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Department-by-Department Reference Guide

Writing in English Courses

A Sampling of Advice from Faculty

Are you considering graduate work in English? See Professor Karian's Guide to Graduate Study in English (and Beyond) and visit the Association of English Graduate Students' Web site.

1.  What kinds of writing assignments can I expect in English classes?

     Written work is central to the English curriculum, whether the subject matter is literature, language study, rhetorical analysis, or writing itself. For information about course requirements for the different majors in this department, click here.

Assignments in Writing Classes

  • Classes in the First-Year English Program (Rhetoric and Composition 1 and 2) emphasize Critical Literacy in academic and public spheres. The program offers students ways of understanding the world and acting within their communities, via language, for the greater good of all. Writing assignments and class activities are designed to present a variety of techniques for developing topics and for revising drafts. The curriculum is designed to help you learn both general and context-specific conventions of good writing so that you may present your ideas and beliefs most effectively. These classes combine formal essay assignments with a variety of shorter assignments.
  • Advanced composition and rhetorical theory classes extend this study by assigning more sophisticated reflective, analytic, and argument essays.
  • In creative writing classes, depending upon the genre, you can expect to write both short exercises and longer (8-20 pages) stories, or creative essays, or numerous poems, or one-act plays. For the Poets & Writers toolkit for researching MFA programs, click here.
  • Business and technical writing classes assign a variety of short practical forms of writing that might be used in the workplace (e.g., résumés, letters, memos, reports) as well as oral presentations and, usually, a major project (e.g., a brochure, grant proposal, or manual). These classes emphasize writing that gets work done. For links related to writing in the workplace and job searches, click here.

Assignments in Literature and Language Study Classes

     Your assignments in these classes are likely to vary considerably. Many English faculty give essay examinations, some to be written in class and some at home, and many professors collect journal or notebook pages.


     Some faculty ask for frequent short papers focused on interpretation or response while others assign one or two longer papers that may require research. With all assignments about literary texts, you should always be sure you understand whether your professor expects you to include research on historical background or to consult published critical analysis of the work(s) you are writing about. Some professors may insist that you do research and use outside critical sources while others will ask you not to.


     Some paper assignments ask for focused responses to a specific question or topic (especially on short, one-page papers), some ask for annotations or position papers in relation to assigned texts, and others expect you to develop your own topic (especially for longer papers). Always be sure you understand the kind of work your professor expects you to do in response to an assignment. Is the professor asking for textual analysis and exposition? For a strong argument that supports your interpretation of a text? For a comparison of several perspectives?


     Depending on the class, you may be expected to do an oral report (in some cases submitting an outline of it to the professor and to other students). You may also be assigned to work on a collaborative project or given the option of substituting a short piece of fiction for an analytical paper.

2.  What qualities of writing are especially valued in English classes?   

     English faculty value strong thesis statements and clear organization. Effective papers will offer an introduction that establishes the significance of your thesis and explains how you will approach the topic. Mechanical correctness, well-developed claims, and a sharp focus are essential.

     In literature classes, most professors are looking for interpretations that you support with clear reasoning based on textual evidence. Some professors prefer close readings of the text; others will ask you to set your response in a broader historical or social context.

     Papers that argue for your own ideas—that discuss an idea you care about—will be valued more than papers that rehash class discussions or lectures. Ask yourself what is at stake in your paper, then tell your reader why your ideas about that issue are important.

     Writing a good paper about literature is not a matter of trying to read your professor's mind. A variety of interpretations are welcome. What you need to do is translate your opinions into an argument that other readers are likely to understand and accept because you have supported it with evidence from the text under discussion. 

Tip: Don’t save your best points for last. If a brilliant statement of your main idea emerges while you are writing your concluding paragraph, consider moving that material up to your introduction. Your professors are like most readers: as they begin to read, they want to know where they are headed. If you lay out a clear path from the start, they’ll be able to follow (and accede to) your ideas more readily than if they discover your point only at the end.

3.  What kinds of evidence are recognized as valid in English papers?

     Depending upon the assignment and the subject matter of the course, you may be expected to develop arguments based on various kinds of evidence: the literary text(s) under discussion, historical and social context, the work of other scholars, or personal experience.

  • Textual Evidence.  English professors want textual evidence that is carefully analyzed and cited. When you are writing an analysis of a literary work (to show how its parts work together) or an interpretation (to forward an argument about its meaning), your paper should point your readers to specific textual passages that support the claim(s) you are making. Note: You do not need to quote the passages at length.
  • Historical and Social Evidence.  Depending on the assignment, facts about the work’s historical and social context may also be useful.  Furthermore, it is usually wise to connect your paper's topic to the issues and themes being explored in the course.
  • Evidence from Other Scholars.  In linguistics and theory classes, good evidence is also likely to come from the work of other scholars as well as the texts you are analyzing. In literature classes, ask your professor whether you should use outside critical sources.
  • Personal Experience.  Some professors may be open to reading about responses based on personal experiences, but many who responded to our survey were adamant that a reflection on feelings and opinions is inferior to an analytic or interpretive argument that has a focused thesis and strong support.


After you’ve read an assignment carefully, if you are not certain what kind of evidence to use (textual, critical, historical, cultural, etc.), ask your professor.


Tip: It is usually acceptable in English papers to use the personal pronoun "I." Use it for accuracy to distinguish personal judgment or taste from the general opinion.


4.  How should I use citations in papers for English classes?

     Whenever you quote or paraphrase from someone else’s work, supply a citation with a page reference. Likewise, ideas forwarded by others as well as any information that is not general knowledge—that is, not general knowledge within the context of English studies—all require citation of the source where you found the ideas or information. If you are uncertain about whether to include a citation, play it safe and include one. For additional guidance, see the Avoiding Plagiarism section of this Web site.


     Quoting and Paraphrasing.  Good advice about integrating quotes and paraphrases into your papers and avoiding plagiarism is also available online at the following Web sites:

     Citation Format.  Ask your professor about what kinds of citations you should use. Citations that follow the format of the Modern Language Association (MLA) are the most popular in this department, but ask your professor about his or her preferences. MLA Style uses authors’ last names in parenthesis for in-text citations (with page numbers as needed), then provides full citations alphabetized by the authors’ surnames on a “Works Cited” list on a separate sheet at the end of the paper. To get the details right, use guidelines and models such as those in the handbook for First-Year English or the online sources linked through the MLA section of this Web site.

     MLA Handbook for Guidelines and Citation Models.  If you don’t have a handbook from English 001–002, consult the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 6th ed. (2003). Several copies are available in the reference area of Raynor Library for library use only, and a few are available in the stacks for check out. (Be sure you are looking at the 2003 edition.) This handbook is designed specifically for college undergraduates and was recently revised to update guidelines for citing electronic sources. English majors would be well advised to purchase a copy. The MLA Style Manual, 2nd ed. (1998), which is designed for graduate students, scholars, and publishing authors, also fully covers the specifics of MLA citation format.

5. Special advice regarding writing assignments in English classes:

     Important qualities to strive for in English papers include the following:

  • Purposefulness
  • Sharp focus
  • Skillful use of evidence
  • Insight
  • Creativity
  • Sensitivity to audience

     A major pitfall for inexperienced writers in literature classes is spending too much time on plot summary. You can avoid this problem by writing for an audience who has also read the book, story, play, or poem you are discussing.


     A second pitfall is over-generalization. Learn to qualify your assertions and to limit your points to specific situations. Avoid phrases such as “in today's society” or “throughout history.”


     If outside sources are necessary for your assignment and you are new to writing researched papers for English courses, confer with your professor about how to choose good sources. In addition, avail yourself of the many resources provided by the Marquette Libraries, especially the following:

Each year the English Department sponsors

writing contests that award cash prizes

for outstanding essays and creative writing.

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Page Last Modified: October 18, 2018

  For suggestions and corrections, please email
Dr. Rebecca Nowacek, Associate Professor of English
Director of the Ott Memorial Writing Center, 240 Raynor Library (414.288.5542)
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