Key to Essay Comments

by Katherine Terrell

Argument and organization

  • Develop your thesis more fully: how/why is the point you’re making significant? Why does it matter? Remember that your job in writing a thesis is not simply to point out important ideas or observations, but to weigh in on what you think makes those ideas/observations more broadly meaningful in terms of how we read and interpret a text. How does your thesis increase our understanding of the text?
  • Your thesis needs to be more detailed and more clear: what specifically are you arguing about the text(s) you’re writing about? What reading/interpretation are you arguing for?
  • You need a better topic sentence, one that makes a claim about the text. Use each topic sentence like a mini-thesis statement for the paragraph to let your reader know exactly what you propose to prove in that paragraph, and how it relates to your thesis. Avoid topic sentences that merely state facts.
  • You need to support these assertions with more textual evidence (in the form of direct quotation). What details from the text demonstrate/illustrate the point(s) you wish to make?
  • Analyze the quotation more fully. Ask yourself: how exactly do the details of the quotation (the words, the images, the sentence structures, etc.) support what I’m trying to say? Once you’ve figured that out, explain your thought process to your reader, making specific reference to the language of the quotation that illustrates the point you’re trying to make. Example: 

    Spenser’s description of trees that “heavens light did hide” suggests that the forest is a place of moral darkness as well as literal shade, and thus warns the reader of the dangers that lurk therein.
  • Avoid orphan quotations, which are quotations that stand alone, syntactically disconnected from your own prose. Often, the quotation needs more of an introduction, as well (who says it? to whom? what’s it about?) For instance: 

    Wiglaf appears to criticize Beowulf’s actions. “Often when one man follows his own will / many are hurt” (3077-8).

    Instead, the quotation and the writer’s prose should be joined in some manner:

    Wiglaf appears to criticize Beowulf’s actions: “Often when one man follows his own will / many are hurt” (3077-8).

    Wiglaf appears to criticize Beowulf’s actions when he claims that “Often when one man follows his own will / many are hurt” (3077-8).

    In both of these cases, the quotation is now integrated into the writer’s prose, such that the one flows seamlessly out of the other.
  • Here, you need a transition (a word/phrase like “however,” “similarly,” etc., that articulates the relationship between sentences & ideas). Without a transition element, the effect is “and now for something completely different.” Apart from confusing the reader, such abruptness signals that you need to think more about how you see these ideas fitting together.


  • Avoid comma splices, an error in which two independent clauses are connected with a comma

*An independent clause is something that can stand alone as a sentence.
*To join two independent clauses together, you need something stronger than just a comma.
*There are several options for joining independent clauses:

1) Make them two sentences.

2) Use stronger punctuation. A semicolon ( ; ) always works. Only use semicolons between independent clauses. A colon ( : ) works when what follows the colon is an explanation or example.

3) Use a comma followed by a coordinating conjunction: and, but, so, yet, for, or, nor. These are the only words that work this way. (Longer words, like however, rather, thus, therefore, etc. can only join two independent clauses if they’re preceded by a semicolon).

X Comma splice: Gawain’s virtue is important to him, he is ashamed of failure.
2 sentences: Gawain’s virtue is important to him. He is ashamed of failure.
Semicolon: Gawain’s virtue is important to him; he is ashamed of failure.
Comma and conjunction: Gawain’s virtue is important to him, so he is ashamed of failure.

  1. Avoid sentence fragments, a grammatical error in which either the subject or the verb of the sentence is missing. In some cases, this problem occurs when a transition element (“whereas,” “while,” “which,” etc.) causes a complete sentence to become an introductory or dependent clause—i.e., a clause which is not a complete sentence:

Complete sentences: Gawain decapitated the Green Knight. This caused complications.
X Complete sentence, followed by fragment: Gawain decapitated the Green Knight. Which caused complications.
Complete sentence: Gawain decapitated the Green Knight, which caused complication

In other cases, you may be using a gerund (a verb form that ends in –ing and acts like a noun) instead of a proper verb.

Running towards the dragon.
Complete sentence: The warrior was running towards the dragon.
Complete sentence: Running towards the dragon, the warrior lifted his sword.&

Sentence fragments can often be identified simply by reading a paper out loud to yourself prior to turning it in: you’ll stumble over them as you read.

  1. Pay attention to the difference between plural vs. possessive forms:

*To form plurals, add s (warrior / warriors)
*to form singular possessives, add ’s (the warrior’s sword)
*to form plural possessives, add s’ (the fifty warriors’ ship);
*a special case:
it’s = it is
its = possessive
Example: It’s a terrible thing when a monster devours you with its pointy teeth.

  1. Use parallel construction to connect sentence elements.

Faulty parallelism: Gawain respects Arthur’s authority and offered to accept the Green Knight’s challenge.
Correct parallelism: Gawain respects Arthur’s authority and offers to accept the Green Knight’s challenge.

  1. Make sure that subjects and verbs agree.

Faulty subject/verb agreement: Warriors likes to fight. A dragon battle the hero.
Correct subject/verb agreement: Warriors like to fight. A dragon battles the hero.

  1. Use the present tense when writing about literature. It’s the convention in the field, it makes your writing more immediate, and it allows you to avoid awkward tense shifts.
  2. Avoid using the passive voice unless you have a good reason for doing so. Rephrase in the active voice, which makes clear who’s performing the action:

Passive voice: The dragon is slain. Beowulf is described as a great hero.
Active voice: The Redcrosse Knight kills the dragon. The poet describes Beowulf as a great hero.

  1. You’re using the wrong word here—it may not mean what you think it does, or you may be using it incorrectly. Know what you mean, know the meaning of words, and choose the ones that correctly express your thoughts.
  1. Review correct format for quoting multiple lines of poetry: use slashes to indicate line breaks. If quoting 4 or more lines, format as a block quotation, with one line of poetry per line onyour page.
  2. Review correct format for quoting more than 4 lines of prose: present quotation as block, indented quote.
  3. Review correct in-text citation format:

poem: line numbers only (34-37). Or, for Spenser, book, stanza, and line numbers (1.4.2-3).
prose: author & page number (Bronte, 145).

  1. Review Works Cited page format. See the link on “Help Citing Sources” on the library’s home page.

Contact Information

Writing Center

Kirner-Johnson 152
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