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Writing Centre Online Resource Guide


Introduction to Writing English Assignments

The essential aims of an English paper:

  • To concentrate on the primary text as the object of study
  • To provide a close, analytical reading that will reveal a central theme or issue in the text
  • To assert a clear thesis about the text
  • To support the thesis with evidence from the text
  • To quote from the text judiciously: to illuminate a point or to provide the reader with access to a key passage that the writer intends to examine closely. Most commonly, English papers employ paraphrase.
  • To employ credible and scholarly secondary sources (the work of other literary critics) judiciously to support the writer’s thesis and ideas
  • To employ Modern Languages Association (MLA) guidelines for research papers when handling presentation and documentation

Common problems:

  • The paper merely summarizes the text (offers plot summary) or expresses personal opinions or reactions to the text. The paper fails to approach the text analytically. 
  • The paper fails to provide sufficient evidence to support an argument about the text.
  • The introduction is too long or too general. The introduction does not present a clear thesis.
  • The thesis is inexact or uninteresting.
  • The paper contains too many quotations or fails to analyze or comment on long quotations.
  • The author displays over-reliance on secondary sources.
  • The title poorly reflects the purpose of the paper.
  • The paper is poorly laid out in regards to spacing and margins; the paper makes unnecessary use of headings; the paper lacks appropriate pagination.
  • The sources are inadequately documented.

When you learn to write in pursuit of an English degree - which means learning to assess and analyze textual material; consider the nuances and effects of phrasing; and express yourself coherently, persuasively, and elegantly - you develop broadly applicable and widely appreciated skills that can be translated to almost any endeavour. Consider entrepreneur Steve Strauss' 2013 column "Why I Hire English Majors:"

Kinds of English Assignment

Close reading is central to literary analysis. What is a close reading? It’s something you do (conduct a close reading of a passage) and the product of that work (a close reading of Atwood’s “Death by Landscape”). Essentially, it is an argument or interpretation of a textual passage based on close attention to the particulars of the text, to its structure and formal patterns.

See our Guide to Close Reading for an introduction to the process; a discussion of the principal textual elements you might comment upon during a close reading; an annotated sample close reading of “The Dance” by William Carlos Williams; and links to further web resources on close reading.

What is a rhetorical analysis? How do you write one? To find answers to these questions, take a look at these useful guides and discussions:

You've been asked by your instructor to analyze a particular literary text.  Where do you begin?  What steps do you follow?  What questions should you consider?  The following guide will help you navigate your way through this common type of written assignment.

Students are often asked to conduct a critical analysis of a document from a particular perspective.  The following guides will provide you with some questions you should ask yourself as you look critically at a document from a femist, marxist, postcolonial, or ecocentric point of view.  These guides were created and submitted by Brad Congdon.

MLA Citation Style

by Kala Hirtle, Dalhousie Writing Centre

MLA stands for The Modern Language Association; it is an author-date citation style. Unlike Chicago style which uses footnotes or endnotes that include both the full references for sources and shortened versions of the full references, the MLA has two parts: in-text citations in the body of the paper and a Works Cited page which comes at the end of the paper. The two levels are designed to work together; the in-text citations give specific information (the author’s last name and the page number or range when applicable for the source) to direct readers to the Works Cited where they can find the full citation. The first MLA Reference Guide was published in 1951, and the MLA is now on its eighth edition. With each edition comes small changes meant to make the MLA an increasingly simple and flexible citation style. It is therefore important to know which edition you are expected to use.

by Kala Hirtle, Dalhousie Writing Centre

The eighth edition of the MLA has several small changes from the seventh edition. These changes have been made in an attempt to simplify the full citations found in the Works Cited; the MLA is urging its users to see their Handbook as a guide that allows more freedom and clarification than its previous editions. For a full list of the changes, please see the online MLA guide or review Owl Purdue’s page devoted to giving examples of the changes. 

Some new terminology has been included to help explain the relationship between sources that are housed in another source (such as a short story found in an anthology, or a television episode that is part of season of television). The MLA refers to the source that houses the immediate source you are citing as the “container”; containers can also refer to databases (such as JSTOR or EBSCO). The MLA now uses the term “location” to refer to URLs or DOIs for electronic sources.

Resources for Writing in English