Documented Essay
(Notes in Progress for Writing in My Classes)


Robert W. Hill, Professor of English
Kennesaw State University


In most of my undergraduate literature classes, “the documented essay” is NOT a full-scale research paper. Often 2000-2500 words long, it is the final product in a process that usually begins with an in-class, open-book writing assignment, often a test, such as a midterm essay examination.

It is intended (1) to emphasize the value of revision over “rewriting” or “just starting all over again” and (2) to teach (or confirm) fundamental techniques of incorporating others’ materials into one’s own text.

For the documented essay, I require a standard documentation form—e.g., MLA, APA, Chicago, whichever is used by each student in her or his own particular academic discipline, MLA being the default:


In a 1991 article on style manuals, Booklist cited MLA documentation style as one of the "big three," along with the guidelines published by the American Psychological Association and the University of Chicago Press.

For an authoritative explanation of MLA style, see the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (for high school and undergraduate college students) and the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing (for graduate students, scholars, and professional writers). (“What Is MLA Style?”

A few notes for MLA documentation of online sources can be found at, where you can click on “MLA Style,” then on “Frequently Asked Questions about MLA Style.” You may, of course, employ Google or for additional MLA Style information. To be safe—that is, authoritative—, be sure you conform to official MLA publications (see paragraph above) and/or Professor Hill’s direct advice (10/19/04).


“Frequently Asked Questions about MLA Style.” 19 Oct. 2004

What is new in the sixth edition of the MLA Handbook?

What corrections have there been in the sixth edition since it was published?

What is the difference between the MLA Handbook and the MLA Style Manual?

Should I use underlining or italics?

How many spaces should I leave after a period or other concluding mark of punctuation?

How do I create the indention that the MLA shows for a works-cited list?

If a title begins with a numeral, how should the title be alphabetized?

When I borrow repeatedly from the same source, how should my parenthetical citations appear?

How do I document sources from the Web in my works-cited list?

Why does the MLA recommend putting angle brackets around URLs in the works-cited list?

My word processor omits angle brackets and turns URLs into links in my works-cited list. Is that OK?

I am using a source on the Web that has no page numbers. How do I cite it?

Does the MLA offer templates or software for formatting papers?


(ENGL 2160-01: American Literature to 1914, 2/28/03):

Using one of the following sentences as your single-sentence first paragraph, with specific reference to at least four authors from our pre-February 18 reading list, compose a unified, coherent essay.

You may refer to any books or notes you have with you. Budget your time carefully to allow for roughly equal treatment of the four authors; you have 75 minutes (until 3:15pm). Write in ink, double-spaced, on one side of a sheet of paper. Feel free to insert or to revise, as long as your intentions are clear. A “pretty” manuscript is not the point here:

1.                         While most serious writers such as Melville, Equiano, __________, and __________ display the ambiguities inherent in our assumptions about black and white, they generally persist in using them as conventionally defined.

2.                         Serious American writers such as Melville, Jefferson, __________, and __________ all struggle with the dynamic of individual freedom in contest with the necessities of social order.

3.                         Despite the unity that religion sets out to promote, American writers such as Melville, Rowlandson, __________, and __________ reveal that it does divide people.

4.                         Whether in a context of fate or “God’s will,” American writers such as Melville, Thoreau, __________, and __________ persistently depict the efforts of individuals to make their own way.

5.                         While the idea of the Other is held in a positive light by Melville and __________, Rowlandson and __________ see the Other as negative.

6.                         While Melville, Emerson, __________, and __________ employ similar images, their dominant philosophies as Yea-sayers and Nay-sayers produce different effects.

7.                         While it strains too much our stipulated definition to call Nature a protagonist in literary narratives (viz., the protagonist is the character whose pursuit of goals engages our attention), its ready availability for metaphor and symbol sometimes makes it appropriate as antagonist in works by authors such as Melville, Edwards, __________, and __________.



Some Typical Notes in Advance of a Midterm
 (ENGL 3220: Films of Italy, 10/16/01):

1.                         You will have three-five choices of “questions,” all of which will require you to write about at least three movies. Choose thoughtfully but quickly; you have only an hour in which to complete your essay. Once you’ve chosen, don’t look back—forget that the others exist.

2.                         Each “question” will be phrased as a thesis sentence. Copy the one you choose as your first sentence-paragraph, and go forward as if you had written that sentence yourself. In your second paragraph (following your one-sentence first paragraph, which I give you), write about the movie you feel most confident to discuss, then to the next, then the next, etc.

3.                         When you are ready to move to your second movie, pause (very) briefly to remember that this exam is an essay and that its parts should be coherent, one with another. So think about what you’ve just said about movie #1—in that very last sentence you just wrote—and consider how your first remarks about the next movie will be connected to that previous idea.

4.                         Write in ink on one side of a sheet of paper, double-spaced.  You may use blue books if you like. No white-out stuff. Just draw a line through your changes and slip-ups, and keep moving. The clock ticketh.

5.                         Leave at least ten minutes at the end of your hour for final proofreading and revisions. I will be available for you to ask composition-type questions.

6.                         Don’t re-copy for beauty of presentation. Just be clear enough for me to read.

7.                         Espérance!--RWH


(ENGL 2160: American Literature to 1914, 3/13/00):

With specific reference to at least three authors--one from Group I (above), one from Group II, and one from anywhere in our list--compose a unified, coherent essay on one of the following topics:

1.     Aesthetic Values of "Simplicity" in American Literature

2.     Ways to Power in American Society

3.     Romanticism: The Ayes and the Nays Have It

4.     Work: Good/Bad for the Soul?

5.     The Lyric in Poetry and Prose

6.     "Otherness": Its Threat and Promise in American Literature

7.     Get a Grip on Lit: Historical and Psycho-Cultural "Handles"



Students’ Questions (FAQ), Listed in Order as Received:

1.     “Can you reiterate what FS, WW, SU and FR mean in the grading system used for the Mid-term? Also, can you clarify with examples, problems identified through their improper use?”  (10/25/01)

a.      FS = fused sentence, sometimes called “run-on” or “comma splice without the comma” = two or more independent clauses jammed together (fused) without benefit of punctuation or proper conjunctions. CS = comma splice, sometimes called “comma fault.” See handbook. (10/25/01)

b.     WW = “wrong word,” a notation I often follow with a question mark, asking, “Are you sure this is the word you mean to use?” Without the question mark, I mean that you’ve just used the wrong word, by definition.

c.     SU, I suspect, is actually my bad handwriting for SV = subject-verb disagreement. See handbook. (10/25/01)

d.     FR, I suspect, is actually my bad handwriting for TR = transition. Usually, I am referring to the movement of your ideas from one paragraph to another. I see good transition as a thought-structure that tends both forward and backward. That is, whatever you just said at the end of one paragraph should make some thoughtful gesture in the direction of what’s immediately to be said in the next. Simply noting “transition” by the use of “transition words” such as ”first,” “secondly,” or “finally”—although they can be helpful—does NOT ensure actual transition. Rather, you may be engaging in perfunctory enumeration or even hiding the fact that there really IS no thoughtful connection between your two adjacent, or consecutive, ideas. (10/25/01)

e.      As for examples, they should be evident in your text, which is why I marked them. If not, see me for specific directions. (10/25/01)


2.     “On my midterm there are several spots marked ‘W.’  What does this mean?  Did I understand that we can use exactly the same thesis statement given for the midterm? Concerning the 5 sources and the Anthology, I wanted to be certain about counting the references to various authors/works in the Anthology.  Are all the Anthology sources counted cumulatively as one of the five required?  Or does each Anthology author/source count individually toward the five required? What are your office hours?  I might want to make sure I'm on the right track when I begin this documented paper” (10/27/01).

a.      W = wordy, not always just “too many words,” as in REP (repetition) or RED (redundancy). Wordiness can mean that you spent time perfunctorily introducing a quotation when it might instead have been handled with a colon. (10/27/01)

b.      You are free to use exactly the same thesis sentence, or, if you have reconsidered the ideas implicit in that sentence, you could take an opposing position with one or more of your authors in the essay-discussion. (10/27/01)

c.     Entries from class texts such as The Norton Anthology of American Literature or from Moby-Dick count as one source—all together. Be sure to use the “cross-reference” form (at link to Works Consulted sample, see items for Addison, Anderson, Baym, Bryant, and Wordsworth) to cite multiple sources from an anthology. (11/15/02)

d.     Office hours are posted on the for your course, including “by appointment.” It’s a good idea to let me know in advance that you’re coming by because I often am called to other tasks even during those theoretically sacrosanct times. (10/27/01)


3.     Re: Edit comment ‘pa val’/ On our midterm, what does comment this mean?” (11/5/01).

a.      The cryptic “pa val” is almost certainly my bad handwriting for paral = error in parallelism. You may recall an evening when I asked for the class’s definitions of parallelism, which led us into concepts from subplots, themes, and motifs (one idea, image, or action being parallel to another in a story) to rhetorical, grammatical, and syntactic “pa vals.” Often I mark “paral” (1) when two parts of a compound verb aren’t equal in one way or another; (2) when two parts of a compound sentence are disproportionate or of unequal value (meaning that one might work better as a subordinate clause); (3) when items in a series aren’t really equivalent; etc. See handbook. (11/5/01)


4.     “After what we talked about in class Monday about looking at the original thought process, etc. I went back and typed up my Midterm Rough Draft in its entirety. I also had a couple of questions: (a) *If I want to quote within a sentence and then continue the sentence, do I cite after the quote, or at the end of the sentence? Example: So-and-so said that blah blah blah when ‘blah blah blah’ (cite here?), and therefore blah blah blah (or here?). (b) *Also, when you corrected my paper you wrote ‘WW’ over a word and ‘TV’ next to a sentence: what do these mean?”

a.      Notice that the citation appears correctly outside your quotation mark: “blah blah blah” (citation). If both your quotations come from the same page, feel free to delay the citation until after the second one. (11/15/02)

b.     See #1b for “W(rong)W(ord)” and #1d for “Tr(ansition).”


5.     “you say that using an author from the second half of the semester is not required but suggested. I also remember you saying that if we did not use an author from our own list on the mid-term, we should use that author as our fifth on the paper. Do we have a choice whether the 5th author is from the personal list or from the second half of the semester? Or, if a personal author was used in the mid-term, do those people then have the option to use an author from the second half of the semester?” (Re: ENGL 2160)

a.      Well said, I think . . .

b.     You must use an author from your personal list if you have not yet done so.

c.     It is suggested, not required, that you add an author from the second half of the course. (11/26/01)


6.     “What does the abbreviation PT mean?” (Re: ENGL 3220): Usually, PT = Present Tense, meaning that you have probably been writing about events within a work (story/film/poem/play/novel) in past tense when, instead, anything within in the work should be written in present tense, even if one event happens before another in the narrative chronology: Guido falls in love with Dora; Guido is killed at the end; Guido is goofy the first time we see him. It feels awkward until you try it a few times, but it makes sense: everything in a story is in there now, you see. (12/1/01)


7.     “a question in reference to the Works Consulted page.  In terms of the anthology I just want to confirm that we cite the anthology as well as the works we use in the anthology and alphabetize the whole list. (we don't place the works from the anthology under the anthology listing?)” All items in the Works Consulted are alphabetized as one big list. The item for the anthology simply falls in the list wherever the name of the editor falls. In the MLA Style reference texts, this practice is concealed in the indices as “cross-referencing.” (12/08/01)


8.     “Dr. Hill: Do you think that you could post a message that has what your markings on our papers mean.  The ones that you use for general corrections like TV or TR I don’t know which one it is but if you could do that it would be very helpful in the revision process. Thank you.” See FAQ items 1d and 4b, above. (11/15/02)


9.     Thesis?—This item is not technically a question but good evidence that some students do listen carefully when we have a conference. Too often, conferences become little more than an occasion to find out EXACTLY THE ONE SECRET THING the student can fix that will give him or her the higher grade s/he, in a just world, truly deserves—that is, everything but how to become a better reader and writer. I have omitted the student’s name, but the unedited text here is from an email sent to the student’s study group:

I went to see the old man [that’s me—RWH] about my thesis. Contrary to my belief and to the Regents, a thesis is not developed by choosing one side and defending it.

The meat of the thesis is the argument you have with yourself on both sides of the issue. You may have made a decision as to which side you believe—this is your hypothesis. Start out by presenting your evidence. Next present evidence on the other side of the issue. Take the reader on a trip with you. Walk down both sides of the street. Talk about what is on both sides.

You may feel as though you are defending both sides. You may go from one side to the other and back again. This is what will make an interesting paper.

Your conclusion may be a surprise to you. (11/15/02)

10.                         “Can we use each individual story as a source or does our world literature book count as one big source.” See FAQ item #2c, above. (11/15/02)


11.                        “I am still unsure about the specifics of what we are supposed to do with the papers and how that relates to the documented essay” (ENGL 3220). In thoughtful, serious consultation with your study group, revise your midterm essay to 1500-2000 words, with at least four MLA-, APA-, or Chicago-style documented sources beyond the movies themselves. Include “some reference” to at least one additional movie since our midterm: that would be The Mexican, Cronos, El Mariachi, Mimic, Y Tu Mamá También, Reed: Insurgent Mexico, or Cabeza da Vaca. (11/19/02)


12. “About the Works Consulted—it was to my understanding that we only include the sources that we consulted, not every single thing we have read this semester.  I thought that if I used something in Essay 1, but didn't in Essay 2, I am still suppose to include it in every works consulted that I've done (1, 2, 3 and revisions)” (ENGL 1101). Works Consulted, to include anything read during the class this term, cumulative as one big Works Consulted to the last essay in your portfolio. This Works Consulted should have been "accumulated" by each student in the class through the whole term. (11/26/02)


13. Notes on “Thesis” excerpted from several Nicenet and WebCT postings (10/19/04):

a.      Thesis: a sentence that gives direction and impetus to an essay, generally containing within itself elements of opposition or potential argument; viz., not a topic, which is static.

b.     Be careful to devise theses that open out your possibilities for thinking rather than stop you cold. Some interesting ideas aren't good theses because they are immediately self-answering, or they lead you into areas that would require much more research than you have time for. For example, without a strong foundation in the history of certain periods, you could offer little more than slight opinions (however eloquently or forcefully you might express them).

c.     Simply to say "Compare and contrast" is to set a task, not to set an essay in motion. It's still a topic. So, if you were to "compare and contrast," what would be some of your points, some of your arguments? Looking at those in more detail, you could devise a thesis rather than a topic.

d.     Revision: “[Although they may appear to be simply decorative, or even go unnoticed,] colors in films are often used thematically to enhance our understanding.” ßIntroductory subordinate clause gives something for the main clause to play off against. The essay can spend a little productive time talking about the way we take color too casually or even don‘t notice it at all; that leads to a stronger case for the intentional use of color by moviemakers. I’d ask for a little different language than “enhance our understanding” because color affects our emotional, nonrational perceptions as well as our rational “understanding.” Of course, when we analyze the whole thing, we do bring the nonrational somewhat to the surface, for rational apprehension and public discourse. (You know . . .  this sort of thing: “I didn’t realize how much the music was affecting me until I saw the movie the second time!”)

e.      We might have a thesis that reads something like this: “In La belle et la bête, Le charme discret de la bourgoisie, Le fabuleux destin d'Amelie Poulain, and La Reine Margot, dogs appear as realistic pets, playthings, or even tools; but they also serve their moviemakers' aesthetic and philosophical purposes.” ßThis sentence, you see, is different from a "topic," as it means to give direction and impetus to the essay as a whole.

f.       Brent Bausser’s extended WebCT on-the-money entry on the subject (10/7/04):

So I guess we need a topic to compose a thesis--or at least a premise.  What do you guys think? 

We could start with discussing concurrent themes or elements in these films, or perhaps we could discuss the nature of filmmaking itself.  As per the second offering:  it seems to me that films construct characters around their own construction of their world.  Maybe in building a film—lighting, blocking, editing, sound, script, on and on and on—filmmakers are building around characters, and characters are projecting on all of this building.  I see some sort of dialectical feedback here (whether intentional, [implied], inferred, or else) that both explodes and implodes—that is, works both out of the characters and into the characters. What do you guys think about this?

Also, as a note, Doctor Hill likes his theses to contain some sort of contradiction.  I should say that I also like this. It helps when constructing your paper because it gives you some tension to build off.

With all of Doc Hill's talk of postmodernism, frequently referencing Charlie Kaufmann, I'll say that having theses given to you to build a paper around is a very postmodern style of writing.  I envisioned the films we're going to discuss as tribes warring together over who most perfectly worships/glorifies the thesis we'll be using.  My mental image was entirely more funny [“more funny”?] than my description, but I do think it important that we discuss the problems in writing this way, so we can turn them into advantages.

14. Notes on “Transition” excerpted from several Nicenet and WebCT postings (10/19/04):

a.      Need to construct transitions so that one idea helps develop as well as lead into the next. Good transitions have a backward-and-forward rather than only a forward motion to them.


[This page created 25 Oct. 2001; last revised, 19 Oct. 2004—RWH]