Sidebar: How to Answer Prompts Like an English Major

It can be tricky to figure out what kinds of arguments your instructor is looking for in your essays. Even if you have been provided with a prompt, you may still wonder what kinds of claims you should be making. What counts as evidence? How might the claims you make in an English class differ from the kinds of claims you make when discussing books with friends or reading books in other disciplines?

Most good claims in introductory English classes start with careful reading. As you’re reading a text you think you might want to write about, look for patterns. Are certain words repeated throughout the text? What images keep appearing? Also, you should make note of places that surprise or confuse you. What parts seem not to fit together? Are there places where the patterns break down? Asking and answering questions about these sorts of interpretive problems will help you discover the evidence for your paper.

Now think about the kinds of questions this evidence could answer. In an introductory literary class, your classmates and your instructor are more likely to be interested in some kinds of questions than others. Specifically, you’ll want to answer questions about the text itself, such as how its use of specific narrative strategies, figurative language, and imagery create a particular set of meanings. While we could ask questions about the author’s biography and intentions, the text’s place in a larger historical context, and the ways that people have read and understood the text throughout its history, the answers to these questions will not show your mastery of literary interpretation. Instead, the strongest claims will propose a way of interpreting the text using evidence derived from your close readings.

One way to begin coming up with a useful question to tackle is to think about the kinds of discussions you’ve been having in class. How does your instructor tend to guide discussion about books? The kinds of questions asked of texts in an introductory literature class have shifted over time, but the themes that keep coming up in class discussions and in your instructor’s lectures will help guide you to the kinds of questions crucial to your particular course or course section.

Not all of the evidence you’ve gathered in your close reading will support your claim. That’s okay—you should think of your interpretation as opening questions and possible meanings, rather than answering them or providing a single, definitive interpretation. Our conversations about literature would ultimately not satisfy us if at the end we found there was nothing left to say.