Ah, the (dreaded) English paper.
What makes for a solid thesis?
How do you build an argument?
What’s even the point?!
These are some of the thoughts that might cross a student’s mind as they wonder how to study for English and write a solid English paper.
Here are some tips to help students write a clear, concise, and compelling paper.
How to Study English: Writing a High School English Paper
Writing an English paper starts with close reading, which our study tips for literature and poetry can help students master. After all, if you’ve not read carefully and thoughtfully, you’ll not only have a hard time coming up with an interesting thesis (or an interesting answer to a given prompt), but you’ll also lack good, specific evidence for it.
Simply put, a thesis is an arguable claim that arises from a close reading and interpretation of a given text. “Arguable” means you can imagine a dissenting point of view and legitimate counterarguments. An arguable claim isn’t flawed or weak; it’s interesting—even provocative.
In fact, imagining counterarguments is a great way to hone and nuance your thesis. Plus, you can even deploy those counterarguments (“It could be argued. . .”) and your counter-counterarguments (“But ultimately. . .”) in the paper itself to demonstrate that you have deeply considered your thesis.
Many students feel that they need to have a fully formed, air-tight thesis before they can begin writing—after all, the thesis is stated at the beginning, and everything follows from it. However, this perspective is a bit backward, in my opinion.
It’s common for a thesis to change subtly or even drastically by the time the paper is finished—and that’s not a bad thing. Writing is not, as we commonly imagine, a simple transcription of perfectly formed thought into words. It’s more like the next stage in thought itself, which means that as you work out what you’re thinking in words, your thought may take a different shape than you initially imagined.
By all means, form a thesis before you begin writing, but let it be provisional; let it change in response to your argument as it unfolds and becomes clear.
The body paragraphs
The body paragraphs are where you make your case by supporting your thesis with evidence and arguments. It’s important to keep in mind the distinction between a simple observation and an interpretation.
Avoid simply stating facts, leaving the reader to piece together your point. You must interpret the facts to tell a story—one that will convince the reader of your particular take on the facts.
Students often unknowingly omit steps in their chain of thinking because it may feel so self-evident that they needn’t make it explicit. But what feels obvious to you may not be to your reader. So lead them step by step through your argument, making each logical link clear.
The main purpose of the conclusion, like that of a lawyer’s closing statement, is to summarize the case you’ve made to support your thesis. To avoid being repetitive and boring the reader, try rewording your arguments and evidence or taking a different path through them.
While it’s fine to end here, good conclusions often give the reader something else—one last thought to chew on. This final nugget often takes the form of a “zoom out” (in a way mirroring the “zoom in” from context to thesis that is the introduction).
Here you might consider the larger implications of your thesis: what other interesting questions it poses or might shed light on. The point is not to introduce another thesis to argue for but to gesture in the direction of some related issue or question your thesis raises or touches on.
What Students Gain from Writing English Papers
Students may wonder why their teachers keep putting them through what feels like an onerous (and even pointless) exercise. At its best, the English paper teaches three of the most important skills a student must learn to master:
- Careful reading
- Critical thinking
- Clear writing
Students will need to use these skills during the college admissions process, for example, such as when preparing for the SAT or ACT and writing their college essays.
So even if literature isn’t your thing or you have no intention of going into the humanities, I would encourage you to put forward a sincere effort and learn from your teacher’s feedback. The skills you acquire and refine will serve you well, no matter the path your life takes.
Learn How to Study English from Signet’s Tutors
When students need outside support studying for English and literature, Signet’s tutors are available to help. Our English and literature tutors are enthusiastic teachers with the skills to engage students who aren’t naturally drawn to these subjects.