It’s a surprisingly little-known fact that professors and TAs like, even love, to give good grades. Think about it: who but a sadist would enjoy giving bad ones? I’m not saying that there aren’t some profs who are, but most aren’t. I’ll tell you now that I really like giving As. I really do. Reading a solid essay, in which the writer was at least somewhat interested, is satisfying, and much more pleasant, than reading one that has been whipped off in a few hours. I like giving As, but the students have to help me out with that: I can only give them if they’re deserved. I definitely think being interested in your topic, rather than simply trying to say what you’ve learned in class or what you think I might want to read, is a good start. If you’re not interested, you should write as if you were. But here are a few little things that can also help, though some are more major than others:
1. Read what the syllabus and the essay-topic handout say about what I expect, formatting, etc.
2. Make sure you clearly understand the topic. Also note that the topic is written in a purposefully general way, so make sure you take that topic and narrow it down. This seems self-evident, but in practice many unsuccessful essays are unsuccessful because this was not taken seriously.
3. If you find yourself mostly covering material and interpretations which I covered in lecture, you’re probably on the wrong track. You don’t have to use my lectures or my focus on narratology at all, and if you do, make sure you’re coming at the topic from a different angle. For example, if you’re writing on A Clockwork Orange and how it uses meta-filmic devices to achieve the defamiliarization that Anthony Burgess achieves through Nadsat, then you’re simply making the same argument I made in lecture–and that’s not going to pay off in terms of grades. This essay is supposed to be your own interpretation of a question, and if it’s a question that we’ve discussed, then you have to approach it differently.
4. You do NOT have to focus on narration, narratology, focalization or any of those aspects. If you want to, make sure you know what these terms mean specifically.
5. If you find yourself using the words “tone,” “mood,” “theme,” “discourse,” “focalize,” “narrative” and the like, stop and ask yourself if there isn’t a more straightforward way to say what you mean. These are among the most misused terms in this class, so if you’re going to use them, look them up in a glossary of literary terms.
6. This is a bit less easy to implement, but perhaps it’s really the general idea that counts: ideally, you should be able to explain precisely what every statement in your essay means. There is a tendency in English essays towards vague or profound-sounding statements, but literary criticism, like scientific, historical, political etc writing strives on precision and accuracy. This is why I prefer essays to be written in plain-speech style than in a style that seems “academic.” I’m not saying you shouldn’t use fancy words–only that you should use them when they are the exact word you need to make your precise statement. If I had to generalize, I’d say that verbs are the mostly likely kind of word to be used loosely.
7. When quoting from the fictions or the films, make sure to cite your sources–this sounds super basic, but not everyone has been doing it in their entries. Also, make sure that your quotations are serving your argument, not merely repeating it. Think of quotations as evidence to support a claim, or as raw material in which digging around produces something hidden. Avoid long quotations unless the entire passage you’re quoting is relevant.
8. Generally, when writing about “textual” events (things that happen in stories, novels, films, plays, poems, criticism), you should use the present tense. Norman Bates spies on Marion before killing her (not spied), and Hitchcock uses music in complex ways (not used). However, if you were talking about a historical event, you’d probably use the past tense, say: Hitchcock and Bernard Hermann had many disagreements about how to use music in the film. Similarly, Laura Mulvey argues that cinematic language is largely put in the service of male fantasies; when she published her seminal essay on the male gaze, she kick-started the field of feminist film theory. There are exceptions to this practice, but the general rule is to use present for textual events, past for historical ones.
9. Many students use phrasing involving expressions like “is seen to”–for example, “In Away from Her, Grant is seen to drive to Meadowlake several times.” Now, I guess this is accurate in some ways, but it is ultimately distracting and unnecessary. Avoid “is seen to” unless that fact is actually relevant. Otherwise, “In Away from Her, Grant drives to Meadowlake several times” is preferable: it’s more concise, it’s more active/energetic, it keeps the focus on what happens in the film (rather than on the viewing of the film) and it sounds better.
10. Some of my critical pet peeves: (1) when a film or novel is said to fail because the characters don’t develop or change. This is a convention learned from reading reviews, and I suppose it’s useful for certain purposes. But character development is not universally necessary or even desirable: for example, character development is antithetical to satire and many other kinds of comedy (though it is necessary in romcoms). Imagine Arrested Development (good name for this discussion, actually) with character development: impossible, and certainly not funny. A good amount of humour in that show derives from the fact that though Michael, Gob, George Michael and Lucille try to change in every episode, they never succeed. In other words, though character development can be important, it is not always good. I’d say that lack of character development in Jindabyne would be a problem (if it were lacking), whereas its absence in “So Much Water So Close to Home” is part of the point. (2) When some aspect of a novel or film is said to be important because it “moves the plot forward.” This is in many ways a truism. Witness this: “The character of Marian in Away from Her is crucial because she helps propel the plot forward.” Well, yes. But that’s not an argument. It’s like saying fuel is important to a car because it helps propel the vehicle forward. (3) When a theme is said to affect the story of a novel or film. Themes don’t do anything in a plot; they are abstractions that we, the audience, recognize in or infer from films and novels. In effect, if it’s doing something, it’s something other than a theme.
11. Some of my grammatical and formatting pet peeves. You know some of these already: for example, the fact that I expect you to know the formatting conventions for the titles of novels, films, and short stories. A few others: the incorrect use of whom. If you don’t know for sure how to use this word, don’t use it (actually, that’s a good rule for any word)–I don’t mind when who is used where whom would be correct, but I do mind when whom is used where who would be correct. In short, whom is NOT just a fancy word for who. Other bugbears: the perennial confusion of its / it’s (as well as the use of non-existent variants like its’) and who’s / whose; the omission of necessary apostrophes (for example, “In Alfred Hitchcocks film…”); the tendency to use unusual or “technical” terms as if they were synonyms for more common, perfectly good words (e.g., “focalization” instead of “focus”; “domineer” instead of “dominate”; “utilize” instead of “use”); the incorrect use of semi-colons (again, if you don’t know the rules, don’t use ’em, or if you want to use them, go to HyperGrammar and learn the rules); and the epidemic use of sentence fragments; the use of hyphens (-) instead of dashes (–) (in brief, hyphens are used to connect two words into a compound word, like “reverse-shot”; dashes are used to bracket off an aside from the main part of a sentence, like “Anthony Burgess–who wrote several novels other than A Clockwork Orange–was also an accomplished musical composer”).
More to come…