Interpreting Texts

English Composition 1102
Fairleigh Dickinson University

YOUR job in interpreting poetry is to explore MEANING - i.e., identify the thematic issue being raised in the piece and the ideas the author is expressing about the human condition. When interpreting the assigned texts, please consider how some of the following are related to MEANING. Also be aware that an accurate understanding of the "literal" text is essential to make the leap into exploration of abstract meaning. Please reread any text that you do not immediately understand and consider the elements of poetry, often present to adhere to established rhyme and meter patterns that might present a barrier to your literal understanding. These would include: reordered syntax, ellipsis, poet's use of words that TODAY have become archaic and therefore suggest a different literal meaning than we would normally ascribe to the text, and lack of adherence to the accepted rules of punctuation.

When reading poetry to explore meaning, also consider the following:

  • title - does the title provide any "clues" about meaning?
  • author and time in which the piece was written - does the author's biographical background or does the historical context provide any "clues" about meaning?
  • symbols - what are they (literally), what do they symbolize (abstractly) and what is their connection to meaning?
  • descriptive detail - what does the descriptive detail reveal about the subject and how does this relate to meaning?
  • tone - what is the emotion that seems to be present in the piece or the attitude of the writer towards the subject, and how does this relate to meaning?
  • use of figurative language - simile, metaphor, personification, analogy, irony, paradox - can you identify use of figurative language in the text, EXPLAIN how it is figurative, and then connect its use to meaning?
  • use of other literary tools previously explored in class - flashback, foreshadow, dialogue, interior monologue. Are any of these techniques present in the text and how are they related to meaning?



The strategies listed below will help you whenever you write an in-class essay, not only in this class but in your other classes and in any under-the-gun writing situation at work or in life.

  1. Prepare for an in-class essay by anticipating possible prompts/questions. PRACTICE BOWing FOR SAMPLE QUESTIONS. Discuss possible prompts in study groups. Look for clues to possible questions in:
    1. The assigned reading;
    2. The study guide, if one is provided;
    3. Your notes from class and group discussions;
    4. Themes your instructor gets excited about;
    5. Your class journal, if you keep one
    6. Trouble spots in the reading: Often the really difficult passages are the really important ones.
    7. Re-read the assigned essays or other readings carefully for tone as well as ideas and content. Be sure you understand - in all readings - if the speaker is always to be taken seriously, or if he or she is using humor, irony, or exaggeration to make a point.
  2. Make sure that you are answering the question!
  3. Take a BOW (p) [Brainstorm, Organize, Write, proofread] in order to do the following:
  4. Get right to the main point. You do not have time for a introduction that is full of generalizations. Don't waste time and words on an introduction that doesn't propel the essay forward.
  5. Use the present tense when you refer to essays or works of literature ("Gates writes").
  6. Develop your ideas as fully and as richly as you can. You have a time limitation, but you need to write a substantive essay in the time allotted.
  7. Come to a definite conclusion, and sum up. Don't just stop writing.
  8. Pay attention to grammar as you write, and proofread! In-class essays may be graded more leniently because of the time pressures associated with them. However, the individual who reads and grades an in-class essay is going to take points off for major errors such as run-on sentences, comma splices, sentence fragments, and agreement errors. The grader will also take points off if there are many minor errors such as mistakes in spelling, punctuation, or word choice. If errors in grammar and mechanics distract the reader or obscure your central idea or argument, then you can expect to receive a lower grade on your essay.
  9. Remember that in general, readers and graders of in-class essays will take point off if an essay:
    1. Fails to answer the question;
    2. Is vague;
    3. Is full of generalizations;
    4. Fails to take a position;
    5. Fails to use specific evidence to support that position;
    6. Presents an incomplete or incorrect reading of the assigned material.
  10. Write legibly. Cross out neatly if necessary. Allow time to proofread and correct your errors.

* Based on Dr. Spaldo's Strategies for In-Class Essays.




In-Class Essay Guidelines

Essay #4 - In-Class Exam Guidelines


  • Re-read Chopin, "Desiree's Baby" p. 30 in Literature for Composition

Paley, "Samuel" p. 225

  • Consider the questions that follow each story.
  • Review your notes on our class discussions and sample essay prompts.
  • Practice outlining a few possible essay scenarios.

Your goals for the essay:

  • A compelling thesis statement
  • Five or more well-developed paragraphs
  • An effective conclusion
  • Quotes and references from the story
  • A "works cited" page is not necessary, but you should use parenthetical citations
  • A thoughtful title
  • Very few mechanical errors

The exam itself:

  • The essay will last one hour and will be written in blue books.
  • You may use your textbook, which may include brief notations.
  • You may not use your notebook or any other form of notes.



Comment Abbreviations



verb tense


verb form


subject-verb agreement


incorrect word form






singular-plural agreement


noun?number agreement




pronoun agreement


pronoun form

amb pro

ambiguous pronoun








sentence frag


run-on or fused sentence (sometimes a comma splice)


inappropriate linking/transition work (and, however, moreover, etc)


mistake with an article


missing word


wrong word


word order


word choice--may be an innappropriate usage, or inappropriate slang


word form problem


inappropriate or confusing passive voice




illogical--might be a problem with coordination or subordination of phrases, word order


wordy (often too many prepositions or adjectives)


awkward phrase


missing or incorrect punctuation


wrong preposition, or incorrectly used preposition

** Please note: You are responsible for fixing grammar mistakes in your own writing; I will onley mark a problem once or twice, then you are responsible for finding and fixing similar mistakes.You will be marked down for excessive and/or repeating grammar mistakes. If you don't understand a grammar mistake I've marked, you are responsible for finding out how to fix it in your own writing, first by consulting Rules for Writers or another style manual (by looking up the term in the index or table of contents); then by coming to me in office hours if you still don't understand; and/or by seeing a tutor who can help you improve the mistakes I've marked. Tutors and office hours are recommended for all papers with 3 or more grammar mistakes per paper.



Citation Hints

EN1102 /Spring 2006
Research Paper
Citation Hints

For those of you writing about movies....

  • You can either underline or italicize the name of the film, but don't do both. The first time you mention the film's name, follow the name with the date of its release in parentheses; for example, write A Clockwork Orange (1971).
  • Because you do not have a script of the film, it is impossible to cite accurately any dialog/lines that you quote from the film. Following the spirit of the MLA, just be sure to orient your reader as best as you can; in other words, let the reader know who is speaking and to whom, and also the context of the scene in which the dialog occurs. If you don't identify the film in your signal phrase, place the film title in parentheses at the end of the sentence but before the period.
  • Pages 308-314 in Literature for Composition give you some specific film jargon that may help you to write about techniques directors use; while there is no need for you to consult these pages, they may help you if you are having difficulty writing about a scene.

- According to MLA, here is how one cites a film in the Works Cited List: Modern Times. Dir. Charles Chaplin. United Artists, 1936.

For those of you writing about poetry...

- The titles of short poems (which are all we have looked at so far) are placed in quotation marks; titles of long poems, which run a few pages or more, get underlined.
- See the hand-out I gave you on how to cite poetry.

For those of you writing about songs...

  • To cite a specific song in your Works Cited List, follow this example in which first comes the performer or band, next the song title, next the composer of the song, then the album title, and finally the place and year of its release:
    The White Stripes. "My Doorbell." By Jack White. Get Behind Me Satan. New York, 2005.
  • In order to cite specific song lines in your paper, first number the lines of the song lyrics (just as lines of poetry are numbered) and then follow the instructions for citing poetry sheet.
  • If the author of the song lyrics is different than the singer who sings them (which is not an issue in the songs I gave you but could be if you selected your own), you need to distinguish between author/singer.
  • Feel free to talk about the effect that the music has on the lyrics (for example, it is perhaps ironic that Springsteen's song sounds so uplifting.