Written with my sincerest apologies to all of my former English teachers/professors.
Look, I know there are a lot of you out there who are having trouble writing English papers. You may be an engineering student who, for some weird excuse of "becoming a more well-rounded person", needs to take English classes. You may be a high school student who is stuck sleeping through another boring round of Shakespeare that you can't comprehend. You may be an English student who thought this would be a hell of a lot easier and now you are thinking about dropping out of school or becoming a political science major or something like that. You may have even paged through 20+ pages of Google results to somehow land on this page in one desperate, last hope that this page will somehow tell you something that the other 20+ pages didn't tell you. Don't worry, this page does exactly that.
Writing a paper is not, actually, all that hard. The 5-page paper, once mastered, can be turned out in an afternoon (proofreading notwithstanding). The 15-page paper is more difficult, but it can be nailed in only a couple of days. In fact, once you write a 15-page paper, the 5-page paper will seem pretty damn easy. Trust me, if an English major can figure out how to do it, anybody can.
For all of you, especially those engineering majors I was talking to earlier, the ability to write an English paper is a vital skill and will get you very far in life. "Why is that?" you may be asking your computer. Allow me to clue you in to the one important thing you need to understand about writing an English paper:
English papers are exercises in telling people what they want to hear.
That's right, you are attempting to write a paper in which you tell your teacher/professor exactly what they want to hear. So, had you not wasted your time furiously taking notes you are never going to read and, instead, actually paid attention in class, you would have a better idea of what your teacher/professor wants to hear. Trust me, you can get pretty far in life telling people what they want to hear.
If you end up going for a master's degree or doctorate in English, then you may be allowed to think for yourself. But at the undergrad or high school level, it's better to just write what you are expected to write. Why? Because any argument you make in an English paper will seem to be better supported if it is in line with what the teacher/professor thinks. This is far from the last time you will encounter this phenomenon.
This page will not tell you all that stuff about taking notes during your reading, highlighting important sections, rereading your notes, putting your points onto notecards, organizing your notecards so that your thoughts are organized, writing an outline to organize your thoughts even further, then writing a rough draft that you can edit. Then, after writing your rough draft, you trim out all the excess information, then you add more information to your rough draft. Then, after several drafts have been trimmed, proofread, completed, organized, sorted alphabetically, typed professionally, then proofread again by your mother, you can turn it in nine days early so that you have it out of the way, freeing up time for some purpose that has never been specified by the "get it done early" folks.
Nobody does this. And even if they did do this, they would not be the sorts of people who need to read an article about how to write a paper. If you are reading this, you are probably two turns away from completely screwed.
Okay, I am not going to go into what a thesis statement is, nor how to write the opening and concluding paragraphs. That's stuff that I can't teach you in an article like this. If you don't know how to do that, then you need to actually TALK TO YOUR TEACHER. Because those are basics that I can't describe for you.
No, what I am going to describe for you are general tips for your paper topic that will help you come up with a thesis that can be supported with minimal effort. If you are reading this, you are probably getting desperate, so I'll give you some basics that will get you places.
The British are probably the most class-conscious people on earth, which means that they are constantly wrestling with the topic. That means that many of their plays and novels and so forth are actually just allegories for the problems of social class (rich vs. poor, commoner vs. aristocracy) and class distinction. However, what this means for you is that ANYTHING written by a British person can be argued to be about class.
Think of it as a game: How does this indicate that the lower classes are being oppressed?
Example: When Jack discovers that the magic beans have created the beanstalk, he climbs it, symbolizing his desire and even his ability to climb socially. However, the powerful giant (the aristocracy) attempts to consume and destroy the man who can reach his own social level. Thus, Jack must inevitably climb back down the social ladder and return to his lower station as a common serf on the farm.
Think of this like the British, only use race instead of class. In particular, any reference to the color black is a commentary on black people in general. This is particularly powerful when the term "black" or "dark" is used in its archaic form as a synonym for dire, dangerous, or evil. Old cowboy movies where the bad guys always wore black, or the decision to dress Darth Vader in black can pull in a lot of mileage.
Think of it as a game: Why is this racist?
Example: Paul Bunyan's blue ox Babe displays the racism of people on the early frontier. The distinct choice to make Babe "colored" shows the light in which the frontiersmen viewed post-Emancipation African-Americans. Not only does the white Paul Bunyan own the ox, but the "colored" Babe is not even a man. Rather, he is a low beast of burden who is expected to do all the work for Paul. Clearly, ideas of race had not changed at all in the years following the abolition of slavery.
This one is a little trickier, as the roles of women have gone back and forth a lot through the years. This will actually require you to have paid attention in class, which I know is a novel idea for a lot of you. Just trust me, it pays one whole heck of a lot of dividends in the long run. Particularly when you are trying to write the paper your teacher wants to read.
Is the woman attempting to gain money so that she can use the money to gain power? Is she a powerful, overbearing figure who uses manipulation to gain power over others? Is she using sex to gain power over others? Is she a meek, tender figure, who uses her goodness to hold power in the home? What is she doing to gain power? And how are men attempting to prevent her from gaining that power?
Example: When Jack and Jill begin their journey upward, they are equals in the attempt to fetch a pail of water. However, when Jack fell down, he "broke his crown", indicating the loss of his preeminence. Thus, Jack is hurt by the loss of the togetherness between a man and woman. However, Jack's departure from the togetherness means that Jack has lost his eminence over the woman Jill. Thus, Jill is not harmed from her loss of eminence, showing that she is able to cope with the loss of power ably, while Jack seeks power over Jill and is harmed in the disastrous fall from his position of superiority.
If an Irishman wishes be become a writer, there are two things he must do: leave Ireland, then write books about Ireland. Honestly, this is probably too easy, since Irish writers turn out nothing but books containing stories about Ireland. The only real exception to this is Oscar Wilde, which brings me to...
This is a recently designed rule, so this is not as absolute as the others. Don't use it unless you are 100% positive that your instructor will gobble it up. As it is still tenuous, use this one very sparingly.
Allow me to explain how this rule works: If the men are friends, that's because there are homesexual feelings between the two. If the two men are fighting, they are acting out their homoerotic fantasies on each other (particularly if they are found wrestling). If the two men are competing over a woman, they are actually acting out their homosexual longings through the woman. If the two men are happily married to women whom they love very much, they are using the women as replacements for their homosexual desire for each other.
This one will get you farther in college than it will in high school. In fact, it may get you beat up in high school if the paper falls into the wrong hands, so consider yourself warned.
The exception to this rule of homosexual undertones is, again, just about anything by Oscar Wilde. There is nothing "under" about those tones.
Do you remember the first day of your introduction to Shakespeare, when your teacher or professor was talking about the Great Chain of Being, and you were probably thinking how stupid this was and why do you have to learn this? Remember? It had to do with the lion being the best animal and the rose being the best flower and God being superior to the angels, which were superior to men? Does any of this ring a bell?
Yeah, well, then you shouldn't have been napping. And I don't care if you don't believe a word of it or you are offended by it, that's what they thought back then, so you are just going to have to learn to accept that the past is not the present. Suck it up and deal with it.
Nutshell version: All things have their proper order in the universe and they are all lined up in this hierarchy of value called the Great Chain of Being. For example, kings should be wiser and better than the nobility. The nobility should be wiser and better than the commoners. Fathers should be wiser and better than their sons. Men should be wiser and better than women.
If a king or a noble is not wiser or better than those below them, then the universe is out of whack. If a son is wiser or better than their father, the universe is out of whack. If a woman is wiser or better than a man, then the universe is out of whack. If a fool gives good advice to a king, then the universe is out of whack.
Likewise, any attempt by anyone to upset the proper order of things on the Great Chain of Being is attempting to disrupt the universal order of things. If a son or daughter is attempting to usurp their father, then they are disrupting the natural order of the universe. If a noble is attempting to usurp a king, then they are disrupting the natural order of the universe. If the commoners are attempting to unseat a nobleman, then they are disrupting the natural order of the universe.
Write a paper about Shakespeare and the Great Chain of Being and you stand a pretty good chance of getting a good grade from your teacher. That's because you will probably be the first person in their teaching experience who has actually given any indication that they were paying attention to the lecture about the Great Chain of Being.
For anybody who has been to Sunday School, this idea should be pretty intuitive. For those who aren't familiar, this is the representation of God as being the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Spare me the arguments about whether or not he can be three things in one -- I don't care and neither does the person grading your paper. This is English, not philosophy.
If there are three of anything, it represents God as the Trinity. Doesn't matter what it is. Three leaves on a clover, three pictures on the wall, three damsels in distress, it doesn't matter. It's the Trinity, deal with it as such.
Example: The story of the Three Little Pigs is an allegory for Peter as the rock upon which the Church is built. When one one or two of the little pigs are together, the house in which they reside is weak, much like the man in the parable who built his house upon sand. In the parable, when the winds and waters came, his house was swept away. However, when the three little pigs are together as the Trinity, they are in the house of brick (which is as solid as the house in the parable that is built upon rock). Then, just as the man in the parable keeps his house built upon rock, the Three Little Pigs in the brick house, like the Trinity as seen in the Church, are safe from the same winds that destroy the other, weaker houses.
If a writer has a fourteen-line passage or stanza or conversation, then it is a sonnet. This rule assumes that you remember how to interpret a sonnet, so this rule is only useful if those are still fresh in your memory. If you don't have at least a vague idea of how a sonnet works, best to skip over this one.
Those items should keep you busy. Or at least get you started. Or at least it killed about 10 minutes while you were trying not to think about how long you've been wasting time on the Internet, trying to avoid writing a paper you don't understand. So good luck, and remember to proofread. If you're going to be up all night writing, you might as well not lose points on mispellings.