A common tendency among undergraduates is to short-circuit the process of writing a paper by ignoring what could be called the “prewriting” stage, which involves a number of steps that should be initiated LONG before the due-date. This “9-step program” is as follows:
The research stage actually starts with the selection of a topic, i.e., the broad subject area for investigation. It is often a good idea to start with a few films that you like, a filmmaker whose work you particularly enjoy or a period in history that intrigues you. The main secret to writing a good essay is to focus on a topic that interests you.
Refers to the specific focus of the research. An important first step in research is to narrow the topic to manageable proportions. You should limit yourself to a few films or a very specific historical period. Avoid being too broad (like trying to write the complete history of world cinema!). But you should also avoid being too narrow (although there are fine fine books on individual films, you should try to cover at least two or three productions). The nature of the issue selected is important in choosing the appropriate approach.
Start with a single, stimulating research question. Possible hypotheses may emerge at the working outline stage, but these should be based on wide reading and thinking – not on a “hunch”. The research question sets the direction of the assignment. The student’s task is to develop an answer or thesis (what is it that this paper will try to “demonstrate”). This stage is a crucial one. Besides setting the direction of the research, the phrasing of the question helps to establish the tone of the paper and defines its scope. Although the essay may contain descriptive, narrative, or biographical material, the solution to the problem requires analysis.
Students should develop a working bibliography – books, periodicals, magazines, newspapers, web sites etc. – before starting the working outline. Learn how to use a complex research library. There are many resources available to help you find articles and books on films and filmmakers. You should start by visiting the Carleton University Library Web sites devoted to Film-related resources: http://www.library.carleton.ca/
If you cannot find enough sources, change the issue immediately.
Developing a preliminary structure for the essay before you have finished collecting information is most helpful. The working outline is a tentative list of main factors around which you anticipate the final answer will be structured. Unlike the Plan (stage 7), the working outline puts less emphasis on a linear structure than on a fluid arrangement of ideas emerging from the research question. Points included in the working outline constitute parameters within which the thesis will be articulated. During later stages of research, these points will be tested, and their importance and relevance determined. A good working outline provides an analytical framework for the next stage – the collecting of information. It helps to ensure a disciplined and ordered piece of work. The preparatory reading associated with the development of this working outline provides a solid background reservoir of knowledge on the topic as well.
Collecting and Classifying Information
Only now are you ready to start the research proper – the gathering and weighing of evidence to develop an answer to the research question. Systematic information-gathering and recording are essential if you are to make the best use of your research time and apply your discoveries to construct a coherent and convincing essay. The working outline provides the structure not only for collecting information but also for classifying and evaluating it. If a piece of information does not fit into this framework, you have two choices – either discard it as irrelevant, or create another section in the working outline to incorporate the information. A comprehensive and organized system of research notes is essential for a successful essay.
At this point, the ideas from the outline must be arranged much more specifically as “arguments” founded on the information gathered in stage 6. Too many essays are of the “cut-and-paste” variety, composed of excerpts from a few books spread out on the table, or from “highlighted” photocopies of periodical articles. A good piece of work should have a clear linear structure that should be worked out at this stage. The plan might include five main sections: an introduction; three main arguments (it could be two or four); and a conclusion. Subsequently, each of the three (or two or four) central arguments could be subdivided into two or three specific points. If your notes have been classified according to the headings in your outline, the progressive breakdown of detail at each stage is not difficult.
Drafting the material in the body to substantiate the thesis is a most important task. Many students seem determined to cram all their research notes into the paper. In doing so, they clutter and destroy their answers. If the research has been carried out properly, you should end up with far more material than you can possibly use. In the rough draft stage, there is a tendency to overwrite, and this is all right to a point, but be prepared, in the final stage, to prune ruthlessly. Ideally, every word, every phrase, every sentence, every paragraph must justify its presence. If you have prepared the ground properly, according to this model, the rough draft should very nearly “write itself”. Now is the time to let it flow without worrying too much about the niceties of style and form. Suppress the urge to polish your writing – one sentence at a time – at this stage. Get it out. Here, your subconscious plays an extraordinarily major role.
Along with the various stages of the prewriting process, this final stage is the one most frequently overlooked or wilfully ignored. Too often, the student submits what in effect is still a rough draft. This is insulting to the reader and, needless to say, simply unprofessional. A clean and polished final draft is important because readers are impressed by a neat, orderly, coherent piece of work. Imagine sitting down to read a section of your favorite Guide to Film Studies and being comforted wit numberous spilling terrors, vaulty gammar and tynsax, purky and caucasionally, nery vearly nicomprenensnible snapages with suspicious stains – gravy, jam, coffee, blood, sweat, tears, or worse – we have seen it all!! I suspect you would give it up in disgust and scream: “Who the &*#$ wrote this piece of &*!% ?” So the old saw applies here, too: you not only have to be professional, you have to appear to be professional. The “look” of your paper (cover page; standard margins; standard font; page numbers; titles in italics; appropriate indents for quotations etc.) is of the essence at this stage.
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Essay-Writing Guide (aka “The Steps”)
*There are no shortcuts to education. You have to do the work*
Note: This guide is only for students who are stuck or anxious about their essay-writing skills. If you are confident in your essay writing, then you keep on being you. This guide is really only intended for those who need some extra help. If in doubt, please ask.
As “steps”, what follows should be done in order in which they appear.
Step 1: The Topic
Write a sentence – in your own words – summarizing the theory or idea you are going to discuss. Don’t begin by choosing the topic you want to write about – “I want to write about slasher movies and film X” – but try to identify the point of the lecture where that idea or film can be applied. Believe it or not, there is a point to each lecture each week (I know, right?); sometimes this will be made explicit to you, other times you may have to think about what was the point of that class. If you don’t understand the topic point (that is, if you cannot figure out what the point was in studying “that”), then do not write an essay on that topic. It may very well be the film we studied you liked the most, or seemingly the easier topic, but if you cannot write a summary sentence of that point, you do not understand the topic sufficiently to write an essay on it. And, put bluntly, if you do not understand the topic, you are going to get a poor grade on that assignment.
So, the first step is the reiteration of the topic point to any of the lectures. This is one of the key reasons why it is strongly discouragedto write on a topic wherein you were not present for the lecture. If you were not there for the class, you may not sufficiently understand the point of studying that topic for writing a successful essay. It is probably worth your while, in your essay planning stage, to sit down and write out, in your own words, a summary statement for each week’s class. Only write on a topic where you can write such a summary statement. And so, you need to ensure you understand the topic sufficiently to be able to summarize it in a single sentence.
Step 2: The Film
Only once you can do Step 1 should you then pick a film to write on. Your choice of film needs to make sense in light of the topic. In some modules (particularly in first year), you will be told which film to write on; in other modules, you may be instructed to write on a film other than the one you studied in class. Be sure you understand what is expected of you from your film choice. If you are not sure if your chosen film works with the topic: a) you have chosen the wrong topic (because you do not understand it sufficiently) and/or b) you have chosen the wrong film to study. You should not have any doubt about the topic or the film you have chosen. You should be confident about your choices.
Don’t automatically choose a film you like or are familiar with. Your analysis may be sharper if you are ambivalent about the film. At the very least, you will be more focused on the topic at hand.
Step 3: The Points
- So you understand your topic and you have a gnarly film to discuss. Great. Now what? In the film, find three examples which reflect your summation of the topic itself. Think about taking some screengrabs from the film. Ask yourself “Why does this image suggest that Alice is the final girl in Friday the 13th?” or “What is it about the mise-en-scene that says ‘German Expressionism’?” What is it about this frozen moment in the film which reflects the ideas you are trying to discuss?
So where are we? We have:
- A focused topic appropriately understood;
- A relevant and appropriate film; and
- Three points in the film which reflect or illustrate the point.
You are now ready to start thinking about writing your essay.
Step 4: The Essay
Do not start writing the essay from the beginning; do not start writing your introduction just yet. Start in the middle. Take your first relevant screengrab/point in the movie, and just start writing – freestyle. Explain to me why this image/point is relevant to the topic. Once you’ve finished your first point, move on to the second, etc. At this stage, just freestyle it; don’t worry about quotes (yet). If your discussion is only two or three sentences long, then write those and then move on. Once this is done, leave off writing for a moment.
Step 5: The Quotations
Secondary sources: use these to back your analysis. Don’t use your analysis to prove someone else’s theory/idea. Your essay should be about your ideas, not theirs. Read/research the points you have made. (Although this does assume you have done some reading on the topic already.) Find quotes which support what you are saying. Then stick them in where appropriate.
Step 6: The Readings
What do we mean by “appropriate readings”? Each topic you could write on will have a required reading list attached to it. You will need a very good reason for not including these in your essay. We have access to many digital versions of the books so there is no excuse that “the book wasn’t in the library” or “you couldn’t get to the Hive to do the research”. Beyond the required reading list, you still need to find more “stuff”. Use the bibliographies and references to the articles and chapters from the required readings (Who have they been reading?). Use Summon – type in the topic and see what comes back; however, you need to read through this list in order to filter out only what is relevant. So, in addition to the required readings for the topic, you should, easily, find another 10 possible sources through Summon. This should not take more than 10-15 minutes to do. And this is all without using internet pages or websites (which in most cases, we would advise against using in the first place).
It is really important that you are doing academic reading over the course of your studies. The degree is Film Studies, and this is where the study comes in.
Step 7: The Introduction
Do not begin your essay with the creation of the universe (“Since the beginning of time, we have loved moving images”). Write your essays to whomever is going to be marking them. And by doing this, you can safely assume we know what you are talking about. We know this stuff. Unlike your A-Level essays, you do not need to cram in every factoid and history of the topic. Just get in there and discuss the film.
Remember the summary sentence I asked you to write at Step 1? Go back and grab that. This sentence makes for a perfect first sentence to your essay. Write out these:
- Your summary sentence of the topic;
- A single sentence plot description of the film you have chosen to discuss; and
- A summary sentence of your three points.
And that’s all she wrote for your introduction. That’s all you need. Assuming you’ve done Steps 4-6, your essay is now, pretty much, done. If you are stuck writing your conclusion, just reverse your introduction: Restate your three points, note how it works within the film, and then restate the topic.
So, here again, are the seven steps:
- The Topic
- The Film
- The Points
- The Essay
- The Quotations
- The Readings
- The Introduction
Other (semi-random) points:
- Answer the question asked, not the question you want to answer
- You do need to know:
- its & it’s
- there, their & they’re
- differences between plurals and possessives (when to use ‘s)
- You do need to know Harvard Referencing (http://library.worc.ac.uk/guides/study-skills/referencing). You should cite every time you:
- make a passing reference to someone else’s work
When in doubt, cite!
And remember to always include page numbers in your citations
- Use “film-speak”: mise-en-scene, cinematography, etc.
- Meet the word-count. You are allowed 10% over or under; so, for a 1500-word essay, you may be 150 words over or under that target.
- Be prepared!
- Be prepared and anticipate doing substantial editing to your essay.
- Be prepared to start over, develop and let your essay evolve.
- Be prepared to re-write the whole damned thing!
- Be prepared to change films if what you are writing on does not work.
- Ask us questions! We are happy to look at drafts of your work up to 48 hours before the essay is due.
- Proofread. Try to get a friend to read your work, but one who will give you constructive feedback; it is pointless to get someone to read your essay if they are not going to point out the ways it could be improved.
- Where possible, we will endeavour to make available to you essay examples so you can see for yourself what an A-grade assignment looks like.
Dr. Mikel J. Koven
Senior Lecturer, Film Studies