I’ve been working a lot with my AP Literature and Composition students on their writing skills. Writing about literature has many aspects that can be troublesome for student writers. One of the most difficult parts for my students has been learning to formulate an argument about a fictional work, and–in particular–using quotes in order to further the argument that they create, instead of inserting irrelevant narrative quotes to illustrate a glorified summary. Part of this, I think, has been due to their tendency to write an essay without quotes first, before going back and trying to “plug in” a quotation here and there. When done right, quotations should be the framework of the piece, upholding and elaborating the claims of the student writer.
So how does one achieve the incorporation of quotes that are an integral part of an essay’s structure? Sometimes you’ve got to start with the quotes themselves. There are various ways to begin composing a literary essay, but I have a tried and true method that has worked for me in my own writing since the idea came to me in high school on an impulse. It’s the Ms. H Method for Planning the Ultimate Literature Essay! I created a small comic to guide my students through this process, so that they can try it out to see if it works for them (click on the image to make it bigger):
I love this technique because it’s very visual and very hands-on. Rather than overloading the mental circuitry by trying to envision an entire paper at a single go, using the quotation slips allow the writer to manually rearrange, organize, and experiment with ideas before a word even hits the page. For me, this kind of thing really makes me feel like I know where I’m headed from the moment I write the first sentence. Also, it ensures that my use of quotations is crafted and purposeful.
Every writer’s process is different, but whenever possible I like to share mine with my students. For some, it may provide a new, helpful technique. For others, it might inspire a different approach. For everybody, it shows that I am a writer, too–an important thing for teachers of English (and all teachers, really) to share with their students. All writers struggle, and all writers create. I think when students view us as fellow strugglers/creators, they respect our feedback more, find it easier to approach us for help, and more willingly see us as collaborators in the experience of learning to write, rather than omnipotent, wrathful red pens. Sharing aspects of myself as a writer reminds me that I was once much like my students, and consequently helps me better adapt to what they need as growing analysts and philosophers.