The list of 23 tips for English literature students

A list with 23 tips for English literature students that will make life easier

*All credit for creating this style sheet belongs to Dr. Alan Bourassa. If you happen to be in one of his classes; please, listen to him. Every now and then he says something worth writing down.

Please use this style sheet to avoid some common troubles. Only bottomless self-pity will permit you to imagine that these twenty-three items have the ability to impede your creative powers. On the contrary, attention to this list is likely to force you to think and write more clearly and precisely—which is, after all, the point.

Alan Bourassa

1. Read aloud every sentence that you write. If you find the sentence difficult to read, or if you would be embarrassed to be caught speaking such a sentence to another human being, rewrite the sentence immediately.

2. Papers should begin with a vivid, direct, complex, precise assertion, from which the rest of the essay flows inexorably. Write this sentence only after you have finished the rest of the paper. A vacuous opening sentence necessarily implies that you have nothing to say. An opening sentence should not make a statement that attempts to be universally true; “always” or “in every society” should appear neither in an opening sentence nor in any other sentence. For example, having examined a few poems by Sidney does not entitle you to make categorical statements about what may or may not constitute “the Renaissance.”

3. Sentences beginning with “this” are usually unclear; since “this,” “these,” and “that” are often used ambiguously, use them sparingly, and with extreme caution. Using “this” immediately after a quotation begs the question of what the “this” in the quotation is. If you cannot with absolute certainty identify what “this” refers to, you should rethink and rewrite the sentence immediately.

4. A paragraph rarely consists of one sentence. Few paragraphs consist of less than three sentences. On the other hand, paragraphs longer than one page are not likely to be paragraphs. All paragraphs should justify their particular location in your paper; such justifications are called “topic sentences.” If you begin and end paragraphs according to some random principle, you need to rewrite immediately.

5. God is in detail. Only assertions supported by specific, significant detail are acceptable. Make no generalizations that cannot be supported by referring to specific passages, phrases, and words. If you suggest that Shakespeare hates God, show where exactly in the poem he says he hates him. Extensive use of the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) helps to avoid many catastrophes.

6. Avoid impersonal and passive constructions (e.g., “it is,” or “there is,” or “attention must be paid”) whenever possible; “it is interesting to note” generally means that you have nothing whatever to say about what follows. To say that two passages, characters, poems “can be compared” leaves many readers wondering why they should be compared. Never use the word “comparison” when you mean “resemblance.” Do not say that A and B may be compared, when you mean that A resembles B. Such constructions are too often symptoms of intellectual sloth, of outright cowardice, or of an inability to conceal distaste for the assignment.

7. Assert yourself by using active verbs. If the main verbs in your sentences tend to be “to be” (“is,” “was,” “were,”), you probably are writing mush. Asserting that the subject of your sentence exists is usually less interesting than describing what your subject does (e.g., “Gawain is” vs. “Gawain sulks”).

8. Outright grammatical errors (case, concord, tense), split infinitives, and misplaced modifiers

9. Commas, semi-colons, and periods function not as random decoration but instead act to reduce the amount of energy a reader must expend to understand what you are trying to say. The proper use of semi-colons makes a startling impression and may often prevent major disasters. No semi-colon should be followed by a sentence fragment.

10. “Quite” uses up five spaces on a line, but generally has no other function. “A great deal” and “a lot” point to no useful quantities. “Basically” betrays a futile attempt at avoiding detail. No sentence should begin with the phrase “Being that”; “being” is not a verb.

11. “Therefore” should be used to complete a syllogism, not to clear your throat at the opening of a final paragraph. The word “thus” does not in and of itself constitute a logical argument. No final paragraph should begin with, “In conclusion…” Do not fill a final paragraph with safe, vapid generalization; hot air has no place in any paragraph.

12. Only ashes remain of students who have confused “poem” and “story”; students who use “novel” instead of “play” now lie with Ixion and Sisyphus.

Dr. Alan Bourassa

13. Those who substitute “societal” for “social,” “simplistic” for “simple,” or “motivational factors” for “motives” will suffer grievously (or perhaps should pursue a lucrative corporate career).

14. Aside from a few circumstances, in North America quotation marks follow punctuation (e.g., write “More is hideous.” Do not write “More is hideous”.)

15. Phrases like “I think” or “I believe” or “in my opinion” or “in this writer’s opinion” are unnecessary and often aggravatingly redundant. Instead of saying, “I think that Chaucer sucks,” merely write, “Chaucer sucks,” confident in the knowledge that your reader will not make a mistake about who is making the assertion (unless you are plagiarizing, in which case see the last item on this list).

16. Underline or italicize the titles of books; place the titles of poems in “quotation marks”.

17. Describe the argument of poems, plays, and essays in the present tense (Hythloday “berates,” not “berated”).

18. Do not attempt to sum up your extraordinarily complex argument with a cliche. “Everything is relative” is not relative. Love does not necessarily conquer all. “It’s all a matter of perspective” implies a lack of perspective.

19. All papers must be typed, doubled spaced, with one-inch margins on all sides. Use a legible font, preferably a serif font in 12 point. Use the highest setting on your ink-jet printer or use a laser printer.

20. Do not insult anyone’s intelligence by messing around with formatting to make your paper look longer or shorter. Students who insist on a title page must answer to the recycling lobby. Correct mistakes with a pen if you are unable to re-type or re-print.

21. Distinguish between “its” and “it’s.” Abandon all hope that your inability to spell is an essential part of your personal charm; absolutely no spelling errors are permitted in final drafts.

Dr. Alan Bourassa

22. Do not offer your congratulations to writers for the beauty, truth, greatness, or profound significance of their efforts, unless you are prepared, in great detail, to explain what is so beautiful, true, great, or profoundly significant.

Probably the most important advice on how to write a perfect essay!

23. If you borrow other people’s words and ideas (not to mention other people’s papers), give them credit; otherwise you are plagiarizing, and will be turned over to an official and very thorough investigating committee. If you are unsure what constitutes plagiarism, just ask.

This style sheet on how to write a perfect essay, as far as I know, was created by Dr Alan Bourassa. All credit should go to him and him alone. I am only sharing it because I sincerely believe he would hate this last paragraph that doesn’t add anything of value. I don’t know what else to type here; this is “the list of twenty three” by Dr. Alan Bourassa on how to write a perfect essay. Thanks for reading. Dog bless.

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