on research. You, the reader and essay writer, must ask and try to answer questions about what the work means, how it makes meaning, and how the author’s choices affect meaning etc. An English essay is built around what the essay writer thinks about the text(s), and the most important evidence and support in the essay will come from the texts themselves.

Many English essays, then, are not research essays and require no use of secondary sources. This is the challenge of writing an English essay and also the reward (aside from the “A” and “brilliant job” comment from the professor). There is satisfaction in discovering new layers of meaning, in uncovering and expressing to others how a work is constructed and how its elements make and affect meaning, and in realizing the complexity and richness of the great works of literature.

There is also great satisfaction in discovering meaning for yourself and expressing what you have found in your own way. That is why some professors ask you not to use secondary sources in your essay or do not require them: to help you develop the skills of critically reading a text, discovering and uncovering how it works and describing what you have found out about it in your essay.

The English Essay as Research Essay

There is certainly a place for research and the use of secondary sources

iin an English essay. Information on

  • word meanings

  • literary allusions

  • cultural, political, religious and historical background

  • authors’ biographies

  • literary critics’ interpretations

can all be helpful in relating a literary work to broader contexts, in explaining who mythical characters are, in understanding the influence and effect of a work on readers and other writers, and so on.

As soon as you use your first secondary source, you are venturing into research. Research esays are based on information and opinion that you find and read; however, this information and opinion  need to be synthesized and assimilated by you, so you can express, in turn, what you know and think about the subject.

Therefore, a research essay is never just a cut and paste job nor a collection of quotation, summary, and paraphrase put together around a topic. Your job is to take what you have read and use it as evidence to support your own conclusions (that are based on what you have learned from your reading, responding and thinking). You must organize and present your evidence in as informative and persuasive a way possible.

So how can you ensure that your thinking remains in control throughout the researching (when necessary) and writing of your English essay? Keep reading - and remember that writing an English essay offers you the opportunity to think through and express in writing something interesting and important about a text or texts.

Writing an English essay gives you the opportunity to take up the intellectual challenges posed by literature. Writing is a learning opportunity; as you read and think, you write down your thoughts, and as you do this, you discover more and more, and you also discover how what you find out can be expressed more clearly. Trying to write down clearly what you think helps refine what you think and pushes it further along. Writing is not just reporting your thoughts and ideas; writing helps you think better and discover new ideas.

More than any other kind of essay you may write, the English essay is a place where what you think is of paramount importance. If you find yourself relying on secondary sources for most of the content of your paper, you have missed the most important steps: reading, thinking and answering the questions, "What do I think about the topic at hand?" None of this is easy, but doing it makes your mind grow and stretch, and all the skills that are so important for success in today's world get a thorough workout, becoming stronger and more under your control.


The next section will look at ways to ensure that your thinking remains in control throughout the researching (when necessary) and writing of your English essay.

What Do We Do in an English Essay?

First let's backtrack a bit and ask ourselves, what do we do when we read and study literature in a university English course? We read the assigned words first to understand on a literal level w hat is happening and what is being described. But we also do that when we read the latest bestseller on the beach in the summer. When we decide to "study" English literature, other considerations come into play.

There are many approaches to the study of literature. We can

  • consider the work in relation to its background or in relation to its author, or its original readers or viewers
  • think about and reflect on the themes in the work
  • consider how the work is constructed and how it creates the effects it does
  • read from a particular theoretical perspective
  • examine the work in terms of its genre.

In your lectures and seminars, or when reading articles about literary works, start to notice what approaches are used.

When we sit down to write an English essay, we, in turn, can approach the work or works we are considering in different ways. We might:

  • consider what the work means

  • consider why the author made a particular choice

  • consider what the central theme(s) of the work are

  • analyze how parts of the work relate to the theme or themes

  • consider the"craft" of the author (the author's use of language).

The Formal Elements of Literary Works

Many English essays analyze how the formal elements of a literary text work together to create meaning or affect the reader. Literature makes meaning and expresses meaning through words - on a page, spoken aloud, or dramatized. Therefore, a principal task of students of literature can be to examine, analyze and comment on how the words make meaning and enable us to interpret them and discern in them the themes that we do.

So we must pay attention to the ways writers can arrange and pattern words, their medium, to create effect. The term formal elements is used here to refer to the different techniques and tools writers have at their disposal.

Often the essay topics that are given to you by your professors focus on these formal elements, for example, essay topics like, “What is the relationship between setting and character in 'The Painted Door'?" or “How does the imagery of 'The Waste Land' contribute to our understanding of its themes?”

The following is a partial list, in alphabetical order of the formal elements of literary works that are often the focus of literary study and essays:

Allusion - a reference, often indirect, inside a work to something outside it, such as a person, place, event, or other work. A writer making an allusion often assumes that the reader knows something about the external referent and will understand how mentioning it adds to the meaning of the work.

Characterization - how the characters of the work are presented to the reader or viewer, their actions, their personalities, their thoughts and motivations. A good plot springs from the characters and should help reveal character and show character development.


Connotation and Denotation - Both deal with word meaning.

      Denotation: the explicit meaning or dictionary definition of a word.

      Connotation: the implications, feelings and cultural associations a

                           word has collected through its use over time, for

                           example, the association of red roses with romantic

                           love. some words have more conntations than others,

                           for example, the word "home" has more than the word

                          "house", or the word "heart" than lungs or appendix.


Diction - the words and grammatical constructions a writer selects and which may reveal, among other things, the nationality and level of education of the writer or of the literary character given those words by the writer. A writer's diction will affect the "tone" of the text and its meaning, as the writer will make choices alert to denotation and



Genre - comes from the French and means "type" or "kind". Literature is divided up into genres or types, which share conventions or similar features. The major literary genres are drama, poetry, and fiction, which can be further categorized further by type. For example, fiction  can be categorized by length: novels, novellas, short stories, and by content: the realistic novel, romance novel, fantasy novel, mystery novel and so on.


Imagery - descriptive language that evokes all the senses and calls to the reader's or viewer's mind sights, sounds, smells, tastes and other physical sensations. Imagery in literature helps the reader or viewer to become more involved in the work by providing concreteness to the setting and characters and helping in the creation of meaning.

The word "imagery" is also used for other kinds of figurative language, such as metalphor and simile. Figurative language says something in terms of something else:

   Metaphor - compares something to something else without using "like"

                      or "as" or other comparative terms. For example:


         "There she weaves by night and day

           a magic web with colours gay."

                                                              (from "The Lady of Shalott" by

                                                                Alfred, Lord Tennyson)

                       The cloth the lay is weaving is compared to a web.


    Simile - shows similarites between things that are different, using

                words like "like" or "as". For example:

           "My love is like a red, red rose

                 That's newly sprung in June:

            My love is like the melody

                 That's sweetly played in tune."

                                                                    (from "A Red, Red Rose" by

                                                                      Robert Burns)

                 What we know about a red rose and a melody helps us to

                 understand what the beloved is like.

Irony - plays with the differnces between appearances and reality, or between meaning and the words used to convery that meaning. An example of verbal irony would be "Nice hair" to comment on a bad haircut. Dramatic irony occurs when a character says or does something without the knowledge that the other characters and/or

the readers/viewers have.

Plot  - what happens, the chronology of events. If someone asks you what a novel or a movie is about, you probably reply with a summary of the plot, or the series of actions that make up the story.

Point of View - the perspective from which a story is told. Whose voice is narrating events and how much that narrator knows have great bearing on the impact of a work. The two most common narrative view points are first person, in which the narrator uses "I" and is usually part of the story, and third person, in which the story is told by a narrator who is not part of the story, does not use "I" (usually), and often knows a great deal if not everything about the characters and plot, that is, is an ""omniscient narrator".

Rhyme - a sound device in which identical or very similar sounds are repeated, often at the ends of lines in poems or songs:

               "And fare thee weel, my only love,

                   And fare thee weel a while!

               And I will come again, my love,

                   Thou' it were then thousand mile."

                                                                        (from "A Red, Red Rose" by

                                                                          Robert Burns)

Rhythm - in poetry, the stresses that come at regular intervals to create effect. Poetry is built on a rhythmic pattern, called metre, which also contributes to effect and meaning. A metrical pattern is made up of a sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables.

Setting - where and when the plot occurs, the environment in which the characters are described as living. This environment includes the natural environment, the material environment, and the social environment.

Structure  - structure is anything made with a clear organizational pattern. Every literary work has structure of some sort; somtimes the structure is new and original; often, it follows a known, set format, for example, that of a sonnet or a haiku.

Symbolism - A symbol is a thing that represent another thing which is usually larger and more abstrect. For example, the maple leaf is a symbol of Canada. In literature, words, characters, setting, events and situations can all be symbolic.


Keep your eyes and ears open in your English lectures and seminars, and you will realize how often these terms are discussed or applied to the works you are studying.

Of course, not every essay considers all of these formal elements. Often an essay writer will consider one or some of these elements in relation a work's theme(s).

Considering Theme

When an essay focuses on a literary work’s theme or themes, it is focusing on the major or central ideas that the work seems to be considering or expressing. The assumption is that a work of literature is about ideas and preoccupations of the “real world,” and through its story, plot, characterization and formal elements, it not only entertains but is saying something meaningful and important about central preoccupations all people share: Love, Duty, Right, Wrong, Justice, Friendship, Death, God etc. Literary works may also be thematically concerned with political, social, religious and psychological concerns of the work's particular place and time.


Considering the Formal Elements and Theme

A literary work will have many themes, and English essays often seek to uncover and clarify what are the major thematic preoccupations of a work and what the writer seems to be saying about them. But consider this. Not just literary works have themes. Paintings, films, television shows, dance, and opera all have themes. So when we study and write about a literary work, we may study it for theme, but  we must also look at how a work's themes are being expressed and conveyed with the tools, the formal elements, unique to literature and the particular literary genre or form.

Remember, writers love words and what they can do with them. In a literary work, the words have been chosen and arranged to make meaning, create effect, and to make you feel, think, and interpret. The best English essays never forget that the plot, characters, setting etc do not really exist but have been created by the writer using words arranged in certain ways and using all the tools at his or her disposal (the formal elements) to create effect and express meaning (themes).


Other English essays have an even broader focus than the formal elements of a particular work in relation to its theme or themes. They may focus on the relationship among works by an author, or the relationships between the author’s life and work, the political, historical, or social context of the work(s), and so on.

The point is to be aware of what you are doing or what your assigned topic is asking you to do. If your topic’s focus is on the formal elements of a work or its theme(s), your primary, perhaps only, source will be the work; for essays with a broader focus, secondary sources may be necessary.

                                           Next: Steps in Writing an English Essay