Writing in Literature: Writing the Prompt Paper
These sections describe in detail the assignments students may complete when writing about literature. These sections also discuss different approaches (literary theory/criticism) students may use to write about literature. These resources build on the Writing About Literature materials.
Contributors: J. Case Tompkins
Last Edited: 2013-12-06 10:29:39
Whether you are given a selection of prompts to choose from or just one, knowing something about the various sorts of writing prompts can help you understand what your teacher expects and how you should approach the project.
“Compare and Contrast”
This classic writing prompt can be quite challenging because it sounds almost as if you are being asked to compile a list of similarities and differences. While a list might be of use in the planning stage, this prompt asks you to use what you discover to arrive at a conclusion about the two works under discussion.
Example: “Compare and contrast the two endings for Dickens’ Great Expectations paying special attention to the situation of Stella at the close of the novel.”
- Find three or four elements from the texts upon which to base your comparison.
- Examine possible connections and determine a thesis.
- Base your outline around the elements you’ve chosen, remembering to give equal coverage to each side.
“Discuss the theme of x as it appears in works a, b, and c.”
This is an extended or re-named compare and contrast prompt. In this situation, you are given a general theme, such as “loss of innocence” or “self-revelation.” Your job is to use the instances of that theme to arrive at some general conclusions regarding how the theme works in the text you are analyzing.
Example: “Discuss the ways in which Shakespeare talks about the passing of time in three of the sonnets we read for class.”
- Re-read carefully the selected works looking specifically for the theme or motif in question. Then research the ways in which other critics have examined this theme.
- Determine your argument. Will you make a claim for similarity (“A, b, and c use x in much the same way.”), difference (“A, b, and c, when dealing with x, take highly individual approaches.”), or superiority (“While a and b deal with x, c clearly demonstrates a richer, more nuanced treatment.”)?
- Organize your paper around the works, making each point deal thoroughly with a discrete work. Remember that connections are of the utmost importance for this paper, so pay close attention to your transitions.
“What is the role of women/the role of class/the role of the Other as presented in this work?”
All three examples above serve as first steps to the larger world of literary theory and criticism. Writing prompts like this ask you to examine a work from a particular perspective. You may not be comfortable with this new perspective. Chances are that since your instructor has given you such an assignment, the issues in question will be at least partially covered in class.
Example: “Discuss the ways in which the outsider or Other is dealt with in James Joyce’s story “The Dead.”
- Categorize the persons or characters in the piece. What are they in the most general, stereotypical way? Male or female? Lower or upper class? Natives or foreigners? Strangers or friends?
- Examine the ways in which the characters you’ve categorized fit or don’t fit into the boxes you’ve assigned them. Do they support or undermine the categories, and what do others (including the author) say about them and their place in the world?
- Write your paper as if you were giving a new definition (or an amended definition)of the category in question using the text as your guide. Your main points should highlight the ways in which the text uses or discards the accepted categories.
“Critic A has famously said “B” about this work. In light of our study of the piece in question, would you agree or disagree, why or why not?”
This sort of question is often asked as an in-class essay, but can appear as a prompt for larger papers. The goal of a question like this is to give you the opportunity to deal with the critical voices of others in your own writings.
Example: “C.S. Lewis has said that Chaucer is “our foremost poet of joy” in the English language, and in this field he “has few equals and no masters.” Discuss how this applies to the ending of “The Knight’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales.”
- Read and re-read the quote from the prompt several times. Ask yourself what seems to be the quote’s central claim.
- Apply that claim to the relevant passage or work. In a way, you are being asked not to examine the literature so much as the claim about the literature. Does it hold up to scrutiny in light of the actual text?
- Your instructor would be equally pleased whether you agree or disagree with the critic’s views as long as you do so in a scholarly fashion. Structure your paper around the claims made by the quote and use lines from the text to support your own reaction.
What is a comparative essay?
A comparative essay asks that you compare at least two (possibly more) items. These items will differ depending on the assignment. You might be asked to compare
- positions on an issue (e.g., responses to midwifery in Canada and the United States)
- theories (e.g., capitalism and communism)
- figures (e.g., GDP in the United States and Britain)
- texts (e.g., Shakespeare’s Hamletand Macbeth)
- events (e.g., the Great Depression and the global financial crisis of 2008–9)
Although the assignment may say “compare,” the assumption is that you will consider both the similarities and differences; in other words, you will compare and contrast.
Make sure you know the basis for comparison
The assignment sheet may say exactly what you need to compare, or it may ask you to come up with a basis for comparison yourself.
- Provided by the essay question: The essay question may ask that you consider the figure of the gentleman in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations and Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The basis for comparison will be the figure of the gentleman.
- Developed by you: The question may simply ask that you compare the two novels. If so, you will need to develop a basis for comparison, that is, a theme, concern, or device common to both works from which you can draw similarities and differences.
Develop a list of similarities and differences
Once you know your basis for comparison, think critically about the similarities and differences between the items you are comparing, and compile a list of them.
For example, you might decide that in Great Expectations, being a true gentleman is not a matter of manners or position but morality, whereas in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, being a true gentleman is not about luxury and self-indulgence but hard work and productivity.
The list you have generated is not yet your outline for the essay, but it should provide you with enough similarities and differences to construct an initial plan.
Develop a thesis based on the relative weight of similarities and differences
Once you have listed similarities and differences, decide whether the similarities on the whole outweigh the differences or vice versa. Create a thesis statement that reflects their relative weights. A more complex thesis will usually include both similarities and differences. Here are examples of the two main cases:
- Differences outweigh similarities:
While Callaghan’s “All the Years of Her Life” and Mistry’s “Of White Hairs and Cricket” both follow the conventions of the coming-of-age narrative, Callaghan’s story adheres more closely to these conventions by allowing its central protagonist to mature. In Mistry’s story, by contrast, no real growth occurs.
- Similarities outweigh differences:
Although Darwin and Lamarck came to different conclusions about whether acquired traits can be inherited, they shared the key distinction of recognizing that species evolve over time.
Come up with a structure for your essay
- Alternating method: Point-by-point patternIn the alternating method, you find related points common to your central subjects A and B, and alternate between A and B on the basis of these points (ABABAB …). For instance, a comparative essay on the French and Russian revolutions might examine how both revolutions either encouraged or thwarted innovation in terms of new technology, military strategy, and the administrative system.
A Paragraph 1 in body new technology and the French Revolution B Paragraph 2 in body new technology and the Russian Revolution A Paragraph 3 in body military strategy and the French Revolution B Paragraph 4 in body military strategy and the Russian Revolution A Paragraph 5 in body administrative system and the French Revolution B Paragraph 6 in body administrative system and the Russian Revolution
Note that the French and Russian revolutions (A and B) may be dissimilar rather than similar in the way they affected innovation in any of the three areas of technology, military strategy, and administration. To use the alternating method, you just need to have something noteworthy to say about both A and B in each area. Finally, you may certainly include more than three pairs of alternating points: allow the subject matter to determine the number of points you choose to develop in the body of your essay.
When do I use the alternating method? Professors often like the alternating system because it generally does a better job of highlighting similarities and differences by juxtaposing your points about A and B. It also tends to produce a more tightly integrated and analytical paper. Consider the alternating method if you are able to identify clearly related points between A and B. Otherwise, if you attempt to impose the alternating method, you will probably find it counterproductive.
- Block method: Subject-by-subject patternIn the block method (AB), you discuss all of A, then all of B. For example, a comparative essay using the block method on the French and Russian revolutions would address the French Revolution in the first half of the essay and the Russian Revolution in the second half. If you choose the block method, however, do not simply append two disconnected essays to an introductory thesis. The B block, or second half of your essay, should refer to the A block, or first half, and make clear points of comparison whenever comparisons are relevant. (“Unlike A, B . . .” or “Like A, B . . .”) This technique will allow for a higher level of critical engagement, continuity, and cohesion.
A Paragraphs 1–3 in body How the French Revolution encouraged or thwarted innovation B Paragraphs 4–6 in body How the Russian Revolution encouraged or thwarted innovation
When do I use the block method? The block method is particularly useful in the following cases:
- You are unable to find points about A and B that are closely related to each other.
- Your ideas about B build upon or extend your ideas about A.
- You are comparing three or more subjects as opposed to the traditional two.