Sunday, November 12, 2017

How Can I Improve My Essay?

Explanation: A student took me up on my offer to give more detailed feedback on her most recent timed essay exam. What follows is a faithful reproduction of her essay, along with my notes. I asked her permission to share both in the hope that others might benefit from reading them.

Dear Brave Student Who Shall Not Be Named,

Let me begin by saying that a 5 essay is a good essay.  A 5 means you were able to sufficiently convey the writer's ideas, stay mostly focused on the prompt, and produce some quality analysis, direct or indirect. But you want to write a better essay, don’t you. You want to show that you can discuss a literary work with insight and understanding, providing specific support and connecting scholarly commentary to the overall meaning. And I want to help you do that. So please take these notes, not as criticism of your writing, but as suggestions to improve your written analysis of literature.

In the novel Caramelo, by Sandra Cisneros, Celaya shares her family’s story to portray the meaning behind certain objects, such as the famous rebozo. Throughout the story, Cisneros speaks about the rebozo by explaining its different meanings in order to demonstrate how meaningful it is to the Mexican culture and religion.

Your intro reads, “Celaya shares her family’s story to portray the meaning behind certain objects, such as the famous rebozo.” I’m not sure that sentence is communicating exactly what you want it to. In other words, I don’t think you mean to say that the writer is using her family to help us understand the rebozo, but that she is using the rebozo to help us better understand her family. That’s what a symbol does, right, represent a larger meaning?

Your thesis works, but it could be more specific. You say, “Throughout the story, Cisneros speaks about the rebozo by explaining its different meanings in order to demonstrate how meaningful it is to the Mexican culture and religion.” That final statement, “…how meaningful it is to the Mexican culture and religion,” well, how meaningful is it? Tell me.

This is what I mean by surface analysis. Yes, the rebozo is meaningful to the Mexican culture, but how? Why? Now, beginning with this thesis doesn’t mean that you can’t delve deeper into the subject as you continue with your essay, to elaborate on your connections and insights…but it doesn’t imply that you will either.

Here is your chance to identify one of the novel’s themes and answer that part of the prompt that asks for your understanding of “the meaning of the work as a whole.” What about the Mexican culture does the rebozo represent? The importance it places on tradition and spirituality? This seems to be what your essay is getting at. What if your thesis read: “Cisneros uses the rebozo to represent the importance Mexicans place on tradition and spirituality.”  Or, more realistically, what if you could go back and add that deeper insight to your existing thesis? “Throughout the story, Cisneros speaks about the rebozo by explaining its different meanings in order to demonstrate how meaningful it is to the Mexican culture and religion, and to convey the importance Mexicans place on tradition and spirituality.” 

In section 2 of the novel, Soledad’s life is explained. As we know, Soledad’s mother passed away and her father remarried. Soledad was then sent to live with her aunt and had the duties of a maid. She wished her mother was alive to have taught “her to speak with her rebozo.”(Cisneros P2) The rebozo had several different meanings, for example, “if a woman allows a man to take up the left end of her rebozo, she is saying —I agree to run away with you.”(Cisneros P1) The rebozo in the Mexican tradition symbolized how a woman felt about men and also represented what they were thinking. The rebozo may also serve as a way to represent a woman’s relationship status. If a rebozo is “knotted at the ends…” then one is signifying that she wants to marry. (P1) Rebozos in this culture are not just a piece of clothing but a part of a woman. It allowed for them to express their thoughts and feelings. As you can se, it is understandable why Soledad had hoped for someone to guide her through her beloved culture. Soledad had to learn from herself what the true meaningful meaning the rebozo has.

In the first body paragraph you did a good job of establishing the ways that women used rebozos to communicate, and you also explain that because Soledad lost her mother at a young age she had no one to teach her these things. Good, now go further. Elaborate on the idea that Soledad had no one to pass on to her these important cultural traditions. Relate the symbol of the unfinished rebozo as a representation of Soledad’s unfinished cultural education.

In section 3, Celaya feels empty and lonely after being abandoned in Mexico by her ex lover. After she gives her all to him, she gets dumped and decides to go to the church. She never really was a true Catholic and states, “The religion part can go out the window,” but she did believe in, “the power of la fe.” (P2) In the Mexican culture, religion plays a huge role. Most Mexicans are Catholic and believe in God, Celaya and her family, however, did not attend church but did believe in God. After Celaya witnesses several needy causes at the church, she states, “Each and every person connected to me, and me connected to them, like the strands of a rebozo.” (Cisneros P2) The strands of a rebozo are used to explain how emotionally connected Celaya felt to everyone else. She realized how everyone goes through problems and are all united in one way, thus uses an analogy of the rebozo to further explain. The rebozo also symbolizes the unity of the people. After all, the rebozo is part of a person’s life.

Also, in the second body paragraph you do a good job of explaining how the threads of the rebozo are a symbol of the spiritual connection that exists between all of us, but you missed a chance to connect the two ideas: Soledad’s isolation and disconnect from the power and guidance of tradition, and Celaya’s spiritual discovery and reconnection with that same tradition—a metaphorical completion of the unfinished rebozo.

The impact the rebozo has in the story is huge, since it is mentioned consecutively to demonstrate how important it is to the Mexican household.  The rebozo not only symbolizes a woman’s mind but also portrays how humans may change a person’s life.

Additional notes on the thesis:

Someone recently asked me in class if I was looking for a more “open” or more “closed” thesis. Well, with analysis papers such as the ones you are being asked to write, I recommend the specificity of a “closed” thesis every time. That being said, I have seen “open” analysis theses that led to great papers, but they are riskier to write.

An example of an open thesis for your paper might sound something like: “For Celaya, the rebozo is a metaphorical completion of her grandmother’s unfinished childhood.”

A more “closed” presentation of those same ideas might be: “Cisneros uses Soledad’s unfinished rebozo as a symbol of Celaya’s spiritual self-discovery and reconnection with her Mexican tradition.”

See the difference? Although it is less specific, the “open” thesis seems to suggest some very insightful analysis. The “closed” thesis though, states its case more completely and directly, providing the writer’s main insights upfront.  
That is why I urge my students to begin with a complete and specific thesis, because I want them to know exactly where they are going as they begin to write. This is by no means the only, or best, way to write analysis essays; however, in the case of the timed essay, I believe it will prove the most successful.

Hope this helps.

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