The Midterm "Maximum Length" Rationale: Writing Original Analysis for Ordinary Competent Readers of Literature

        You probably never have had to write a paper with a maximum length before.  I have good reasons for limiting the first English 211 paper to three pages.  Most obviously, the section usually is large for a course requiring frequent writing (including the quizzes), so this makes the reading burden more manageable for me.  That is not my main reason for limiting the length, however.  Most early papers for the English major grow shapeless and huge because they suffer from lack of focus or careful reading of the "primary source," the portions of the poem, play, etc. the writers are using as evidence for their theses. 

        Papers that lack focus will become huge because their writers don't know how to keep anything out of them or how to shape of their argument to do something efficiently for readers.  If your thesis is well-focused, you never will try to explain all the artistry in an entire work of literature in a single paper.   You will realize that this takes the effort and space required by a long article or book (100-300 pages).  Instead, you will find an insight that powers your thesis by discovering and studying a specific pattern of evidence, or a violation of such a pattern, that makes the work meaningful in a way that is not obvious to the Ordinary Competent Readers of Literature who make up your target audience.  You will assume that your readers have read the work about which you are writing, so you do not have to summarize plot, nor do you have to tell them the names of all the characters.  You will start with the point you are trying to make about the work, taking into account relevant reasons why your readers might not have spotted the pattern in the evidence you are describing, and you will move your readers from their ordinarily competent understanding of the work toward a better-informed, more insightful understanding of the work. 

        College-level analysis is not written for amateurs, but for people who are, or nearly are, professional readers of literature.  (Click on the link for some typical features of amateur writing for ignorant audiences and professional writing for knowledgeable audiences.)  Fortunately for beginners in this game, even the best readers cannot read so carefully that they will discover everything there is to know about a well-made piece of literature.  Works of art are DENSE with meaning.  Your paper's strength will come from your having read and re-read a small slice of the work with enormous care so that you can learn at least one artistic strategy the writer has used to make it great.  Again I emphasize, you should read for patterns, or for violations of patterns, and trust your intuition (guided by my advice) to develop an original thesis.  That is all you can afford to do in three pages if you support it with sufficient evidence.

        Even for fairly well-focused papers that use a limited set of primary source evidence, careless use of evidence inflates the size of novice papers without improving their quality.  Many writers in this situation never even bother to list the primary source in their Works Cited sections--do so!  But do not ever summarize plot or quote directly from that primary source unless you have a logical reason to do so.  Your readers have read and generally understand the meaning of the work.  (According to New Critic, E.D. Hirsch, Jr. "they can construe it," or for Reader-Response critics, they can "perform the poem using the text accurately as a blueprint" for you English 215 students).  Good literary analysis concentrates on explaining the significance of patterns of evidence that occur in specific places within the literary text, and the paper paraphrases that evidence only when necessary to support the paper's discussion about what the evidence pattern means.  That discussion, and not a summary of the plot, constitutes the body of the paper.  Novice papers tend to reverse this pattern by summarizing plot until they arrive at something to say about the work, at which point they stop.  They write their way through a thesis-containing "conclusion" that should have been the real paper's introduction.  That paraphrase-toward-a-thesis structure, instead of beginning an explanation of why the thesis matters to our reading of the work, ends a paper that has no "body."  Prevent this by remembering your paper's best audience, the people who already really care about your topic (the work/author) and need to know what you have discovered.  They do not need to be told the literature is great or that its author is a genius, and they do remember the plot.

        The midterm paper may be much shorter than you expect if you always assume your reader has read competently your primary source.  Never summarize or quote from the primary source unless you are illustrating a point in your thesis ("For instance, we see this when Edgar fails to detect his brother's irony..." or "For example, in lines three, seventy, and eighty one where the word 'nothing' is repeated we see Lear struggling with his lost authority.")  Similarly, assume your reader has the primary source, even has it open beside your paper--that's why you put it in the Works Cited section!  Therefore, you never have to quote from the text merely to repeat its words, or because you think they sound impressive.  Quote directly only when the exact language of the quote will be discussed in your paper.  Long quotations that require indentation should be very, very rare, so your paper will stay short.  You do not waste space on long quotes, and quote only when your reader ordinarily would ask to see some specific language from the primary source to support a piece of your thesis.  Examples might be a statement from King Lear whose words can be read in more than one way if we can detect ironic ambiguity, or a quotation from one of Sidney's sonnets that shows the different word choice and typography of the poems which alternate between "Astrophil" as speaker and other personas, like "Stella."

        Careless or slavish use of secondary critical opinions from published sources also commonly pads high school papers into unoriginal behemoths.  Secondary critical opinions from peer-reviewed scholarly sources (only!  no random web pages!) are acceptable in this paper if they are used with care and do not take over the paper.  Your thesis should be your own, though you can adapt published theses or combine two published theses to make something new.  For instance, what a writer does in one sonnet might be repeated in another, so a published thesis about (for instance) the use of economic metaphors in one of Shakespeare's sonnets might be something you could test and adjust by applying it to another sonnet that appears to contain an economic metaphor.  Writers learn from each other, sometimes in direct competition, so if Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare are known to have been writing for the stage in the same era, perhaps they encountered similar problems but solved them differing ways--a critic writing about "evil in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus" might give you a thesis you could test against and adapt for Shakespeare's King Lear.  Shakespeare read Chaucer--might he have reacted to something Chaucer wrote, something you have read?  However, notice that I do not require a specific number of sources.  That is not how scholars use research, but it is the way research is taught in many high schools ("pile 'em up and turn 'em in!").  Scholarly quality and applicability to your thesis are the only tests that can warrant inclusion of secondary critical sources in your paper, but it should happen routinely by the time you are ready to graduate.  For this paper, proceed cautiously and preserve your originality.  If you use research to solve problems like "what has been published recently on Everyman" or "was Margery Kempe's experience as a woman running a brewery an unusual one?," your sources never will dominate your own thesis about something not recently given attention in that morality play or the typical status of women brewers versus Margery's struggle for status and attention.  By the final paper, I will require you to use at least one scholarly source in a scholarly fashion, but for this one, you are not required to use any set number.  For that reason, the paper will never grow huge only because it is filled with irrelevant secondary critical opinions that would displace your own thinking. 

        Finally, the paper should be short because we are just getting to know each other as writers and readers.  Treat the midterm paper as a chance to test your understanding of how to write for the English Major while risking relatively little of your final grade (10%).  Everything you do for analysis of one work can be done at greater length in the final paper that deals with more than one work, or more than one part of a large work.  In this paper, treat the three-page limit on the body text as an opportunity to write small and to write well.  I will not penalize you if the paper's body goes over three pages by a few lines or a paragraph, but remember the use of endnotes to capture and reposition relevant but non-essential information, or additional evidence that might strengthen the argument but is not essential to it.  Do a small job of literary analysis and do it well.  A well-written two-page paper could get an A, but a poorly written four-page paper could fail.  I have sample "A" papers in my office if you learn well from examples.