How To Write Well

Have you been struggling with writing? Paper assignments got you stumped? Have a great idea or argument but aren’t sure how to express it in writing? Then this is the video for you!

In this video I share with you some common errors people make when they write and how to avoid them as well as some tips on how to become better as a writer in general.

The Study of English in the Eyes of a Scientist

From my experience, a lot of people seem to think that skills and concepts learned in English classes aren’t of much use outside of the literary sphere. I, on the other hand think that knowing how to write is important to almost any career one would aspire to have. So I sat down with my girlfriend, Hannah, who is a Biochemistry major to find out if English plays any part in her scientific endeavors.

Have you taken any English classes at Dickinson? Can you tell me a little bit about that? i.e. the topic of the class, the types of work you were assigned

Although it’s not considered a typical English class, as a first semester, first year student here at Dickinson, I, like everyone else, was required to take a first-year seminar, and my seminar was on the topics of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. I consider this course an English class even though it wasn’t in the English department at Dickinson because, like English classes that I have taken at Dickinson, the aim of the seminars even though they’re topical and can be in different departments, is to prepare incoming college students to write, read, and analyse critically at the collegiate level.

Most of the assignments in my FYS included close readings of very complex texts: works by Niezsche which are very philosophical and kind of abstract and the focus of the class was taking a challenging piece of literature and kind of grappling with it and extracting what you coud from it. Additionaly, after reading those texts we would work to better ourselves as writers. We learned the difference between founded and unfounded hypotheses and conclusions. And I really look at my FYS as my first ‘English class’ experience at Dickinson.

In the second semester of my first year here I took an English 101 which was called ‘Jane Austen and Her World’. The topics of the class were both Austen’s works of literature as well as her life in the context of the period of history in which she lived and how historical events that she experienced in her life shaped her writing and her opinions about the world. In that class we read all six of Austen’s novels in chronological order, starting with Northanger Abbey and ending with Sense and Sensibility. Assignments in that class were two 3-page ‘response’ papers which could be written on any of the novels we had read up before they were due. For those papers we had to follow fairly liberal parameters and were allowed to write on pretty much anything that interested us that fell within those parameters. Since I had gotten used to English classes where students are given very specific topics and guidelines to write with, I was really pleased with the amount of flexibility I was afforded. In addition to the papers, were were also expected to post weekly responses to questions about our readings on our class Moodle forum which I enjoyed because of how casual they were. I also enjoyed reading other peoples’ posts because I got to read perspectives that weren’t immediately apparent to myself as I was reading through the novel.


What, in your opinion, were some valuable skills that you learned from that class?

I specifically chose to take an English 101 class last year because I wanted to cultivate my skills as a writer. Coming into college I felt like writing was really a skill that I hadn’t fully developed in high school and I wanted to get better at writing really early in my Dickinson career because I knew that writing would be a huge part of my academic career here and most likely also into my professional life post-Dickinson.

I would say the most valuable skill from the English class I took last semester was how to write formally and concisely. I learned how to generate a strong and well-founded hypothesis and how to use textual evidence to support the hypotheses that I had formulated. That’s an applicable skill not only in an English class and in other classes that I’ll take at Dickinson but I really see that as an applicable skill in careers that I may pursue in the future. Learning how to write and learning how to strongly and concisely state your argument and then to support that argument through other sources and other documents is a crucial skill in being able to communicate and persuade throughout the collegiate and professional world.

How have those skills helped you as a Biochemistry major?

I think that, as a Biochemistry major, a huge misconception that I get from other people is that I spend my whole day in the laboratory and that, as a science major, I just spend my days mixing solutions or pipetting and that I don’t come into contact with situations in which I need write and convey my thoughts, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, as scientists, we’re doing research and we’re making discoveries and trying to better understand the world around us but if we can’t convey our thoughts and if we can’t convey our findings then all the work we’ve done is for nothing. After I complete an experiment I enter into a very formal scientific paper-writing stage of my experiment so after I’ve concluded all my experimentations I’m then tasked with taking all of the data and the hypotheses that I’ve tested and the results that I’ve come up with and turning that into a paper which can not only thoroughly but concisely report the findings of my experiments. And these research papers, even though they are highly scientifically specialized, are very similar to papers I’ve written in my English classes. For example, we open up scientific papers with what’s called an ‘abstract’ which is a summary of what I’m studying, what I’m looking to test, the methods I’m going to be using, and the results that I got.

This is basically like the introduction of an English paper in which you creatively introduce the book that you read or the article you’re going to be talking about and then you introduce some questions that you’ve formulated from your reading that you’re working towards either supporting or rejecting. After you present your hypothesis you kind of allude to how you’re going to show that your hypothesis is accurate or it should be rejected. There are a lot of parallels between a scientific paper that I write to convey the results of my experiment and an English paper that I write to convey an idea that I formulated after reading a text.il_fullxfull.166914172

Do you think that taking a course(s) in English is important even for those not pursuing a career in a particularly writing-oriented field? Why or why not?

I think that it’s crucial for college students to be exposed to at least one English course during their time in college because even if you’re not pursuing a career that’s not ‘writing oriented’, every career that you will come across in your post-Dickinson life and professional career will incorporate writing in some aspect. For myself, as a scientist, I encounter writing when I need to communicate with others the results of the experiments that I have done and when I need to persuade people that my work is relevant and that the work that I’ve done contributes to our knowledge of science as a whole. So even though I don’t plan on entering a career after Dickinson that we would consider ‘writing oriented’, I know for a fact that writing will always be a part of my professional life because I’m always going to need to communicate with fellow scientists, persuade people that my work is relevant, and to communicate with and educate the general public about science. I feel that my English classes here at Dickinson have contributed to my skills as a writer and I feel that I wouldn’t be able to effectively communicate if I hadn’t taken English courses that taught me how to formulate an argument and support that argument.

A Close Reading of Seamus Heaney’s, “Mid-Term Break”

For this week’s post I’ve decided to do a close reading of Seamus Heaney’s poem, “Mid-Term Break”, first published in his collection titled Death of a Naturalist. We briefly looked at this poem in my English 220 class but ever since then I’ve been wanting to go back and dig a bit deeper into it.


Before we get started, I think I should define what exactly a ‘close reading‘ is for those who aren’t familiar with literary criticism. A close reading is like taking a single text and putting a magnifying glass up to it. When you close read you pick apart and analyze every last bit of the text you can and pull all of the information out of it that you can. You have to look at not only every day literary devices that the author uses but also out-of-the-box sort of things such as the title itself and even the shape of the piece your analyzing as well as that of each individual paragraph or stanza.

Normally you would end up with page after page of analysis, but I won’t be going too in-depth here as this is only a short blog post. I’ve reproduced the text for you below so that you can follow along. Feel free to do some close reading of your own! Enjoy!

I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close
At two o’clock our neighbors drove me home.

In the porch I met my father crying-
He had always taken funerals in his stride-
And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

The baby cooed and and laughed and rocked the pram
When I came in, and I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my hand

And tell me they were ‘sorry for my trouble’.
Whispers informed strangers that I was the eldest,
Away at school, as my mother held my hand

In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
At ten o’clock the ambulance arrived
With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.

Next morning I went up to the room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four-foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

A four-foot box, a foot for every year.

The first thing I notice about the poem is the title’s reference to the events that occur in the poem. The word ‘break’ is a reference to the severing of ties between the speaker and his younger brother. Heaney continually builds up the funeral to express the abnormality of the situation, describing his unusual pick-up from school and telling us that his father “always took funerals in his stride” but is now weeping uncontrollably. Another thing to note is the “poppy bruise” on the deceased boy’s forehead, which resembles the British emblem of Remembrance given to fallen combat soldiers during World War 1. This could hint at the speaker’s reverence for and remembrance of his brother as he is viewing the casket.

It is also worth noting that the poem consists of seven three-line stanzas and one one-line stanza, all with no discernible rhyme scheme. There are, however, instances of consonance such as classes/close/clock and assonance like close/drove/home/blow. Heaney uses that final line, “A four-foot box, a foot for every year,” as a final ‘punch line’, revealing just how young his brother was at the time of his death and thereby giving the reader a sense of finality along with an idea of the suddenness and heartbreak of his loss.

  1. Heaney, Seamus. Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996. New    York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. Print.


Modern Myths

You’ve probably heard a lot of people say how our modern works of fiction are heavily influenced by ancient Greek myths, but has anyone ever actually sat you down and shown  you the parallels? Unless you’ve studied the topic, you may not have encountered a single example of this phenomenon. In that case, today is your lucky day! I’ve picked out a particularly good example that happens to be part of the reading for my 220 English class, Eudora Welty’s  Shower of Gold, a short story published in her book titled The Golden Apples (1945). This particular short story bears a striking resemblance to the ancient Greek myth of Danae. In case you’ve never hear the story of Danae, it goes a little something like this:

Once upon a time in ancient Greece, King Acrisius of Argos had a daughter named Danae. After hearing an oracle prophesy that his grandson would eventually kill him, he locked the then-childless Danae in a tower so that there was no way she could become pregnant. Despite all his efforts, however, Danae becomes pregnant after Zeus took a liking to her and appeared to her as a golden rain. Danae gave birth to a son, Perseus, soon after.

When Acrisius found out about this, instead of killing his daughter and grandson and thereby incurring the wrath of the furies, he decides to stuff them in a chest and throw it into the ocean. Danae and Perseus survive the ordeal and Perseus eventually ends up in Larissa to compete in some olympic-style games. Unaware that his grandfather was also in attendance at the games, he accidentally threw a discus off course which struck and killed Acrisius instantly, fulfilling the prophecy.


Ok, so how does any of that correlate have to Welty’s short story? Well, lets look at the plot. The story is set in Morgana, a small town in rural Mississippi, and is told by a character named Miss Katie, who talks about recent events in the life of her neighbor and friend, Snowdie MacLain. Snowdie’s husband, King, has run away since marrying her and only returned once, briefly, resulting in Snowdie becoming pregnant and giving birth to twin boys. Sound familiar? King actions cast him almost as a carbon copy of Zeus, as he briefly appears to Snowdie, impregnates her, and leaves, never to be seen again. King is also rumored to have fathered children with other women, something else Zeus was well-known for. Snowdie, an albino, seemed fated to remain unmarried much the same as Danae was thought to be. And, of course, the obvious reference in the title to the method in which Zeus appeared to Danae is icing on the cupcake.

You’d be surprised just how much ancient mythologies, not just that of the Greeks, permeate our modern stories and our culture at large. Keep one eye in a book of mythology and the other on the lookout, and you never know what you might find.

The Rise of English: Part II

Continued from Part I

There was a great deal of backlash from prestigious academic institutions in Britain, notably Oxford and Cambridge, toward the adoption of the study of English in the years leading up to the First World War. Most universities considered a subject worthy of academic study only if it could be examined, and because most members of the academic community considered English to be “idle gossip about literary taste,” it was all but impossible for it to gain foothold in academic circles without latching itself on to the study of Classics, something which classicists found abhorrent.

World War I turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the study of English, as philology, a type of historical and comparative linguistics and one of its most “strenuous antagonists”, was tossed out of British academia as a result of its Germanic influence. This, combined with a renewed sense of national pride and the rise of a “spiritual hungering” rocketed English to the top tiers of academic discussion. As Eagleton puts it, “It is a chastening thought that we owe the University study of English, in part at least, to a meaningless massacre.”


But who led this valiant charge of English into the ranks of academia?  A new generation of writers and critics arose who were not from the upper crust of British society but from the working class and were not be held responsible for England’s involvement in the Great War. They were former soldiers, children of shopkeepers, and many of them too young to remember the war in detail. These were people who had no long lineage of ancestors who attended Cambridge or Oxford and had no concern for and tore down the presumptions and constructs of the pre-war ruling class. Through their hard work and dedication, they changed they helped shape the modern academic environment based around English that we see today. Eagleton sums it up best when he writes, “In the early 1920s it was desperately unclear why English was worth studying at all; by the 1930s it had become a question of it was worth wasting your time on anything else. English was not only a subject worth studying, but the supremely civilizing pursuit, the spiritual essence of the social formation.”

  1. Eagleton, Terry. “The Rise of English.” Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1983. 17-53. Print.

The Rise of English: Part I

For my first ever post on this literary blog I thought it would be appropriate to start off with a bit of a history lesson. I want to travel back a couple of centuries and find out how literature as we know it today developed and became a widespread field of study in the academic world. To do this, I will use the chapter titled “The Rise of English” from Terry Eagleton’s book, Literary Theory, as a guide. keep-calm-and-study-english-literature-6

Many a seasoned literature buff will cry out and say that Eagleton was a Marxist and so his theories about literature come from a Marxist point of view. This, of course, is undeniable as Eagleton over and over again uses Marxist language such as ‘fetishize’ and ‘bourgeois’ to the extent that one could mistake the chapter for an essay written by the founder of Communism himself. This however, does not mean that Eagleton’s writing is tainted so much that any analysis he offers is null and void, and in my reading I’ve found that quite the opposite is true. There is some very valuable knowledge and perspective to be gained from the Marxist perspective.

Eagleton starts off by declaring that literature as we know it today began to develop during the Romantic period’ of English writing. He writes that by the time Romanticism rolled around, “literature was becoming virtually synonymous with the ‘imaginative’: to write about what did not exist was somehow more soul-stirring and valuable than to pen an account of Birmingham or the circulation of the blood,” (Eagleton). But how did this contribute to the rise of the study of literature? Due to its strong connection to the imaginative, its human element, and its dealing with universal values, suggests Eagleton, it was the ideal candidate to replace the most powerful form of sway over the masses: religion. By the middle of the Victorian period, he tells us, religion had fallen out of favor with the lower classes and a substitute was needed, the ruling class felt, to keep them in line. The study of literature was perfect for the job because, “…it could serve to place in cosmic perspective the petty demands of working people for decent living conditions or greater control over their own lives, and might even with some luck come to render them oblivious of such issues in their high-minded contemplation of eternal truths and beauties,” (Eagleton).

From there it was just a matter of time until this common man’s pursuit rose into the world of academia. After its humble start as a ‘poor man’s classics’, a sort of education for those not privileged enough to attend institutions like Oxford or Cambridge, it soon found its way into institutions of higher education at roughly the same time English women did. Eagleton explains that, “…since English was an untaxing sort of affair, concerned with the finer feelings rather than with the more virile topics of bona fide academic ‘disciplines’, it seemed a convenient sort of non-subject to palm off on the ladies, who were in any case excluded from science and the professions,” (Eagleton). This being the situation, it took a while for the study of literature to find its way up the ladder to the higher classes of academia and society itself.

To be continued…

  1. Eagleton, Terry. “The Rise of English.” Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1983. 17-53. Print.