Posted in Teaching, Writing

ENG 111: Revising Your Reflection with A Writer’s Reference

As part of your revision process, you will integrate two relevant sources into your reflection. Here are some examples of how you might introduce quotations or paraphrases of the texts you choose to cite:

  • The authors of A Writer’s Reference note that an effective analysis demonstrates “careful critical reading” (Hacker and Somers 69). Of all the key features of an analysis, that attention to detail is what I render most effectively in my study of Maus.
  • One of the elements of the panel that drew my interest was the contrast between the lines of narration that conclude it, where Vladek Spiegelman says, “It was still very luxurious. The Germans couldn’t destroy everything at once” (74).
  • In my analysis, I observe that “[t]he shift in Vladek’s final lines—from ‘luxury’ to destruction’—shifts readers’ perspective on the scene as well.”
  • Dr. Karin James’ research in cognitive neuroscience reveals that writing longhand activates areas of the brain that remain dormant when we type.

The third sample does not include a parenthetical citation because I am quoting the blog post of my analysis, which is a text without page numbers.

The fourth sample does not include quotation marks or a parenthetical citation because I am paraphrasing research on a university web page, another source without page numbers. The information in the works cited entry directs readers to the specific web page.

Sample Works Cited Entries

Hacker, Diana and Nancy Somers. “How to Write an Analytical Essay.” A Writer’s Reference, GTCC 9th ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2018. pp. 69-70.

James, Karin. “What are the Effects of Handwriting on Cognitive Development?” The Cognition and Action Neuroimaging Library, University of Indiana, 2016,

Lucas, Jane. “Of Mice and Menace.” Jane Lucas, 30 Oct. 2020,

Spiegelman, Art. Maus I. Pantheon, 1986.

For more sample works cited entries, see the November 11 blog post, “ENG 111: Beginning Your Reflection.”

Model Reflective Essays

The essays listed below are models for your reflection, but each differs from yours in terms of requirements. The first two, written by students of mine at Catawba Valley Community College, were written for a reflective assignment that did not require the students to cite two sources. The third, written by me as a model for my students at Lenoir Rhyne University, includes both a works cited list and an annotated bibliography.

Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

ENG 111: Beginning Your Analysis

As you draft your essay, focus first on creating a clear picture with words. Let the reader see what’s on the page in front of you, then move from your objective description to your thesis: your particular claim, which you will support with textual evidence (words and pictures).

Although you will cite an authoritative secondary source in your revision, you don’t need to integrate that source into your draft. When you begin drafting an analysis, your aim is to examine the primary source (Maus) closely and develop your own interpretation of it. After you’ve done that, you’ll have a better sense of what secondary sources are relevant to your analysis.

For more on secondary sources, see the October 14 blog post, “Citing Secondary Sources.”

Sample Analyses of Visual Texts

  • A Writer’s Reference includes a sample student analysis of a coffee advertisement: “Sometimes a Cup of Coffee is Just a Cup of Coffee” (76-78).
  • Wreaths of Reclamation,” by my former student Jacob Palmer, is shorter than your analysis will be. I offer it here as a well-written example of a comparative study of the forces of nature depicted in J.M.W. Turner’s painting Interior of Tintern Abbey and Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein.
  • Through a Glass Darkly: Girl at the Mirror and Grover’s Corners,” an essay that I wrote as a model for my students at Lenoir-Rhyne University, is a comparative analysis of Norman Rockwell’s painting Girl at the Mirror and Thorton Wilder’s play Our Town.
  • The Well-Heeled Clichés of Madison Avenue,” an essay that I wrote as a model for my students at CVCC, is a meta-analysis: a study of a sample student analysis included in CVCC’s English 111 textbook, The Norton Field Guide to Writing.

Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

ENG 111: Citing Secondary Sources

In your analysis of Maus, you will cite a relevant authoritative secondary source: a critical essay, book review, or interview published in an academic journal or a well-regarded news publication. The handout on secondary sources that I distributed in class includes passages from some studies of Maus. That handout can be downloaded below, and the excerpts also appear in a later section of this post.

Why Cite an Authoritative Secondary Source?

Quoting or paraphrasing an authoritative secondary source gives your writing credibility. It indicates to readers that your ideas are trustworthy and valid because your analysis is informed by the work of an expert.

Citing an authoritative secondary source also links your analysis to a study of Maus that preceded yours. Academic writing is knowledge-building. With your analysis, you are adding to the critical conversation about Spiegelman’s memoir.

Ask yourself, what has a scholar or journalist written about Maus, and how do my own ideas about Spiegelman’s memoir fit into the conversation? Your answers to those questions can serve as a starting point for integrating your own take on Maus with the ideas presented in a secondary source.

Locating Authoritative Secondary Sources

The GTCC Libraries website includes a research guide for Maus, which features links to articles, essays, reviews, lectures, and interviews.

You can also locate scholarly, or peer-reviewed, articles on Maus by following these steps on the libraries’ home page:

  1. Click on advanced search.
  2. In the first search index box, select subject. In the search term box to the right, type Spiegelman, Art.
  3. In the second search index box, select subject. In the search term box to the right, type Maus.
  4. Click search.
  5. On the next screen, you will see a list of more than two-hundred sources. You can refine your search by choosing one of the limiters in the menu bar on the left. Selecting articles will narrow the list of sources to fewer than ninety; selecting peer-reviewed articles will limit the list to fewer than twenty.

Another Authoritative Secondary Source

If you watched the live stream of Professor Ruth von Bernuth’s lecture on September 28, you are welcome to use that presentation as secondary source. Here’s how you would integrate one of her points into your analysis:

Ruth von Bernuth, Assistant Professor of Germanic Language at UNC-Chapel Hill, has observed that Jewish persecution in Europe coincided with the medieval pandemic but occurred before the plague as well.

Notice that the signal phrase includes the writer’s first and last name as well as her credentials. The paraphrase does not include a page number because the source is a presentation. The work cited entry, which would appear at the end of the analysis, lists the details of the event:

von Bernuth, Ruth. “Black Death and Jewish Persecution.” Guilford Technical Community College All-College Read Presentation, Microsoft Teams Live Stream, 29 Sept., 2020. Lecture.

Passages from Authoritative Secondary Sources

From Hamida Bosmajian, Professor of English at Seattle University:

“[t]he Nazi flag. . . is never shown unobstructedly unfurled in Maus” (42).

From Nancy K. Miller, Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the City University of New York:

“The Success of Maus is due to a double audacity. The first is the choice to represent the Holocaust as a cartoon, the second to cast its star witness as a victimizer in his own world, a petty tyrant at home” (48-49).

From Arlene Fish Wilner, Professor of English and American Studies at Rider University:

“Adam Gopnik has astutely observed that the animal heads attributed to humans in this narrative reflect ‘our sense that this story is too horrible to be presented unmasked’” (109).

From Hamida Bosmajian, Professor of English at Seattle University:

The telling of stories is, of course, a primary means of ordering the disorder of experience; it provides a surface sensibleness that may be perceived as meaningful. Artie, however, will never make any sense or meaning of it all, no matter how many times he articulates the horror verbally and graphically; he can only shape an imitation, an illusion of meaning through the telling of the tale. (30-31)

In an MLA-style manuscript, the quotation above is indented one-half inch because it is one of more than four lines. The quotation marks are omitted because the indentation signals to the reader that the lines are taken word-for-word from the source. For more on presenting long quotations in MLA papers, see A Writer’s Reference (376).

From Hillary Chute, Distinguished Professor of English and Art + Design at Northeastern University:

“The most striking instance of representing past and present together in Maus I is the inclusion of the autobiographical comic strip ‘Prisoner on the Hell Planet: A Case History’” (346).

Works Cited

Bosmajian, Hamida. “The Orphaned Voice in Art Spiegelman’s Maus.Considering Maus: Approaches to Art Spiegelman’s “Survivor’s Tale” of the Holocaust, edited by Deborah R. Geis, U of Alabama P, 2003, pp. 26-43.

Chute, Hillary. “History and Graphic Representation in Maus.A Comics Studies Reader, edited by Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester, UP of Mississippi, 2009, pp. 340-62.

Miller, Nancy K. “Cartoons of the Self: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Murderer—Art Spiegelman’s Maus.” Considering Maus: Approaches to Art Spiegelman’s “Survivor’s Tale” of the Holocaust, edited by Deborah R. Geis, U of Alabama P, 2003, pp. 44-59.

Wilner, Arlene Fish. “‘Happy, Happy Ever After’: Story and History in Art Spiegelman’s Maus.” Considering Maus: Approaches to Art Spiegelman’s “Survivor’s Tale” of the Holocaust, edited by Deborah R. Geis, U of Alabama P, 2003, pp. 105-21.

Blog Response Assignment for Monday Students


  1. Choose one of the article excerpts on your handout from last week—a phrase, a sentence, or two or more sentences—and compose a short piece of writing that presents the passage as you would if you were integrating it into your analysis of Maus. (See the examples below.) Choose a short passage other than the one cited in the examples below. In other words, do not quote or paraphrase Hamida Bosmajian’s observation about the Nazi flag.
  2. Introduce the source with a signal phrase that includes the author’s first and last name and credentials.
  3. Include the page number in the parenthetical citation, whether you are quoting or paraphrasing.
  4. Type your assignment as a reply to this blog post. To do that, scroll down to the bottom of the post, and look for the image of the air mail envelope. If you don’t see it, click on the post’s title, “Citing Secondary Sources,” and scroll down again. Post your comment no later than noon on Friday, October 16.

Note: To avoid the risk of students duplicating their classmates’ replies, I will not make any of the comments visible until after the deadline.


Integrated Quotation

Hamida Bosmajian, Professor of English at Seattle University, has observed that “the Nazi flag. . . is never shown unobstructedly unfurled in Maus” (42).

Integrated Paraphrase

Hamida Bosmajian, Professor of English at Seattle University, has observed that the field of the Nazi flag is never seen in its entirety in Maus; it is always obstructed (42).

In class on October 14, the Wednesday students read an excerpt from an interview with Art Spiegelman, conducted by Hillary Chute, Distinguished Professor of English and Art + Design at Northeastern University. Chute, who is one of the scholars included on your handout from last week, is the author of several book-length studies of comics–including Why Comics?: From Underground to Everywhere–and is also associate editor of Art Spiegelman’s MetaMaus.


In addition to Hillary Chute’s interview with Art Spiegelman, “Why Maus Remains ‘the Greatest Graphic Novel Ever Written,’ 30 Years Later” is another secondary source that you may cite in your analysis. You may quote or paraphrase the article’s writer, Michael Cavna, or you may quote or paraphrase one of the comic artists he interviewed for the piece. In your signal phrase, include the writer/artist’s first and last name and credentials:

  • Washington Post journalist Michael Cavna
  • Cartoonist Chris Ware, author of Building Stories
  • Comic artist Jeff Smith, creator of the Bone series
  • Graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang, author of American Born Chinese

Sample In-Text Citations

Washington Post journalist Michael Cavna has noted that “amid the massive boom in graphic novels, it can be easy to forget how much of a game-changer Maus was.”

The sample above does not include a parenthetical citation at the end because the source is an unpaginated article on the web.

Graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang, author of American Born Chinese, credits Art Spiegelman with“set[ting] the standard for the rest of us” (qtd. in Cavna).

The sample above includes a parenthetical citation with the abbreviation “qtd.” because Gene Luen Yang is quoted in the article written by Michael Cavna. It includes brackets because I altered the word “set” to “setting” to keep the sentence grammatical in my context.

For more on brackets and MLA in-text citations, see A Writer’s Reference (376, 384-92).

Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

ENG 111: Maus under the Microscope

Spiegelman, Art. Maus I. Pantheon, 1986. p. 74.

In the first weeks of the course, we studied Maus as a model for our literacy narratives. Now, as we turn to more formal academic writing, we will examine Art Spiegelman’s memoir as the subject for our second essay assignment, our analysis.


Unlike a narrative, an analysis has an explicit thesis, which often—but not always—appears at the end of the first paragraph. A thesis is not a statement of fact; instead, it’s a judgment based on a close examination of the subject—in our case, Maus.

Statement of fact: The epigraph for Maus shows the young Art Spiegelman and his father talking but not truly communicating with each other.

Thesis: The cutting remark that Spiegelman’s father makes as he saws wood illustrates the communication breakdown between him and Artie; Spiegelman’s deft depiction of that gulf foreshadows the trials he will encounter: struggling to understand his father and himself as he aims to make meaning of their lives through his comics.

Notice how the thesis above addresses what Vladek Spiegelman says and also lets the reader see him sawing wood. As you plan your analysis, keep in mind that Maus is a multimodal text. You will address both the pictures and the words on the page.

For more on writing about multimodal texts, see A Writer’s Reference (70-78).

Where to Begin

Look back through the pages of your journal and note what aspect of Spiegelman’s memoir interests you most? Here are a few that might serve as your focus:

  • Vladek and Art Spiegelman’s father-son relationship
  • Maus as a dual memoir
  • Maus as a meta-memoir
  • The Nazi persecution of the Jews (leading up to the Holocaust, depicted in Maus II)
  • Anja Spiegelman’s depression
  • Anja’s diary

Turn back to the pages of Maus devoted to the parts of the story that interest you most. Ask yourself how Spiegelman makes meaning with both his images and his words. Your answer to a how question about those words and pictures could serve as your thesis.

Questions to Ask of the Words

  • Are the words in the panel dialogue, narration, or both? (Dialogue is presented in speech balloons; narration or summary is presented in rectangles.)
  • If the panel includes dialogue, what does the exchange between the characters reveal about their relationship? Do the words of the second speaker propel the narrative forward or disrupt it?
  • Are any words enlarged or in boldface for emphasis?

Questions to Ask of the Pictures–the Panels, Tiers, and Pages

  • Is the image in the panel a close-up or a long shot?
  • Are the panels and the tiers on the page roughly the same size? If not, why might Spiegelman have chosen one in particular to dominate the page?
  • Are any of the panels borderless?
  • Do any of the panels break the frame and spill into the gutter (the white space between the frames)?
  • Are any of the panels oblique or slanted?
  • How do these visual effects contribute to your perception of the story? For example: What mood or atmosphere does Spiegelman create through his combination of black and white, lines, and silhouettes? How does the size of a panel or as series of panels convey the passage of time?

Look back at the panel from Maus at the top of this post. Here Art Spiegelman presents a large panel featuring his father, Vladek Spiegelman, at home with his extended family after he sneaks across the border from the Protectorate to the Reich. A small close-up frame of the older retrospective Vladek riding his exercise bike appears in the upper left, an inset in the larger image of the Spiegelmans and the Zylberbergs sitting at the dining room table.

Note how with minor changes, the preceding paragraph could serve as an opening-paragraph summary that leads to a thesis.

Chapter 4 of Art Spiegelman’s Maus I includes a large half-page panel featuring the artist’s father, Vladek, at home with his extended family after he sneaks across the border from the Protectorate to the Reich. A small close-up frame of the older retrospective Vladek riding his exercise bike appears in the upper left, an inset in the larger picture of the Spiegelmans and the Zylberbergs sitting at their dining room table. Though only one of the hundreds of panels that constitute Spiegelman’s memoir, that panel alone demonstrates the intricacy of his narrative; his deceptively simple words and drawings create a layered meta-memoir that continually moves backward and forward, from mundane moments of ordinary life to the horrors of the Nazi regime.

From that opening paragraph, I could develop an analysis essay with evidence from the panel to support my thesis. In simplest terms, the essay might look like this:

Introductory paragraph: Summary followed by thesis.

Body paragraph 1: Topic sentence followed by an examination of words and/or images (textual evidence) that support the main idea of the paragraph, the topic sentence, which in turn supports the thesis.

Body paragraph 2: Topic sentence followed by textual evidence (words and/or images) that supports the main idea of the paragraph.

Body paragraph 3: Topic sentence followed by textual evidence (words and/or images) that supports the main idea of the paragraph.

Conclusion: A restatement of the thesis that doesn’t repeat it verbatim.

In addition to returning to the essay’s thesis, many effective conclusions do one of the following:

  • Include a quotation from or reference to a primary or secondary source, one that emphasizes the essay’s main point or puts it in a different perspective. We will examine some secondary sources in class You will address one of them in your conclusion or in one of your body paragraphs.
  • Place the analysis in a different, perhaps larger, context. For example, you might end your analysis by linking it to the pandemic or the current social or political climate.
  • Consider the implications of the analysis. What does it imply, or involve, or suggest about parent-child relationships, about storytelling, about memory, or about totalitarian regimes?
Posted in Teaching, Writing

ENG 111: Revising and Editing Your Literacy Narrative with A Writer’s Reference

The authors of A Writer’s Reference note that “[r]evising is rarely a one-step process” (Hacker and Somers 19). Editing for surface-level correctness is essential, but it isn’t the only step, and it shouldn’t be the first. Begin instead by re-seeing (or re-visioning) your literacy narrative and considering its focus and organization. Ask these questions:

  • Is it a focused narrative rather than an overview of reading or writing experiences?
  • Does it include at least one scene?
  • Would it benefit from a different organization? If your narrative unfolds chronologically, try beginning in the middle or the end. If it begins in the middle or the end, try reorganizing it chronologically.

Grammar, Punctuation and Mechanics, and Word Choice

The items listed below are the ones that I noted most often in your drafts. Review the ones that are trouble spots for you. 

  • active verbs/voice, 153
  • apostrophes, 275-78
  • capitalization, 293-96
  • colons and semicolons, 271-73
  • commas, 259-71
  • end punctuation, 283-84
  • hyphens, 291-92
  • italics for titles, 301
  • lay, lie, 182-83
  • like, as, 146
  • numbers expressed as words, 299
  • paragraph length, 53-54
  • pronoun case, 196-97
  • sentence fragments, 207-13
  • standard idioms, 166
  • than, then, 149
  • that, which, 149
  • there, their, they’re, 149
  • to, too, two, 149
  • verb agreement with subjects, 171-79
  • who’s, whose, 150
  • who, which, that, 150


What word, idea, or image in the first paragraph might you return to in the final paragraph? The authors of A Writer’s Reference recommend bringing readers full circle with that strategy (Hacker and Somers 18).

Avoid concluding your narrative with a platitude: a phrase or sentence that’s been uttered so often that it comes across as neither interesting nor thoughtful. For example: It made me the person I am today. Who is that person? Write who that is, rather than the platitude, which tells readers nothing.

Also avoid the phrases “in conclusion,” “to conclude,” “in summary,” and “to sum up.” These can be useful, even welcome, in oral presentations. But readers can see, on the page or the screen, when a short essay is about to end.

MLA Style

The MS Word file that you will submit to Moodle should comply with the format guidelines for MLA (Modern Language Association) manuscripts. A Writer’s Reference includes a sample MLA paper (see pages 427-432). You can use the MS Word file of my literacy narrative, posted in Moodle, as a template. Your literacy narrative will not include a works cited list unless you quote or paraphrase a source.

Remember that in addition to submitting your revision to Moodle, you will publish it as a post on your WordPress blog. Your blog post will omit the first-page information included in your file submitted to Moodle (your name, course, section, instructor’s name, and date). You will include in your blog post an image that documents some part of your writing process away from the screen, such as a photo of your reading notes or a page of your handwritten draft.

Posted in Teaching, Writing

ENG 111: Matters of Style

This blog post presents information about last week’s cyber incident at GTCC, but that isn’t the main purpose of the post. Instead, I’ve chosen to return to the news coverage of the event as an opportunity to examine some of the differences between newspaper style, often AP (Associated Press), and MLA (Modern Language Association) style, used in many sections of English 111 and other courses in the humanities.

Capitalization in Titles

Notice that only the first word of the headline is capitalized. Many news publications capitalize only the first word and proper nouns (names) in titles. In MLA style, all of the words in a title are capitalized except articles (aanthe), prepositions, coordinating conjunctions, and the to infinitives—unless the word is first or last in the title or subtitle.

Newspaper style: Network incident forces security closure.

MLA: Network Incident Forces Security Closure.

MLA style includes the serial comma (the comma before and in a series), and in MLA style, no space appears before or after a dash.

AP: In addition, these three technologies — WebAdvisor, Navigate and Financial Self-Service — will not be available until further notice.

MLA: In addition, these three technologies—WebAdvisor, Navigate, and Financial Self-Service—will not be available until further notice.

Signal Phrases with Quotations

In MLA style, quotations are introduced with signal phrases. Dialogue in personal essays is an exception to this rule. You do not have to introduce a line of dialogue in a personal essay, such as a literacy narrative.

Newspaper style: “Out of an abundance of caution, the college took all critical systems offline around 4 p.m. Sunday,” GTCC spokesperson Aleasha Kivett said.

MLA: GTCC spokesperson Aleasha Kivett said: “Out of an abundance of caution, the college took all critical systems offline around 4 p.m. Sunday.”

For more on these MLA matters of style, see A Writer’s Reference.

  • capitalization in titles (396)
  • dashes (285)
  • serial commas (260-61)
  • signal phrases with quotations (377-78)

Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

ENG 111: Practices

What You Should Do for Class Outside of Class

In this time of uncertainty, it’s more important than ever to engage in the practices outlined here. Returning to these weekly will contribute to your development as a writer and increase your chances of completing English 111 with the grade that you hope to achieve.

Study A Writer’s Reference

With the exception of the GTCC section, which you read the first week of class, you do not have formal reading assignments in A Writer’s Reference. However, it’s a book that you should keep by your side throughout your days as a student at Guilford Tech.

Guidelines for Studying A Writer’s Reference

  1. Turn to the index section. (Look for the “I” tab.)
  2. Assign yourself the task of browsing the entries alphabetically with a schedule of two or three letters per week. For example: This week you might browse the entries for a, b, and c; next week, the entries for d, e, and f; and so on.
  3. As you scan the index, read with an eye toward (1) anything that you know is a trouble spot for you, and (2) any unfamiliar concepts.
  4. Turn to the page or pages devoted to each item of interest, and make notes on it in your journal. Include the page number for reference.

In most of my comments on your introductory blog posts, I suggested some pages of A Writer’s Reference for review. Here’s a list of the ones that I mentioned most frequently:

  • abbreviations (297)
  • apostrophes (275-78)
  • balancing parallel ideas (111)
  • capitalization (293-96)
  • colons and semicolons (271-73)
  • commas (259-71)
  • end punctuation (283-84)
  • italics for titles (301)
  • lie vs. lay (182-83)
  • paragraph length (53-54)
  • sentence fragments (207-13)
  • subject-verb agreement (171-79)
  • than and then (149)
  • to, too, and two (149)
  • who, which, and that (150)

(Continue to) Read and Take Notes on Maus

As I noted in my September 2 post, after you complete each reading assignment in Maus, you should summarize it in your journal. You are not required to analyze each reading, but you should make note of any questions you have and points that you would like to address in class.

I find it helpful to organize my journal as a double-entry notebook. I begin by drawing a line down the middle of the page. On one side, I write my summaries. On the other side, I write any questions I have or points that I want to address.

For more on double-entry notebooks, see A Writer’s Reference (59).

Learn More about WordPress

The more time you devote to exploring your dashboard, the better you will understand the blogging platform and the easier it will be for you to create and edit blog posts.

Browse and Comment on Your Classmates’ Blogs

Since our time together face to face is brief, getting to know each other through our blogs is vital for building a sense of community–and a few words of encouragement from you might brighten a classmate’s day.

Troubleshoot WordPress Issues ASAP

Visit the support page. If you cannot find a solution there, email

Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

ENG 111: Of Mice and Memoirs, Part II

Narrative Conflict or Tension

Last week I advised you to Study Spiegelman’s scenes closely. As you continue to read Maus, and as you prepare to write your first essay for English 111, your literacy narrative, note which panels of Spiegelman’s convey conflict, either a character’s inner conflict or a character’s conflict with another character. Conflict, which is essential to narrative, appears on virtually every page of Maus.

The first half of Chapter 2, “The Honeymoon,” depicts six conflicts or problems:

  • Vladek combatting his medical condition (heart disease, diabetes)
  • the policemen’s pursuit of Anja
  • the interrogation of Anja’s aide, the seamstress,  Miss Stefanska
  • Art questioning his father’s storytelling
  • Anja’s struggles with post-partum depression, and
  • the train passengers facing the threat of the Nazi regime, signified by the flag in the center of the page (32).

Scene and Summary

As a comic, Maus consists primarily of scenes but it includes summary as well. In the panel below, which depicts Miss Stefanska’s interrogation by the Polish police, the scene is depicted with the panel’s drawing and its speech balloons. Spiegelman presents summary in the rectangles.

Panel from page 28 of Maus.
Spiegelman, Art. Maus I. Pantheon, 1986. p. 28.

Scene and summary are the building blocks of narratives. Simply put, scenes show and summaries tell. Narratives can consist primarily of scenes, but ones that rely heavily on summary don’t capture our imagination. As you plan your literacy narrative, keep this in mind: Readers would rather be shown than told.

The paper-craft graphic below illustrates the organization of scene and summary in a narrative essay.

Illustration of narrative essay structure.


Maus demonstrates the important role that dialogue often plays in narrative, but it doesn’t show how dialogue is presented in an essay. In comics, dialogue appears in speech balloons. Prose narratives (essays, short stories, novels, and book-length  nonfiction) present dialogue with lines of speech enclosed in quotation marks and with dialogue tags. A dialogue tag is a short phrase at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of the dialogue that attributes the dialogue to a particular person or character.

“Have you chosen a topic for your literacy narrative?” she asked.

In the sentence above, she asked is the dialogue tag.

When you write dialogue, you begin a new paragraph whenever the speaker changes. That’s why paragraphs of dialogue are generally short, often only one line.

Consider the dialogue below, from Annie Dillard’s memoir, An American Childhood:

Excerpt from An American Childhood by Annie Dillard.
Dillard, Annie. An American Childhood. Harper & Row, 1987. p. 112.

In the first paragraph, Annie Dillard summarizes how her mother would tell her to spell words. In the second paragraph, Dillard moves to the scene of one particular evening, the night when her mother says there’s a deer in the hall.  Only the first of the three short paragraphs that follow the summary includes a dialogue tag. The other two don’t need tags because the new paragraph itself, the indentation of five spaces, signals a change in the speaker.

Once you’ve established who the speakers are in a dialogue between two people, you don’t need to include dialogue tags.

Notice that the first and last paragraphs include single quotation marks within the lines of dialogue. In the first paragraph, the words poinsettia and sherbet are enclosed in single quotation marks because words referred to as words are enclosed in quotation marks. Since the two words are contained within a longer quotation, Dillard’s mother’s line of dialogue, the words are enclosed in single quotation marks.

In the last paragraph, the words I know are enclosed in single quotation marks because the mother is quoting her daughter.

Words referred to as words in dialogue and quotations within lines of dialogue are enclosed in single quotation marks.

For more information on quotation marks, see A Writer’s Reference (279-80).

Look to the passage that follows as another model for your literacy narrative. Here, Annie Dillard recounts seeing an amoeba for the first time:

Finally late that spring I saw an amoeba. The week before, I had gathered puddle water from Frick Park; it had been festering in a jar in the basement. This June night after dinner I figured I had waited long enough. In the basement at my microscope table I spread a scummy drop of Frick Park puddle water on a slide, peeked in, and lo, there was the famous amoeba. He was as blobby and grainy as his picture; I would have known him anywhere.

Before I had watched him at all, I ran upstairs. My parents were still at table, drinking coffee. They, too, could see the famous amoeba. I told them, bursting, that he was all set up, that they should hurry before his water dried. It was the chance of a lifetime.

Father had stretched out his long legs and was tilting back in his chair. Mother sat with her knees crossed, in blue slacks, smoking a Chesterfield. The dessert dishes were still on the table. My sisters were nowhere in evidence. It was a warm evening; the big dining-room windows gave onto blooming rhododendrons.

Mother regarded me warmly. She gave me to understand that she was glad I had found what I had been looking for, but that she and Father were happy to sit with their coffee, and would not be coming down. She did not say, but I understood at once, that they had their pursuits (coffee?) and I had mine. She did not say, but I  began to understand then, that you do what you do out of your private passion for the thing itself.

I had essentially been handed my own life, in subsequent years my parents would praise my drawings and poems, and supply me with books, art supplies, and sports equipment, and listen to my troubles and enthusiasm, and supervise my hours, and discuss and inform, but they would not get involved with my detective work, nor hear about my reading, nor inquire about my homework or term papers or exams, nor visit the salamanders I caught, nor listen to me play piano, nor attend my field hockey games, nor fuss over my insect collection. My days and nights were my own to plan and fill.

Those paragraphs from An American Childhood don’t include any direct quotations. In the second paragraph, Dillard recounts what her mother said, but she doesn’t present it as dialogue. If the exact words spoken aren’t crucial to a scene, you can present the conversation indirectly, as Dillard does above.

Narratives Don’t Have to Center on Dramatic Events

The excerpts that you’ve just read from An American Childhood demonstrate how to write dialogue and shift between scene and summary. And perhaps most importantly, they demonstrate this: Narratives don’t have to center on dramatic events.

If you think that you don’t have a story to write as your literacy narrative, look again at Dillard’s depiction of herself as a student of the natural world. There’s no dramatic conflict, but there’s desire. First, she wants to see an amoeba,  something she’s never seen before. Second, she wants her parents to share her excitement, but they don’t. With her microscope, Annie Dillard develops her knowledge of nature, but the larger learning experience that takes place is her realization that “you do what you do out of your private passion for the thing itself” (149). She has “essentially been handed [her] own life” (149).

What quiet, significant learning experience of yours has lingered in your mind? Your answer to that question could be the start of your literacy narrative.

Literacy Narrative Topics

I included your options in the previous blog post and am listing them here as well:

  • any early memory about writing, reading, speaking, or another form of literacy that you recall vividly
  • someone who taught you to read or write
  • someone who helped you understand how to do something
  • a book that has been significant to you in some way
  • an event at school that was related to your literacy and that you found interesting, humorous, or embarrassing
  • a literacy task that you found (or still find) especially difficult or challenging
  • a memento that represents an important moment in your literacy development
  • the origins of your current attitudes about writing, reading, or speaking
  • creating and maintaining your WordPress blog

Length Requirement

Your literacy narrative should be no fewer than five-hundred words. I encourage you to challenge yourself to exceed the minimum.

When to Begin

You are not required to begin your literacy narrative before the class period devoted to drafting, but you are welcome to sketch out ideas and begin drafting in your journal.

Dillard, Annie. An American Childhood. Harper & Row, 1987.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus I. Pantheon, 1986.