The requirements for different kinds of writing assignments in different kinds of graduate classes will vary. But the following general guidelines may help give you some idea of the expectations for researching and writing at the graduate level:
UNDERGRADUATE CRITICAL WRITING VS. GRADUATE CRITICAL WRITING:
A good undergraduate critical essay will satisfy the following criteria:
- It will demonstrate a clear sense of purpose.
- It will define and defend an argument and not merely summarize a text or retell a plot. In writing about literature and language, one demonstrates (rather than merely asserts) the points being made by citing and then drawing significant conclusions about evidence from the text.
- It will have focused, cohesive paragraphs that progressively develop one central focus for the essay that has been made clear to the reader at the outset of the paper.
- It must use mechanically sound sentences and correct expression.
- It must use MLA conventions for citation, bibliography, and manuscript form properly.
Graduate-level critical writing presupposes these same virtues, of course, but it will satisfy professional expectations as well:
- It will make some attempt to situate the argument within relevant criticism on the subject; that is, it should engage the critical debate over the works and ideas.
- It will use authoritative secondary sources to do so.
- It will answer, typically in the introduction or conclusion (or both), the questions, “So what? So why is this argument significant? What does it offer to the critical debate over the subject?”
ENGAGING THE CRITICAL DEBATE:
Discussing literary, linguistic, aesthetic, and pedagogical issues means that you are engaging a debate with others who are also interested in your topic. Some of the people who are carrying on the current critical argument about a work or author or about features of language and creative techniques have been at it a long time; they are, understandably, better-versed in the topic than you. If you are to establish credibility with your reading audience (and without credibility, you can never convince that audience to accept your critical argument), you need to listen carefully at first to what the debaters are saying. You need to demonstrate that you understand the important issues at hand and, importantly, the critical idiom that the debaters use in talking about these issues. Only then should you yourself enter into the critical argument.
A graduate professor does not necessarily expect that you have the expertise of a scholar who has been studying and debating about a work or author for half a century, but she or he certainly expects that you show an intelligent awareness of some of the important issues and arguments informing your topic. Enlightening yourself about the critical debate helps you in refining your own thinking—and provokes you to say more.
Because of the greater expectations for your participation in a critical debate about a work or author, you can expect to spend hours, days, weeks in the library. But certainly you love books and ideas, or you wouldn’t be pursuing an MA in English, would you?
USING APPROPRIATE SECONDARY SOURCES:
When you undertake a project requiring research, avoid using “sophomoric” sources intended for…sophomores. Use standard bibliographic tools like the MLA International Bibliography to identify relatively current secondary sources. As a rule, avoid secondary sources on the Internet, except for bibliographic purposes.
Don’t shy away from difficult critical articles and books. When it comes to citing sources and using them to inform your argument for an essay, aim high.
Always be meticulous in making your citations and bibliographic information correct.
INTRODUCTIONS AND THE BIG “SO WHAT?”
A graduate essay should be able to fulfill a clearly stated purpose: What do you plan to show your reader about the text, the author, or the cultural contexts? Be able to say in your introduction what is at stake in your essay—why someone should want to read it. A good introduction to an argumentative essay is often crafted last, after the author has written a full draft and finally discovered exactly what she or he wants to argue—not “kind of” or “sort of,” but exactly; we usually discover our true thesis in an argument as we write our way into it.
Look at some articles from creditable journals and see how they build their introductions. Very often the author will proceed in this fashion: defining the subject, stating the reigning critical opinion(s) on that subject, and then proposing what will be shown to the reader and how it differs from, or augments, current critical opinion. Not a bad model.