In the previous column, we continued to tutor Liz (a fictional eleventh-grade honors student) in writing an analytical paper on George Orwell’s magnificent novel 1984. It is a challenging project, with lots of varied components, but we provided Liz with structure and guidance and helped her create a detailed outline for her paper. Outlines are a marvelous organizational tool and do much to dispel the chaos swirling in the anxious minds of fledgling writers.


As we helped Liz create her outline, we employed the “rule of three.” We helped her select three subtopics for her paper, and three examples for each subtopic. And now, Liz’s detailed outline looks like this:

 

  • Working Title: Literary Elements in George Orwell’s Novel 1984
  • Introduction (write this last)
  • First Subtopic: Themes
    • Totalitarianism
    • Technology
    • Love
  • Second Subtopic: Characters
    • Winston
    • Julia
    • O’Brien
  • Third Subtopic: Plot
    • Beginning
    • Middle
    • End
  • Conclusion (summary; high points; final overall statement)


That outline shows Liz what to write, but does not teach her how to write it. In today’s tutorial, we will teach Liz how to write a well-constructed paragraph, and how to perform basic literary analysis. Let’s start with the mysterious paragraph.

 

How to Construct a Paragraph
Most students are never taught how to compose a basic, well-constructed paragraph. Nonetheless, entry-level paragraphs (the kind we teach to fledgling writers) are actually very simple constructions. First, each paragraph must be about one thing—it must have a clearly defined topic. Next, each paragraph should be about one-third of a page long, up to about half a page long. In terms of construction, each paragraph is designed like a miniature essay: it has an introduction, a middle section, and a conclusion. Here’s what I mean.

The “introduction” to the paragraph is the topic sentence. Here, the writer states what the paragraph is about. In the “middle section,” the writer elaborates on the topic by describing three details (there’s the rule of three again). The paragraph’s “conclusion” is frequently a transitional sentence leading smoothly into the next paragraph. So, let’s say that Liz wants to write a paragraph on the main character Winston Smith. With our help, her paragraph looks like this:

Winston Smith is the main character in the novel 1984. He is thirty-nine years old, and described as rather small and weak-looking, with fair hair. He is a quiet and unassuming “everyman” character who wants to remain unnoticed. Winston works in the records department of the Ministry of Truth. It is a tedious job, but Winston leads a vibrant interior life. He is intelligent and insightful and engages in a private rebellion against the totalitarian Big Brother government. For one thing, he keeps a forbidden diary, in which he writes down his most private thoughts. Another part of Winston’s rebellion includes a forbidden love affair with another secret rebel named Julia.


If you look at the above paragraph, you’ll note that the first sentence is the topic sentence, informing the reader that the paragraph is about Winston Smith. The middle section gives the reader information about three aspects of Winston’s character: his physical appearance; his daily life; and his “interior” life. The paragraph concludes with a transitional sentence, gently leading into the next paragraph, which will be about Julia. 
And that’s how to write a paragraph.

 

How to Perform Literary Analysis
In this project, Liz is required to perform literary analysis. She will do this whenever she examines the deeper (subtextual) meanings of the novel. Analysis is a challenging skill, so it needs to be taught clearly and learned deeply. Whenever we analyze something (we explain to Liz), there are two phases to it. First, we present and describe the thing being examined. After that, we discuss, interpret, and analyze the thing being discussed. 


Analysis thus encapsulates a logical two-step process of (first) describing the factual properties of something, and then (second) creating new knowledge through interpretation and inference. To describe it simply, we can call these two steps summary and commentary; description and analysis; presentation and discussion. This process is the basis of all analysis.


In the world of literary analysis, we start by offering Liz this basic model: “When the author says __________, it means __________. Next, we can model the process by showing Liz an example and discussing it with her. Here is the first sentence of 1984, presented and analyzed:


“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” (Orwell 1). This is an intriguing first sentence, and it is full of hidden meaning. Although the brightness of the day suggests elements of hope, the cold weather places us in a rather inhospitable world. Nonetheless, the clocks striking “thirteen” provide the bizarre centerpiece of this sentence. It’s a highly unusual statement, designed to put us off-balance, to question our reality, and to welcome us into a world where very few things make sense. In this world we’re about to enter, reality has been distorted, and time itself is warped and confused.


If you read that sentence carefully, you’ll note that it follows the two-step process of analysis. We begin by presenting the quote being analyzed. After that, we discuss specific elements within the quote. As we discuss each element (often a single word), we describe the thing being discussed, and then we provide an interpretation designed to shed light on the novel. It is a challenging skill, and learning it starts with a clear understanding of the two-step process involved.
After showing Liz the beauties of writing paragraphs and performing literary analysis, we’ll conclude the tutorial. Before Liz leaves, however, we’ll give her specific instructions. Using her new knowledge, Liz will compose the first draft of her assignment. For each of her (nine) examples, she will write a well-constructed paragraph, providing analysis when necessary. When all nine paragraphs are complete, Liz will write her conclusion and her introduction. Completing this draft will be a major step in Liz’s growth as a student and a shining milestone in her development as a writer.


 

We’re Almost Finished
Before Liz leaves, instruct her to bring her completed draft to the next tutorial—which may be the last time you work with her. In that session, we will take Liz through the process of revising and editing, and we will reveal to her the fundamental truth of all great writing: it improves through successive drafts, like a glimmering sculpture emerging from Carrara marble. 


Thank you for spending this time with me, and I’ll see you in the oranges and reds of autumn. Until then, so long—and don’t forget to write. 


Dr. Timothy Horan is a full-time school librarian and part-time public librarian on Long Island (NY). He holds master’s degrees in English, library science, and education, along with an advanced graduate certificate in creative writing, and a doctorate in English literature. In 2013, The Suffolk School Library Media Association (SSLMA) awarded him the “School Librarian of the Year.” In 2019, they awarded him the “Outstanding Contribution to the School Library Profession.” He has published dozens of scholarly articles on libraries, writing, and education. He is the inventor of the School Library Writing Center, and literally wrote the book(s) on the subject: Create Your School Library Writing Center, Grades 7 - 12, and Create Your School Library Writing Center, Grades K - 6 (both from Libraries Unlimited). He is the editor of VOYA (Voice of Youth Advocates) Magazine and has a library in his house which he designed and built himself. This is where he does his best thinking and writing.