In a typical English course, my grade is made up of two papers, a test and class participation. The two papers come at midterms and finals, and they can range from five to 15 pages. Here’s the gist of a regular prompt in the English department— “Choose a passage from one of the books we’ve read and use it to create an argument.” Depending on your comfort level, this prompt can be either awesome or terrifying. I’ve found that it’s usually awesome, albeit rather stressful. So here’s the process I use to write one of these free-wielding papers. Hope it’s helpful.
1) Choosing a topic
This first step necessitates the actual first step—reading the book. While reading, I always have a pen in hand. Mostly, I underline sentences I find odd. Weirdness is a great measure for a good paper topic—tonal shifts, alien metaphors, words that don’t seem to fit etc. After reading, I go back and find a passage that I didn’t understand. I read that passage over and over and over again. Next, I see if I can get anywhere with it. Usually the answer is no, sometimes it’s yes.
2) Coming up with an argument
My best (and perhaps only) piece of real advice is that you should check out the Oxford English Dictionary (oed.com.) It’s beautiful. It’s so much better than any other dictionary, like MLB to your little league team. If I’m writing about a poem, I’ll look up nearly every word in the OED. This is an awesome way to detect possible puns, which facilitates detecting possible interpretations. What is the word doing, what weight is it carrying, what is it referring to, is it sarcastic or sincere… become obsessed with the language the author is using. English arguments need to come from the language of the piece, not from your intuition or past experience.
My mind is a total mess, so developing prose that makes any sense whatsoever is a challenge. I start by typing up anything interesting in a word document: words that mean two things, interesting punctuation, symbols, allusions to other pieces of work. I then try to create some sort of order by dragging and dropping my paragraphs into another word document. The second word doc is organized by various themes. I drag and drop again—the third word doc is organized in some sort of argumentative order. This theme kinda proves this point that kinda proves this etc. Then I drag and drop again—the fourth word doc is hopefully my outline.
I write anywhere from three to five drafts before the final. I write pretty quickly. When I can’t think of how to phrase something well, I phrase it poorly and move on. Computers are great, because words can be deleted. Don’t worry about sounding like an idiot. If I want to write five good pages, I try to write 10 okay pages, and then I delete the worst half and keep the better half. My “editing” process is pretty much a glorified “deleting” process.
I know it’s not much—but after 2 1/2 years at Princeton, this is the best I could come up with. I’ll let you know when I get better, and maybe I can revise this post.