Writing Handbook for English 171W—Major Authors




Professor Schreiber



Introduction/Learning Outcomes                                                           1

Writing Assignments:  Papers/Selecting a Topic                         1

Framing a Topic in a Thesis Statement                                       3

Critical Analysis                                                                                    3

Conducting Research                                                                            4

Citation Style                                                                                        5

Transitions                                                                                            4

Tips for Academic Writing and Using MLA Style                                  6

Writing Conclusions                                                                              6

Revision Strategies                                                                                7

Worksheet to Develop a Thesis and Bibliography                                  8

Worksheet to help you with your Rough Draft                           9

Worksheet for a Final Look/Review                                                      10

Check Sheet for a Literary-Critical Essay                                              11

Technical Aspects of the paper                                                 11

Grading Rubric                                                                         11

Final Essay Exam                                                                                  12

In-class writing                                                                         12

Appendix – Common Writing Errors                                                     13


This course links authors Toni Morrison and William Faulkner through the ways in which their fictional and discursive practices reflect on each other.  Specifically, we will examine how the texts of both authors reenact and resist racism and patriarchal structures; how they explore the ways in which memory and the past construct identity; and how they experiment with style.  We will consider the ways in which the texts illustrate a continuum in America literature through discussions of socially constructed identity and issues of race, class, and gender.  In addition, the class utilizes cultural studies and psychoanalytic critical approaches to the texts of these authors.

Learning Outcomes

As a result of completing this course, students will be able to think critically about the works of Toni Morrison and William Faulkner.  They will have in-depth knowledge of one work by each author and will write one paper on that novel to indicate their command of both authors’ styles and themes.  In addition, students will become familiar with the critical theory and discourse connected with literary analysis of these two authors.

Writing Assignments

Papers (2 papers, each worth 25% of your final grade):

Students will write two papers, one on a novel by Morrison and one on a novel by Faulkner.  These papers are essays that argue a thesis and use research to help make their argument.  Frequent in-class reflections will serve as a way for students to gather their ideas and thoughts about each novel and to help them develop topics for their papers.  Writing is an integral part of critical thinking.  Critical thinking comes from writing and rewriting about your ideas because writing allows you to think and rethink your topic.   Students often complain that they “wasted time” with their first drafts.  On the contrary, those first drafts lead to the “right” ones.  So no thinking or drafting time is wasted time, but rather the path to articulating your points.

Selecting a Topic:

Scholarly papers on literature offer new insights about literary works.  Your audience will be those who have read and have not yet read the novel you write on.  Your job is to educate them about some aspect of the work. You will need to be as thorough and complete in describing the novel:  an opening general overview that will prevent you from having to use plot summary in the paper and then specific textual proof of your argument.

To generate critical insights, you should pose questions about each novel as you read.  Did anything in the reading intrigue your or puzzle you?  What layers are there that you need to unpack in order to gain the deepest understanding of the work as a reflection of the culture that produced it?  What is difficult to understand?  Why?  If you could ask the author one question, what would it be?  Something that appears to be a small point may be developed into a solid thesis.  By answering questions that arise during your reading and through class discussions, you can begin to formulate an argument about the text.  This argument will form your thesis statement and it will be your own, unique way of looking at the novel.  That is how new knowledge and original ideas come about.  For example, in the article, which I will distribute in class, that I wrote for the Faulkner Journal,  “‘Memory Believes Before Knowing Remembers’: The Insistence of the Past and Lacan’s Desire in Light in August,” I began with the following question:  why does Joe Christmas refuse to choose to be black or to pass for white?  How do characters/people move out of the socially constructed roles of their culture (how do Lena Grove, Byron Bunch, and Gail Hightower respond to their prescribed positions?)?  To answer these questions, I looked closely at the text and read what other critics had said about these characters and this question.  I decided to use the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan to explain why people stubbornly refuse to let go of historically inherited responses even though these responses cause them pain.  The result of my inquiry was the argument and discussion that I make in this article.

Remember that the most important step is to choose a topic that you want to say something about.  If you are not interested in your topic, you won’t be able to interest you readers.  Do not worry that there is nothing new to say.  When I was in graduate school and wanted to work with Faulkner’s texts, everyone told me that I would never get through all of the published articles much less have anything new to add.  I ignored that advice because I loved Faulkner’s novels and knew that I would never get bored or tired of writing about them.  I was right!  So get excited and explore.  That is really what academic research is all about.  Read a lot, think a lot, and finally, explore through writing a lot.  Think while you are walking across campus.  Think in the shower.  Thinking of the topic is half of the work.  All topics must be approved by me, so come to see me during office hours in order to brainstorm and come up with a topic.  Alternatively, you can submit some ideas to me and I will give you feedback.  My email is eschreib@gwu.edu.  My office hours are T 2:30-3:30 and by appointment.  You can also make an appointment with a tutor in the writing center.  Bryan and Rachel are familiar with the course and would be able to work with you on issues specific to the readings.

Having an open topic can be both liberating and overwhelming.  You have a great deal of freedom in your choice of topic so that you can explore and discuss something that really interests you.  On the other hand, it is sometimes difficult to narrow or focus your choices and ideas.  You might begin by thinking about issues or themes that we have talked about in class.

Remember that this draft will be revised and only the revised version will be graded.  You can always add some of your secondary sources when you revise.

Framing a topic in a Thesis Statement:

The thesis statement sums up the main point that you want to make in your paper.  It is a statement that you will defend and develop through a close reading of the text, discussion of the context in which the novel was written, and support from literary critics or theorists who have written about the novel or your theoretical argument.  For example, my thesis in my article on Light in August is found toward the end of the introductory paragraph:

Lacan suggests that enjoyment comes from the repetition of the past because

doing so represses the anxiety of lack.  This psychic enjoyment from the repetition of the past explains to a great extent the “past that will not pass” in much of Faulkner’s work.  Lacan’s theory of desire and subjectivity explains why and how the past, both cultural and personal, refuses to pass for a character such as Joe Christmas, who functions in a “circle” he cannot escape.  In contrast, Lena Grove and Byron Bunch [. . .] are able to reconfigure their relationships to lack and the cultural symbolic so as to embrace new signification, allow the past to pass, and strive for an altered future in the symbolic order.  (71)

You will notice that my thesis is more than one sentence.  Because my thesis has several layers to it, it was necessary to lay it out in several sentences.  So think more broadly about how to compose your thesis to include all of the parts of your argument.

The papers can be on any topic and on any of the novels we have read for class.  See the Purdue OWL for more information about thesis statements: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/545/01/

Critical Analysis:

Your discussion will analyze some aspect of the novel you choose to write about.  Develop your thesis/argument with specific passages from the novel.  These passages form the textual evidence for your argument.  For example, one could argue that in The Bluest Eye, Morrison presents the damage that the dominant white gaze inflicts on blacks.  Textual evidence for this argument include passages that describe the inability of black girls to achieve white standards of beauty as presented in the Shirley Temple doll, the value within the black community of lighter shades of color, the unattainable beauty of white movie stars, and the blue eyes that Pecola desires.

Always introduce your passages and discuss them afterwards.  Do not let the passages “speak for themselves.”  Here are three examples:

  1. Claudia tries to understand exactly what it is about the Shirley Temple doll that makes her so lovable and thinks: “all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured. [. . .] I could not love it.  But I could examine it to see what it was that all the world said was lovable” (Morrison 20-21).  Claudia then physically attacks the doll, taking it apart limb by limb to try to discover its mysterious power of beauty.
  1. Like the Shirley Temple doll, Claudia’s classmate Maureen Peal is deemed pretty and receives favor from teachers and other students.  The special attention she receives causes Claudia to wonder, If she was cute—and if anything could be believed, he was—then we were not.  And what did that mean?  We were lesser.  Nicer, brighter, but still lesser” (74).  Thus, Claudia and her sister learn that outer beauty counts in society much more than other qualities.
  1. When Pauline goes to the movies, she remembers how society values physical beauty and that only white women can possess this trait:  “In equating physical beauty with virtue, she stripped her mind, bound it, and collected self-contempt by the heap. [. . .] She was never able, after her education in the movies, to look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty, and the scale was one she absorbed in full from the silver screen” (122).  Pauline internalizes how her culture determines beauty and concludes that she herself and all of her children will be categorized as ugly.

4.  Pecola tries to pinpoint what about her appearance would render her lovable and

acceptable to her friends and family.  She thinks, “if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different. [. . .] If she looked different, beautiful, maybe Cholly would be different, and Mrs. Breedlove too.  Maybe they’d say, ‘Why look at pretty-eyed Pecola.  We mustn’t do bad things in front of those pretty eyes’” (47).  Pecola’s obsession with blue eyes and how they can rescue her from her misery ultimately causes her to escape into a fantasy world split from the reality around her.

Notice that in each example, there is a sentence to introduce the quote and a sentence to comment on its meaning.

You will also notice in the four examples that I have included the page numbers in parenthesis in order to follow MLA style.  I have also used three dots in brackets like this [. . .] to indicate there I have left out some of Morrison’s text.  This bracket, [. . .], is called an ellipsis and is useful when you want to include only  parts of a sentence or paragraph.

Conducting Research:

One purpose of research is to help you defend or make your argument.  Another is to become familiar with the discussion about the novel in the critical world.  What has been said already?  Do you agree or disagree?  Can you argue one point further than what has been said?  In other words, your job is to become part of the scholarly discussion already in progress.  Think about what you bring to the discussion.  What is your angle of vision that augments or changes what others have said?   Take notes and engage with the authors.  Critique what they have written in order to better understand your own thoughts.

You can do a literature review through Gelman library’s website.  Look at single-authored books, collections of articles in an edited work, and articles that have been published in literary journals such as the Faulkner Journal, Mississippi Quarterly, African American Review, Publication of the Modern Language Association (PMLA), MELUS, and American Literature.  Remember to take good notes or to make copies of articles in order to quote them later.  MLA style requires page numbers, so you will need to keep track of where you collect your information.  Most of the journals are in Gelman’s stacks and most are available through the journal’s on-line location (e.g. Academic Search Premier, J-Stor).  Be sure that you access an on-line copy that reproduces the pages of the article so that you can cite the page numbers as they appear in print.

Remember to evaluate your sources.  Only use credentialed authors whose published work has gone through a blind peer review.

Use your sources to support your argument.  You can also use sources that make a different argument in order to discount them and to argue your point instead.  You may also use sources to explain your theoretical framework.  For example, I cite Lacan and Fanon to explain the psychoanalytic perspective I use and I cite Raymond Williams to outline cultural studies.  So my discussion has both scholars who talk about the novels and theorists who present theory as resources that help me develop my argument.

Citation Style:  Citation styles differ for each discipline.  English publications use the Modern Language Association (MLA) style manual.  This style uses parenthetical citations instead of footnotes.  That means that after a direct quote or paraphrase, you put the author’s name in parentheses with the page number, like this:  (Schreiber 102).  You can use footnotes for further explanations of something in the text.  MLA also uses a Works Cited section.  Only list the sources that you have cited in your paper.  Follow this format carefully, as I take off points for not following the form.  Remember to list your works in alphabetical order and include the publishing information in the proper format.  Here are two examples, one for a book and one for an article:

Alcorn, Marshall W., Jr.  Changing the Subject in English Class:  Discourse and the

Constructions of Desire.  Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2002.

Schreiber, Evelyn Jaffe.  “‘Memory Believes Before Knowing Remembers’: The

Insistence of the Past and Lacan’s Desire in Light in August.”  The Faulkner Journal 18.1 (2003): 55-68.

See the Works Cited at the end of my article on Light in August as a guideline.  Also, you can find a copy of these guidelines in most writing handbooks, in a handout from the Writing Center, or on-line from the MLA website: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/01


The following link lists some commonly used transitions:


Some Tips for academic Writing and for Writing English Papers in MLA style:

  1. Number your pages
  2. Italicize the titles of books, journals, anthologies, and collections; chapters, short stories, and articles titles go in quotation marks
  3. In general, use the third person
  4. Never use the word “This” without a noun after it
  5. Use the present tense when writing about literature; use the past tense for the historical past
  6. Do not use contractions in formal papers.  Therefore, the only apostrophes you will use will be to show possession
  7. In parenthetical citations, there is no comma between the author’s name and the page number.  The period goes outside of the parentheses.  Example: (Schreiber 26).
  8. When you quote from the text and you want to omit some of the material, you can use what is called an ellipsis.  (see the examples from The Bluest Eye under Critical Analysis above)
  9. Use a semi-colon the same way you would use a period.  You have to have a complete sentence on each side.  A colon sets off a quote or list.
  10. When quotes are more than four lines long, you block indent them and do not put quotation marks around the material unless it has quotation marks in the original text.  When you cite indented material, the period goes before the parentheses:  end of sentence. (Schreiber 52)
  11. Work on using transitions to link your paragraphs and your ideas within each paragraph.
  12. Use the novel’s text as your primary evidence for your argument.  The secondary sources support your thesis or argue against it.
  13. Read your paper out loud to catch sentence errors.


Writing Conclusions:

There is an old saying to describe an essay, “Tell them what you are going to say, say it, and tell them what you said.”  Basically, the conclusion restates your thesis with the main points you want the reader to remember.  Many times, students get to their conclusion and realize that they have perfectly stated their thesis at the end because they have worked through it in their writing about it.  A good tip is to write a draft and look at your conclusion, make it your thesis paragraph, and restructure/organize the paragraphs if necessary.  William Zinsser, a famous teacher of writing, says that he doesn’t know what he wants to say until he says it.  This is why we revise our papers—to better articulate our ideas once we have worked through them in writing.

Your thesis should state what you want to do in the paper, your research helps you accomplish your goals, and your conclusion artfully focuses the reader on your main accomplishment.

Revision Strategies:

Revision is not a dirty word.  It does not mean that you failed the first time.  It means that you are continuing to revise how you see your topic and how you end up in the argument you are making.  You may change your mind through your research or your deep thinking.  That is OK.  That is why you revise and fine tune what you want to say.  It takes me about ten drafts to get it right.  And I always think it could be better.  That is what good writers do!

Write at different points.  Consider what you have done and then reconsider how you might have done things differently.  Since revision is critical to a good final paper, come to class prepared to write in your journal, plan how you will manage you time wisely and spread out the writing process over several weeks rather than the night or even a few days before it is due, and don’t fall behind in any of the reading or assignments.

Read your paper out loud to hear how you argument sounds.  You will hear all of your grammar mistakes as well as your lapses in organization and argument.  When a sentence sounds funny or is unclear, just say out loud what you meant to say and write that down!

Worksheet #1 – Developing your Thesis and Bibliography:

  1. What is the topic of your paper?
  1. What is the thesis of your paper?
  1. What points support your argument or thesis?
  1. What passages from the novel explain or exemplify the thesis?
  1. What sources will be useful and why?
  1. How did you come up with the critical support in your working bibliography?

If you are having difficulty finding sources, see a librarian or come to the Writing Center to do a bibliography search with a tutor.

Worksheet #2 – Looking at your Outline or Rough Draft

  1. Restate the thesis of the paper
  1. Discuss what is the most interesting aspect of the draft
  1. Point out three strengths of the draft
  1. Discuss the textual evidence used:    What evidence is used?     Is more evidence needed?     If so, where and what type?     What is the relevance of each quotation?     Is the evidence introduced properly and explicated well?
  1. What other questions would you like to address?

6.  List concerns you have about the essay:

Worksheet for FINAL REVIEW

  1. Before each use of or reference to text, how effective is the transition that leads the reader to the text?
  1. What is the purpose of the text in the paper?  How does the use of text support the statements made?
  1. Is each citation or example clear?  Specific?  Adequate?  Have you used correct MLA style for parenthetical citation and for Works Cited?
  1. Have you interpreted the text or merely summarized?  Can you identify places where interpretation or summary is necessary but omitted?
  1. Where have you summarized instead of interpreted?
  1. Consider each sentence as a unit.  Which sentences need to be more concise or need to be clearer?
  1. Circle transitions between and within paragraphs to assess how the paper flows.
  1. Do a final proofing of the paper for typos and grammatical errors by reading the paper out loud and using spell check.

Check Sheet for a Literary-Critical Essay (from Barbara Walvoord’s “How to Make Grading Fair, Time-Efficient, and Conducive to Learning” workshop, GWU, Spring, 2009)

___ I have read the novel at least twice

___ I revised this essay at least once

___ I spent at least five hours on this essay

___ I started work on this essay at least three days ago

___ I have tried hard to do my best work on this essay

___ I looked at the grading criteria on the assignment sheet to check and revise the paper

___ I proofread the essay  twice (once time OUT LOUD) for grammar and punctuation

___ I asked at least one other person to proofread the essay

___ I ran the essay through a spelling check

___ If I were to revise this paper again, I would

Technical Aspects of the Paper:

Papers are 8-10 pages in length (they can be longer if you need more space to explore and argue your idea).  All papers must be double-spaced, with one-inch margins all around, and stapled in the upper left-hand corner.  Do not justify margins.  Include a cover sheet with your name, due date, and title.  Submit notes, drafts, and outlines with papers.  Papers handed in after the due date will be considered lat and will be penalized one grade for each session missed.

Grading Rubric:

An  “A” paper presents original thinking, an interesting research question, a compelling argument, and an analytical thesis with excellent sources to provide evidence in addition to textual support.  The paper is well-organized, with smooth transitions and uses proper MLA documentation style.  Finally, the paper contains no or just a few minor grammatical/sentencing errors.

A “B” paper presents an interesting thesis argument with good sources to provide evidence in addition to textual support.  The thesis is clearly presented and the argument is organized with transitions and topic sentences.  The paper uses proper MLA documentation style and contains minor grammatical/sentencing errors.

A “C” paper presents an average effort and fulfills the assignment by discussing the text, but is more descriptive than argumentative.  Excessive plot summary replaces textual analysis.  Meets the minimum requirements for outside sources.  May or may not follow the MLA style and contains grammatical/sentencing errors.

A “D” paper fails to present a thesis or provide analysis of the text.  Does not meet the minimum requirements for outside sources and/or does not follow MLA documentation style.  Contains grammatical/sentencing errors that obstruct the reading and meaning of the paper.

2. Final Exam Essay (25% of final grade):

The final exam essay questions ask you to compare/contrast/discuss Faulkenr and Morrison.  You should begin each essay with an introduction and clear thesis and use examples from the novels to illustrate your points in your discussion.  Your introduction should define the terms you will use an summarize any theoretical framework you will incorporate, as well as introduce the works you will discuss.  Because this is a closed-book test, discuss the works by using examples (paraphrased or summarized, not word for word) that you recall from the readings.  AVOID EXCESSIVE PLOT SUMMARY.  A comparison/contrast format is useful.  Please see the following link for information on comparison/contrast essays:


3.  In-class Writing and Class Participation (25% of your final grade)

Class work may include in-class writing assignments, quizzes, collaborative work, workshops, and discussion of assigned material.  Therefore, attendance is a critical part of the final grade.  If you must miss class because of an emergency situation, please notify me prior to class in order to be excused.  Every unexcused absence will be averaged into the final grade for the course.  Excessive excused absences will be taken into consideration as well.  You are responsible for signing in every class session and for all material covered in class.


Common Writing Errors*

When writing for any course or in a business context, it is important that your writing style, grammar, and punctuation are correct.  It is always appropriate to use the Spell Checker and Grammar Checker functions on Word when you have finished writing; however, remember that these do not always catch errors.  Below are some of the more common errors that have occurred from previous students’ writing.  We hope you will use it as a sort of “cheat sheet,” to catch some of your own errors before turning in papers.  For additional examples, consult the Strunk & White book (listed under References and Resources).

  • Be sure that your formatting is correct and consistent throughout your paper.  Save your document, close the file, re-open it, and print a paper copy to see how it looks before submitting it.  This can also help you identify paragraphs that are too long or too short.
  • Be sure that you have used hard pagination to ensure that when you send a document, the page ends appropriately (without hanging titles at the end of a page, in the middle of a table, etc.).
  • Be sure that you pay attention to detail.  Read through your assignment carefully and make sure you have the facts correct.  Misspelled names, for example, indicate sloppiness to the reader.
  • Consistent verb tenses establish the time of the actions being described.  When a passage begins in past tense, the rest of the sentence should be in past tense.  For example, an incorrect sentence structure:

He traced the class systems of earlier times and concludes that there are only two classes.

The correct sentence structure:

He traced the class systems of earlier times and concluded that there were only two classes.

  • Be sure that a verb agrees with its subject, not with a word that comes in between.  Example:

The governor as well as his press secretary was shot.

  • Avoid run-on sentences.  There are 4 ways to correct a run-on sentence:  Example:

Gestures are a means for everyone but they are essential for the hearing-impaired.

  • Gestures are a means of communication for everyone, but they are essential for the hearing-impaired.
  • Gestures are a means of communication for everyone; however, they are essential for the hearing impaired.
  • Gestures are a means of communication for everyone; they are essential for the hearing impaired.
  • Gestures are a means of communication for everyone.  They are essential for the hearing impaired.
  • Avoid leaving a preposition hanging at the end of a sentence.  Example:

We looked at all the options to be compared to.

The correct sentence structure:

We looked at all the options for comparison.

  • When using acronyms, spell out the words the first time they appear in your document; put the acronym in parenthesis.  Then you may use just the acronym:

Soon, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) will be expecting mail from us.

  • Affect/effectAffect is usually a verb meaning “to influence.”  Effect is usually a noun meaning “result.”

The drug did not affect the disease, and it had adverse side effects.

  • Its, it’sIts is a possessive pronoun; it’s is a contraction for it is.

The dog wagged its tail whenever its owner walked into the room.  It’s a perfect day to take a walk.

  • There, their, they’reThere is an adverb specifying place; it is also an expletive.  There is a possessive pronoun.  There is a contraction of they are. Examples:

Adverb:  Sylvia is lying there unconscious.

Expletive:  There are two plums left.

Possessive Pronoun:  Fred and Jane finally went on their honeymoon.

Contraction:  They’re later than usual today.

  • Than, thenThan is a conjunction used in comparisons; then is an adverb denoting time.  Examples:

That pizza is more than I can eat.

Tom laughed, and then we recognized him.

  • Use of a comma between all items in a series:  When three or more items are presented in a series, those items should be separated from one another with commas (including the last two items):

Bubbles of air, leaves, ferns, bits of wood, and insects are often found trapped in amber.

  • Use a colon to introduce a list (do NOT use a semi-colon):

Amber often contains the following: bubbles of air, leaves, ferns, bits of wood, and insects.

  • Apostrophes:  Use an apostrophe to indicate that a noun is possessive.  Examples:

Roy managed to climb out on the driver’s side.

Both diplomats’ briefcases were searched by guards.

Have you seen Joyce and Greg’s new camper?

  • Quotation Marks:  Direct quotations of a person’s words, whether spoken or written, must be in quotation marks.  Examples:

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. (Note,

the punctuation is inside the quotation marks.)

According to Paul Eliott, Eskimo hunters “chant an ancient magic song to the seal they are

after:  ‘Beast of the sea!  Come and place yourself before me in the early morning!’”

(Note, use single quotation marks to enclose a quotation within a quotation.)

  • Articles and titles of publications:  Use quotation marks around titles of newspaper and magazine articles, poems, short stories, and chapters of books.  Titles of books, plays, Websites, magazines, and newspapers are put in italics or underlined.  (Note, this does not apply to citations.  Use appropriate style guide for correct citation formatting.)

* Adapted from:  Hacker, Diane.  A Writer’s Reference:  Sixth Edition.  Boston:

Bedford/St. Martins, 2007.

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