The , available in every library, is the best source for the history of individual words in the language. It arranges definitions chronologically and provides many examples from literary and common language, so you can use it to determine exactly what meanings the word had during the era in which your author was writing. Even schools of criticism that question the advisability of trying to ascertain "authorial intention" concede that a precise grasp of the author's diction is essential to understanding literary works.
For instance, labeling an essay "Politics of Expansion in the Western Hemisphere" has a different effect from labeling an essay, "Nazi Politics in America." The author of the first title wants to put a positive spin on the subject-matter, but the second author wants to put the subject-matter in a negative historical context.
Some student writers prefer the inductive form for the element of suspense it injects into essays, but I suspect that few teachers appreciate that approach. If you arrange your argument deductively, you make it much easier for your reader to determine how well you are making your point. You also give the impression that you know what you are talking about from the start.
SHAPE YOUR ARGUMENT. Decide now what rhetorical strategy you will use in the arrangement of your essay. Will it be deductive, that is, begin with a general statement of your point, then proceed to illustrate it with specific examples arranged around sub-points? Or will it be inductive, arguing through specific examples that "build" to a concluding statement?
This is not to say, however, that you shouldn't use the word "I." Not every professor would agree with me, but I think you should use it. Why pretend to be objective? Since your argument depends in every way on your selections-of a topic, of examples, of interpretive strategies-it has to reflect you, and it should be written in a voice that is recognizably yours. If you are making a statement that refers to your own experience, your own feeling, your own judgement, it only makes sense to attribute it to yourself. Remember, however, that (unless you are writing a particularly subjective kind of reader-response criticism) you are not the topic of the paper, even if you are its "subject": the poem, play, story, or novel is the object you have in view, and your essay should focus attention on the text, rather than on itself. And even if you can't be objective as you write about a text, you can and should be logical. Try, therefore, not to fall back on using "I" as an excuse for faulty reasoning: rather than using disclaimers such as "I'm not really sure, but I get the feeling that Fitzgerald is trying to say something about the American Dream. work on figuring out x; what you do think about the topic and presenting appropriate evidence to support your idea.
The advantage of the descriptive essay is that it gives you an entry into the workings of the text you are studying. The conventions and anti-conventions you describe are not difficult to uncover and are relatively easy to defend or "prove": there they are, in black and white, between the covers of the book. As you understand their workings in one text, you come to understand the genre more clearly. The disadvantage of writing a descriptive essay is that it can be tricky to develop your topic into an argument or thesis, an answer to the question, "'so what?" When you are accounting for the obvious, as many critics so fruitfully do, some creative thinking is necessary for placing your observations in an interesting, provocative context.
This kind of essay asks about a literary text, "Is it any good?" It's a question that has no trouble addressing the "so what?" of criticismif the poem, play or novel is "good," it's worth reading; if it's "bad," it's a waste of time, right? What keeps evaluative criticism alive, of course, is that no two readers' standards are ever exactly the same.
Depending on how long the essay is to be, you may have to select a particular feature of the text to describe. Say you are writing about the formal features of . You might want to describe the way Mark Twain uses dialect to characterize the people in the novel. Or you might be interested in describing the effect that Huck's narration has on the perspective of the story. Or you might look at the placement of the chapter breaks and their impact on the novel's pace. Or you might want to examine the effect of Twain's juxtaposing scenes of humor with scenes of pathos. These are only a few of the possible topics you might develop for a descriptive critical essay on this novel-pursuing any one of them will bring you closer to an understanding of how works and, by extension, how novels work in general. Sometimes you can gain added insight by combining two descriptive approaches to one text: for instance, you could consider the role dialect plays in humorous scenes.
The first two movements, Kalbeck and others report, were accepted with little hesitation; the third (and for Vienna, final) movement, however, became immediately notorious because of a percussionist's misunderstanding of the score: in the pedal fugue section of the third movement, his repeated D's were played not as the written , but instead as or even : the effect was to completely drown out the rest of the orchestra and the vocal soloists.
Of course, your evaluation of a literary work might depend on extra-literary elements, such as political or religious attitudes. If Kate Chopin's takes a stance on women's familial duties that offends you, you need to explain your own position before you can evaluate Chopin's; the same is true if your own brand of feminism approves the attitudes you think Chopin's novel endorses. Before you can argue that a text is good or bad, you must establish the values you are following. Readers who don't share your values will be inclined to disagree with your point. The challenge of evaluative criticism is to write it persuasively, alluding to the possibilities for opposition to your argument, and answering potential objections with specific commentary on passages from the text.
In this, the most common kind of student essay, the main question you are asking is, "What does this text mean?" As my illustrations of descriptive and evaluative arguments show, a critical essay always raises questions about a text's meaning. To write a descriptive essay is to address the question: "How does this work transmit meaning?" To write an evaluative essay is to ask: "Why is it worthwhile to think about this text's meaning?" And to write an interpretive essay is directly to ask: "What does this work mean?" Whether the work you are interpreting is on the scale of a haiku verse or , the question is never a simple one. How you find and present a meaning will depend on the strategy of interpretation you choose to apply.
The reader must be open-minded and skeptical all at once, constantly adjusting the degree of personal belief in relation to the quality of the essay's arguments.