Advice for writing literary theory essays

Borrowed and adapted from the University of Leeds Study Skills site.

Writing effective introductions and conclusions

A good essay presents the reader with a logical, clear and detailed argument. The main strands and structure of this argument should be established clearly in the introduction. The conclusion of an essay should then bring these strands together, and reiterate the most important parts in order to convince the reader of the main argument. This does not mean the argument should come to a simplistic solution-type conclusion, but rather that whatever has been explored, once the evidence has been weighed/the text analysed/the situation assessed, should be clearly stated so that the reader of the essay has a clear understanding of the subject. This means that introductions and conclusions need to be clearly written: they are probably the sections of the essay which will need the most tweaking and re-drafting in the re-writing process.

A good introduction should:

  • indicate that you understand your question and how you are interpreting it
  • establish what you will be arguing and how
  • begin to define the key terms of the essay
  • locate your argument in a critical debate/historical context– in concrete terms, among the sources you cite.

Consider the examples below. In bold I have indicated what the writer is doing to introduce their argument.

Note: all examples are taken from published work. You are not expected to produce work of such a high standard but you can learn from the good scholarly practices they demonstrate.

(introducing the main topic for discussion)

The French blackmailer-libellistes operating out of London between 1758 and 1792 were involved in one of the most shadowy and, in the eyes of the Bourbon government, most criminal and dangerous, aspects of a vast and influential international clandestine publishing industry.[i] Their publications were among the most scandalous political texts of the eighteenth century.[ii](locating argument within a critical debate) In recent years, such works have attracted considerable attention from historians, many of whom stress the central role of scurrilous pamphlets in undermining the monarchy and covering leading political figures in contempt, above all Louis XV and Louis XVI’s queen, Marie-Antoinette.[iii] It has even been suggested that such pamphlets had a greater role in revolutionary causation than leading enlightenment thinkers such as Montesquieu, whose writings empowered opposition under the monarchy, or Rousseau, who so inspired egalitarian Jacobin politicians such as Robespierre and the militant, artisanal san culottes. (indicating implications of critical debate) Thus scandalous pamphleteering has been heavily implicated in the origins of the French revolution of 1789.

(direct statement indicating the writer’s argument, methodology, whilst noting its originality – and so its place within critical debate) Nevertheless, this monograph offers the first collective study of the libellistes, their works, and their significance.[iv] In the process, it radically revises existing perceptions of the role of gutter pamphlets, pamphleteers, ‘political pornography’, and clandestine pamphleteering under the late ancien régime (ie. prerevolutionary period).[v] It contends that the social origins, career paths, and motives of the libellistes have been misunderstood; their political role and influence misread; the nature of their pamphlets misconstrued; and their wider political significance largely overlooked. To appreciate the libellistes‘ significance, however, it is first necessary to consider how ancien régime French politics functioned and the current state of historical thinking about scandalous pamphleteering and the origins of the French revolution. This is the main purpose of this introductory chapter.

[i] On French clandestine publishing, see Robert Darnton’s Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (London: Harper Collins, 1996) and The Corpus of Clandestine Literature in France 1769-1789 (New York: Norton 1995); Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, Grub Street Abroad: Aspects of the French Cosmopolitan Press from the Age of Louis XIV to the Enlightenment (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992). See also Raymond Birn, Pierre Rousseau et les philosophes de Bouillon, SVEC 29 (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1964); J.-P. Belin, Le Commerce des livres prohibés à Paris de 1750-1789 (New York: B. Franklin, 1967 [original edition Paris: 1913]).

[ii] These texts are discussed in chapters five and six below.

[iii] This literature is discussed later in this introduction.

[iv] For previous treatments see Peter Wagner, Eros Revived: Erotica of the Enlightenment in England and America (London: Paladin, 1988), pp. 91-100; Henri d’Almeras, Marie-Antoinette et les pamphlets royalistes et révolutionnaires (Paris: Librarie mondiale, 1907);Hector Fleischmann, Les Pamphlets libertins contre Marie-Antoinette (Paris, 1908; republished Geneva: Slatkine reprints, 1976), pp. 102-29; 186-204, and Marie-Antoinette libertine (Paris: Bibliothèque des curieux, 1908), pp. 33-78; Paul Agnani, ‘Libelles et diplomatie à la fin du dix-huitième siècle d’après la Correspondance Politique, Angleterre conservée aux Archives du Ministère des Affaires étrangères, 1771-1783′ (unpublished Mémoire de Maîtrise: University of Besançon, 2004).

[v] The term ‘political pornography’ is problematic. While other scholars use it frequently, Darnton appears careful to avoid the term, and with justification. Although this book uses the term, it does so sparingly, since most prerevolutionary works by the London libellistes are not pornographic in the accepted sense: see below, chapter six.

Simon Burrows, Blackmail, Scandal, and Revolution: London’s French Libellistes, 1758-1792 (Manchester: MUP, 2006). (My additions in bold).

A good conclusion should:

  • sum up the main strands of your argument
  • refer back to the main points of the essay question and be consistent with your introduction
  • clearly establish a point, or position (which could be quite complex), reiterating the evidence which justifies this position.

If possible, a good conclusion should hint at possible wider implications/debates beyond the remit of the essay – i.e. establish wider relevance.

a. summing up main strands of the argument and clearly establishing a complex position

These, then, are some of the ways in which the notion of an unconscious has come to have an impact on literary theory, philosophy, anthropology, and linguistics. At least, these are some of the ways that psychoanalysis has chosen to use such disciplines as a way of describing what is by definition indescribable: the unknowable part of the psyche and its activities which the term “unconscious” stands in for. We have noted that, because the unconscious is an abstraction, an invisible “place” in the mind, or an unseeable system of energy flowing beyond consciousness, it is then condemned to being represented concretely through analogies and extended metaphors.(b. hinting at wider implications/debates of main points made in essay) But perhaps the converse is also true. Perhaps the unconscious is the way in which we imagine the unknowable and its hidden workings. Is it possible, then, that the “unconscious” is the twentieth century version of the mythologies humankind always generates to explain the inexplicable, to chart the “unknown terrain” which ultimately remains mysterious in (and to) the psyche? It may be that when we discuss or describe the unconscious, we are revealing more about the human will to explore and explain precisely that which is unknowable and inexplicable than we are about any system or topography of the mind. (c. referring back to the main points made in the introduction and looking at them in a renewed way)To return to the idea which opened this essay, any discussion of the unknowable must perforce be born of the known, and therefore be nothing more than speculation. And yet, it may be that the way we speculate about the unknown will tell us in itself about the structures and patterns of the psyche, about its limitations and prejudices.

Françoise Meltzer, ‘Unconscious’ in Lentricchia, Frank and McLaughlin, Thomas (eds.), Critical Terms for Literary Study (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1990), p. 162. (my additions in bold)

Building up your argument paragraph by paragraph

In your essay you need to build up your argument step by step, using each paragraph to build on the points from the last one. Paragraphs are basically the building blocks of an essay and the more you concentrate on making each one present a coherent point in a clear structured way whilst linking to the last one, the better your essay will be.

Each paragraph within an essay should have a single main theme, point or argument. Begin a new paragraph every time you introduce a new theme, point or argument. Closely linked sub-themes, points and arguments may also be included within the same paragraph. When you look at a paragraph, you should be able to sum it up in a single short statement.

Each paragraph should contain

  • the ‘topic sentence’ – the main theme, point or argument should be stated in the first sentence. This sentence announces the topic but it should also make a transition from the previous paragraph.
  • supporting material – which could involve: providing a brief history of the topic specified in the topic sentence; developing the argument of the topic statement, stating the reasoning behind the argument of the topic sentence; introducing examples to support and/or challenge the argument of the topic sentence (which could take the form of facts, statistics, quotations, brief anecdotes, etc.); evalusate this evidence: compare or contrast sources; analyse causes and reasons; examination od effects and consequences; discuss issues raised; etc; discuss one or more of the topic sentence’s key terms. Explain any unclear terms.
  • concluding sentences – any conclusions should be drawn at the very end of the paragraph. Your concluding sentence should ideally link back to the topic sentence, and possibly to the following paragraph. You may often find that there is no need to provide a concluding sentence.

Length of paragraphs

Be careful that your paragraphs are not too long or too short. A single sentence is not a paragraph: the argument in the topic sentence will need to be developed and supported with evidence. Conversely, if you bundle a lot of material into a single paragraph it gives the impression you do not have control over your subject. If a paragraph appears to be too long, look to see if there is more than one major theme, point or argument in it. If there is, separate them into two or more paragraphs.

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