*Please Note: This is an old version of the essay-writing guide and is in much need of revision. Not everything here is 100% accurate, however the principles are sound. Always double-check with your module leader about specifics*
Essay Writing Guide
Dr. Mikel J. Koven
(01905) 85 5297
The Koven Essay Writing Guide
What is an essay? An essay is a written expression of an argument. It is not a movie review or an opinion piece. I have no interest in reading whether you think a movie is good or not, whether a performance was successful or not, or whether, in your opinion, Laura Mulvey needs to get out more. As far as an essay assignment is concerned your opinion does not matter. That being said, your opinion should be amply demonstrated through the construction of your argument – it is unlikely that your views will not be expressed, and that’s a good thing. What gets annoying and unprofessional are comments like ‘in my opinion’, or ‘I think that’. These do not have to be said, and if you are even partially successful at writing your essay, what you think, and what your opinion is, should be obvious.
Linked to this point about movie reviews and opinion pieces, backstage filmmaking stories, biographies and autobiographies, while they do have their uses, are not academic resources. You should not depend on these as a replacement for analytical works on film. Likewise, textbooks, while they may be starting points for your research, should only be used as starting points. You need to go beyond just the introductory materials we, your lecturers, supply you with.
Essay Basics: Allow me to tell you an anecdote about when I was in secondary school. In my first year of secondary school (in Canada, this was Grade 9 and I was 14/15 years old), we had a rather eccentric English teacher. The topic/theme of that year was “The Hero” and we read and discussed in essays the various forms of heroic literature. At the beginning of the year, Mr. Carey threw each of us a copy of a book and in our daily hour of English each week, we had the opportunity to read what Mr. Carey threw at us (literally). When we had finished the book (individually), we had to go up to his desk and he would ask us to go away and write a thematic sentence about the kind of heroism in whatever we had just read; not explicitly about the novel, but a generalised notion of the kind of heroism in the novel. Once done, we would show him that sentence, and if approved, he would then tell us to go away and write a plot sentence, a single sentence which said what the book was about. Again, we would go up to his desk, show him our sentence, and if approved he would once again send us away to write a thesis sentence, a sentence which applied the general thematic issue with the actual plot of the book. Once this had been approved, Mr. Carey would ask us to write three sentences which gave evidence for our proposition – three pieces of evidence that demonstrated what we were asserting. Then we were told, rather unceremoniously, to “go away and write me an essay”. What Mr. Carey had achieved by this process was to give us a sense of structure to our essay writing: those first three sentences he asked us to write, the thematic, the plot and the thesis sentences, were our introductory paragraph – done. Those other three sentences, the evidence that he wanted us to demonstrate, were the first sentences of the following three paragraphs – the evidence of our proposition made in the thesis sentence. All we had to do was fill in the gaps. I still remember this vividly after (eek!) twenty years. Of course, essay writing at university is more complex – but the basics are the same. You need to apply “general statements of knowledge” to the actual film texts you are discussing. That is the process, whether writing a Grade 9 essay on the hero for English class, or a final year dissertation on Kubrick’s technophobia.
The process you go through, at the most basic level, should be the same:
- you need to state the general thematic area you are going to be working in. Most often this takes the form of repeating the essay question as a sentence. Make absolutely sure that you have answered the essay question;
- Then, you summarise the plot of the film you are discussing;
- Then you state your thesis, the proposition you are making. Have a good think about this proposition sentence, as often it is the lynchpin to a successful essay. If you are making a solid proposition, and can remain focused on it, then you stand a better chance of writing a good essay.
An example (not from any specific assignment, this is just off the top of my head): There are a lot of horror movies and urban legends about psychotic killers [generalised statement]. Halloween (Carpenter, 1978) is one such film, which tells the urban legend-like story of a psychotic killer who terrorises a teenage babysitter one Halloween night [plot sentence]. Through a consideration of the narrative structure, the dramatis personae and characterisations, and the use of random, often vicious violence, this paper will explore the similarities between Halloween and urban legends [proposition sentence].
Mr. Carey’s three ‘evidence’ sentences which would start our next three paragraphs required that we, essentially, give appropriate evidence for or against our proposition. It is fine to say that Kubrick’s 2001 demonstrates a fear of technology, but you now need to give evidence from the film itself. You need to find three (a magical and arbitrary number) examples from the film which have evidence for (or against, for that matter) your proposition (this really does warrant repeating!). Each of these bits of evidence needs their own paragraph.
When you are ready to present your next piece of evidence, you are ready for a new paragraph. The basic rule of thumb for these paragraphs is Evidence-Quote-Comment:
- Evidence – this is the sentence which is one of Mr. Carey’s three that we had already done earlier. The evidence we are presenting which hopefully is evidence for or against our proposition.
- Quote – can you back up your evidence with the text? “Quote” here does not mean a direct quote from the movie’s screenplay, unless that is what one is discussing, but an example from the film. This is what we refer to as textual analysis – your use of the film text as evidence in discussing your proposition.
- Comment – you now need to tie the evidence you are presenting together with your textual “quote”. This is where secondary source material comes in, helping you create and bolster your commentary. Make sure that you have explained your evidence as fully as possible before moving on.
Use a basic rule of 1000-word sets: in a 1000-word essay, my expectation is that you will be making one point and offer (approximately and as a ‘rule of thumb’) three pieces of evidence in support of or against that single point. In the arbitrary example above, the three pieces of evidence I am presenting in support of my proposition (that Halloween shares similarities with urban legends) are: similarities in narrative structure, similarities in dramatis personae and characterisation, and similarities in their use of random violence. As essays get longer and more complex, use this basic set-structure to break down your work. For example, if you were to have an assignment which requires a 2000-word essay, have two points and then three (or so) piece of evidence in support/against each point. A 3000-word essay would have three points, etc. When assignments call for say a 2500-word essay, either use that dangling 500-words for more considered introductory and concluding paragraphs, or allow that 500-words to be the word count for the quotes and secondary source materials.
*Please note that these rules are the basic nuts-and-bolts of essay writing, and by now your essay writing skills should be at a sufficient level whereby you should be able to play with these rules to some extent. By following these rules exactly, you should be able to produce a good, basic, solid essay. Really good essays take these rules and develop them further, putting your own style on the writing, but, and this is vitally important, not at the expense of the basics!
Rules to live by
- All essays must be word-processed. Hand written essays are never accepted under any circumstances.
- All essays must use a basic font – Times New Roman, Courier, Arial. Fancy fonts, while you may think look nice, are annoying to mark
- All essays must use a reasonable font size – i.e.12 point. Smaller fonts hurt my eyes, and bigger fonts make it look like you are trying to pad out your essay.
- All essays must be double-spaced. I am aware that this eats up more of your printing credits, however the difference is less than a pint at the Union, and again it makes your essay much easier to read.
Points 1-4 are all about making your essay clear to read. When an essay is difficult to read, when it strains the markers’ concentration or hurts their eyes, your mark suffers – with great sorrow, and gnashing of teeth.
- All essays must be spell-checked, grammar-checked, and proofread. There is absolutely no excuse for typos and the lot. Even dyslexic students need to proofread to ensure that they have used the correct word in their spell checking.
- Never use contractions – like don’t, can’t, shouldn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t. They should be written out fully, as in do not, cannot, should not, would not, could not. Basically think twice before ever using an apostrophe.
- Speaking of apostrophes, make sure you know the rules for apostrophe s (‘s), and how they are distinct from plurals.
- Film titles should either be underlined or italicised; they should not be in inverted commas. Likewise book titles. There are only two times you should use inverted commas (other than quotes, see below): when referring to either a chapter or article title; or when referring to a specific television episode of a larger series (which should be italicised). The first time you make reference to a film in your essay you should include, in parenthesis after the title, the director and year the film was made; i.e. Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960). You only need to do this after the first time you mention a film.
- The only other time to ever use italics is to demonstrate stress. For example, I really hate it when students overuse italics.
- Never take criticism of your work personally. Of course you are going to make mistakes. I make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. The question is what have you learned by making the mistake? Keep perspective about the comments you receive – you are neither as brilliant, nor as thick, as the comments may seem to indicate. Learn from the errors you make.
Quotations are one of the areas which students consistently get incorrect. The following are some carved in stone rules about their use.
When using a single sentence, or phrase or part of a sentence, the quotation should be integrated into the paragraph, and offset by either quotation marks (hence their name) or inverted commas. I.e.
This impact has been so great, in fact, that Mark Winston begins his book, Killer Bees, by referring to the bees as “the pop insect of the twentieth century” (Winston, 3).
(I shall discuss citation of secondary sources below).When quoting a longer passage of more than one sentence, the quote should be offset from the paragraph: that is, it should be separate from the discussion, and double indented – indented on both sides of the paragraph, like this example:
Writing almost ten years after Danielson, Gary Alan Fine notes a similar co-relationship between contemporary legend narratives and their reflection of contemporary anxieties:
Since folklore responds to anxiety, narratives deal with those issues that surround social transformations. Contemporary legends have changed as the social problems (and the perception of these problems) shift (Fine, 319).
It is not surprising then to discover that the fears reflected in the cinematic killer bee legend narratives reflect anxiety in contemporary society.
- Please note that in both these cases, quotes are not put into italics (lord only knows where that habit came from!). Also note that longer quotes do not use quotation marks/inverted commas; just their double indentation is needed to indicate that it is a quotation.
- Citations: note that in the two cases above, I included, in parenthesis, both the author and page number after the quote. This is my preferred form of citation. There are many different ways of making citations. One is not better than any others, although different people will defend their favourites. What is important is that you keep consistent. If you are using this form, you do not need to include footnotes or endnotes for this material. If you are going to be citing more than one source by the same author, include the year after the author’s name, i.e. (Danielson 1979, 219).
- Another thing that students frequently forget is to include page numbers, where their idea or quote came from. Citation without page numbers is completely redundant.
- You are required to cite any idea that is not your own, even if you are not directly quoting, and rephrasing someone else’s idea in your own words.
- Footnotes or endnotes (one or the other, please, not both), if using the above noted citation method, should only be used for further information which does not fit in the main body of your paper.
- When citing a quotation that a secondary source makes, the most proper form to reference this is with a parenthetical comment, like (quoted by…) or (in …). Following those comments should be the standard citation reference as above, for example (quoted in Danielson, 210) or (in Fine, 320). [Please note, that the use of italics I just demonstrated is meant to stress the point, and you should not put these comments in italics in your essays.]
Bibliographies are not just “lists of books”; they are as vital a reference to your essay as the actual essay part is. Just listing author and title is not sufficient – various pieces of information need to be included. The reason for this is that for each reference you make, the possibility needs to remain that the sources can be traced. A poorly done bibliography can be really frustrating, particularly several years down the road. Even if you never want to write on a particular subject again, other people might, and being able to trace what you looked at is of vital importance. Furthermore, even though it may seem like we lecturers know everything, often students come across references or sources that we do not, and if they seem interesting, we would like the opportunity to check them out ourselves. Good bibliographies help us to. [While an undergraduate, I had a really nasty history lecturer who would dock our essays for every single error we made in our bibliography – which meant that even if I had written an essay worth an A, I would get a B- or even a C if there were enough bibliographical errors to bring me that far down.]
There are a variety of different types of sources, and the following models are based on the most frequently used.
Author’s surname, author’s first names. Title of book in italics or underlined. Place of publication: Publisher, year.
Jenkins, Henry. What Made Pistachio Nuts? Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.
Chapters/Articles in books:
Author’s surname, author’s first names. “Article Title” in Editor’s name (ed), Title of book. Place of publication: Publisher, year. Page numbers of entire article/chapter.
Sarris, Andrew. “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962” in Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen (eds), Film Theory and Criticism – Introductory Readings. 3rd Edition. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985. 527-540.
Chapters in books by single authors (use this format when you are only citing a single chapter, and not the entire book):
Author’s surname, author’s first names. “Chapter title” in Title of book. Place of publication: Publisher, year. Page numbers of entire chapter.
Dyer, Richard. “Judy Garland and Gay Men” in Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society. Basingstoke: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1986. 141-194.
Author’s surname, author’s first names. “Article title” Journal title Volume.number (year): page numbers of entire article.
Koven, Mikel J. “Feminist Folkloristics and Women’s Cinema: Towards a Methodology”. Literature/Film Quarterly 27.4 (1999): 293-300.
Author’s surname, author’s first names. “Web page title” Website title (if appropriate). URL – the web address. Date accessed.
Burt, Richard. “Introduction: To e- or not to e-? Disposing of Shakespeare in the Age of Digital Media” http://www-unix.oit.umass.edu/~eng700sh/blackwellintrorevised.htm. 25 May 2001.
If you have a particular resource that does not fit into any of these models, you can do one of two things: 1) consult a reference book, like those listed below, particularly the MLA Handbook; or 2) ask your instructor.
 Note pluralization.
 Note to include the edition, but not to put it in italics.