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Writing Center

A Brief Guide to Writing
the English Paper
The Challenges of Writing About English
Writing begins with the act of reading. While this statement is true for most college papers, strong English papers tend to be the product of highly attentive reading (and rereading). When your instructors ask you to do a “close reading,” they are asking you to read not only for content, but also for structures and patterns. When you perform a close

reading, then, you observe how form and content interact.
In some cases, form reinforces content: for example, in John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14, where the speaker invites God’s
“force” “to break, blow, burn and make [him] new.” Here, the stressed monosyllables of the verbs “break,” “blow” and “burn” evoke aurally the force that the speaker invites from God. In other cases, form raises questions about content: for example, a repeated denial of guilt will likely raise questions about the speaker’s professed innocence.

When you close read, take an inductive approach. Start by
observing particular details in the text, such as a repeated image or word, an unexpected development, or even a contradiction. Often, a detail–such as a repeated image–can help you to identify a question about the text that warrants further examination. So annotate details that strike you as you

read. Some of those details will eventually help you to work towards a thesis. And don’t worry if a detail seems trivial. If you can make a case about how an apparently trivial detail
reveals something significant about the text, then your paper will have a thought-provoking thesis to argue.

Harvard College
Writing Program
Faculty of Arts and Sciences
Harvard University

Common Types of English Papers
Many assignments will ask you to analyze a single text.
Others, however, will ask you to read two or more texts in
relation to each other, or to consider a text in light of claims made by other scholars and critics. For most assignments,
close reading will be central to your paper.
While some assignment guidelines will suggest topics and
spell out expectations in detail, others will offer little more than a page limit. Approaching the writing process in the
absence of assigned topics can be daunting, but remember
that you have resources: in section, you will probably have
encountered some examples of close reading; in lecture, you
will have encountered some of the course’s central questions and claims. The paper is a chance for you to extend a claim
offered in lecture, or to analyze a passage neglected in lecture. In either case, your analysis should do more than recapitulate claims aired in lecture and section.
Because different instructors have different goals for an assignment, you should always ask your professor or TF if you have questions. These general guidelines should apply in most cases:
• A close reading of a single text: Depending on the
length of the text, you will need to be more or less selective about what you choose to consider. In the case of a sonnet, you will probably have enough room to analyze
the text more thoroughly than you would in the case of a
novel, for example, though even here you will probably
not analyze every single detail. By contrast, in the case
of a novel, you might analyze a repeated scene, image, or
object (for example, scenes of train travel, images of decay, or objects such as or typewriters). Alternately, you might


analyze a perplexing scene (such as a novel’s ending, albeit probably in relation to an earlier moment in the novel).
But even when analyzing shorter works, you will need
to be selective. Although you might notice numerous
interesting details as you read, not all of those details will help you to organize a focused argument about the text.
For example, if you are focusing on depictions of sensory
experience in Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” you probably do not need to analyze the image of a homeless Ruth in stanza 7, unless this image helps you to develop your
case about sensory experience in the poem.
• A theoretically-informed close reading. In some
courses, you will be asked to analyze a poem, a play, or a
novel by using a critical theory (psychoanalytic, postcolonial, gender, etc). For example, you might use Kristeva’s theory of abjection to analyze mother-daughter relations
in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. Critical theories provide focus for your analysis; if “abjection” is the guiding concept for your paper, you should focus on the scenes in
the novel that are most relevant to the concept.
• A historically-informed close reading. In courses
with a historicist orientation, you might use less self-consciously literary documents, such as newspapers or devotional manuals, to develop your analysis of a literary work. For example, to analyze how Robinson Crusoe makes

sense of his island experiences, you might use Puritan
tracts that narrate events in terms of how God organizes
them. The tracts could help you to show not only how
Robinson Crusoe draws on Puritan narrative conventions,
but also—more significantly—how the novel revises those
• A comparison of two texts When analyzing two
texts, you might look for unexpected contrasts between
apparently similar texts, or unexpected similarities between apparently dissimilar texts, or for how one text revises or
transforms the other. Keep in mind that not all o...

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