Writing the English Essay
Understanding the English Essay
- Understanding The English Essay
- Developing a Topic and Thesis for an English Essay
- Drafting the English Essay
- Using Secondary Sources in an English Essay
- Glossary of Common Formal Elements of Literature
- Documenting Sources in MLA Style (Modern Languages Association)
- What is an English Essay?
- The Formal Elements of Literary Works
- Considering Theme
- Considering the Formal Elements and Theme
An English essay is an organized and analytical discussion and interpretation of a work or works of literature in English. There are many approaches to writing the English essay, but most start with you closely and actively reading, responding to and thinking about the text(s) being written about. 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. 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.
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.
When we write an English essay, we, can approach the work or works 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).
Many English essays analyze how the formal elements of a literary text work together to create meaning or affect the reader. The term formal element is used here to refer to the different techniques and tools writers have at their disposal. Essay writers must pay attention to the ways authors can arrange and pattern words, their medium, to create effect.
Often the essay topics assigned by professors focus on these formal elements; for example
- “What is the relationship between setting and character in 'The Painted Door'?"
- “How does the imagery of 'The Waste Land' contribute to our understanding of its themes?”
For a helpful explanation of the most common formal elements you will encounter in a literature course, see the Glossary of Formal Elements.
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.
English essays often seek to uncover and clarify what the major themes in a text are and what the writer seems to be saying about them. 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 their 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 or the political, historical, or social context of the work(s).
It is important 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.