Back to visual analysis
Here is an exercise that I found helpful more than once in writing a paper. Pick a movie you have seen many times and are very familiar with. Pick a 2-4 minute sequence in that movie, re-watch it many times and document the elements of the miser scene. Count the shots. Count the cuts. Document when the camera moves, or does not. How are the figures moving in the frame? What is the color palette? Etc. Next: what is the meaning being conveyed by these technical elements? Try to separate this scene from the movie as a whole. Try not to reference events that will occur later in the movie or have occurred before. Focus on this one scene specifically. By doing this, you train your visual analysis muscles (much as an athlete would) by repetition. This approach is not necessary for every movie you watch or for every paper you write, but the more you forcibly make yourself aware of the craft behind a movie, the better your essay skills will get. Remember that the purpose of a narrative film is to render the visible invisible, and your job as a film student is to unpack and deconstruct that invisibility.
Remember that you are not writing about a book, so try not to focus on “themes,” unless those themes are conveyed visually. When you ground your analysis in the visual, your argument gets stronger and you will be able to tease out more interesting elements.
For the love of God, start small. The biggest mistake people make when writing essays of any kind (and professors make in devising essay prompts), is to focus too broadly on a topic. The narrower your thesis, the better. Some of my most satisfying essays have focused on a single repeated word, phrase, or visual image. You should be able to get at least five to seven pages on a simple analysis of a single film. Anything else and you will need to either censor yourself, simplify your argument, or provide a cursory summary. If your professor or TA consistently gives your prompts that require you to analyze more than one film on multiple topics, either try to reason with them or choose a common element in that film that is as small as possible. A successful essay takes something seemingly innocuous and perhaps even underappreciated and expands on it in many ways that may not have been considered before.
Do not be afraid to take risks in your theses. Do not be afraid to disagree with the author you have read, or what your professor has said. Remember that if you are going to be contrary, you need to have a strong argument and remember to concede that your own analysis brings up its own objections. A strong essay makes it point with at least three pieces of supporting evidence, but also acknowledges other readings.
Do not plagiarize. This is obvious, but for God’s sake, do not do it. Cite your sources, even when you think the information is obvious. The degree to which you cite (and in what form) obviously depends on your school, your program, and your professor, so make sure you are doing it right. Remember there are more sources than just books and articles. Audio commentaries and interviews with the filmmakers are also helpful sources for certain kinds of essays. You can find out how to cite these by Googling the information. Remember if you are having trouble with something specific; ask your professor or TA. Not only do they appreciate you are talking to them; it lets them know you are serious about the class and lets them know you are less likely to cheat. This is a good impression. It may be hard to ask for help, but most teachers are there to help and in my experience, they rarely ever get visitors at their office hours and it makes them sad.
I do not really know what else to say without getting into specifics about individual papers. Not to be too condescending, but a basic outline for a paper should look something like this:
Try to be imaginative and don’t be afraid to get witty, cheeky, or goofier; college is all about the most ridiculous titles you can imagine – have fun with it; if your grader hates it, believe me, they’ll let you know.
Topic sentence that gets to the point; don’t get too lofty (“Since the beginning of time, men have dreamed in pictures…”); avoid hyperbole
If required, background information on your film/paper/whatever you are writing about
Condensed versions of your evidence points
Thesis; thesis should be easy to identify and clearly stated; if you’re having trouble crafting a thesis statement, your university probably has writing workshops, you can consult your professors and there are always internet resources; your thesis should be concise, arguable, and original. Even if your thesis incorporates other people’s ideas, make sure you cite them, but have your own unique spin on something; for example: “Adorno argues that blah blah blah, but as [insert evidence] will show, blah blah blah [your own thesis]”.
Depends on the length of that paper, but in my experience, most medium length papers (5-7 pgs.) require at least 5 body paragraphs
If your paragraphs are getting too long (like, a whole page), revise and look for repeated information you can delete, or places where you diverge from your main argument – here is where you can go to a new paragraph
Each paragraph should open with a topic sentence that relates to the thesis and that functions as the thesis statement of that paragraph. For example: “Adorno’s involvement in the Frankfurt School evolved from a post-war blah blah blah” and then your supporting evidence should have more or less to do with that topic sentence, which in turn should relate to your overall thesis argument
Don’t forget to cite your sources; use quotes conservatively – only use them when they support your point – they should never be the point in and of themselves; in other words, don’t let other people speak for you
Each paragraph should end with a transition into the next bit of evidence.
Restate your thesis, and each of your supporting points
If desired, bring up counterpoints to your argument and why your argument is stronger than those arguments
Perhaps bring in an observation that has a bit of finality to the proceedings
Wrap things up the best you can without sounding pat or bringing in clichés
Remember that your paper is not the final word on the topic – just try to argue a small point as thoroughly as you can
I know this is very long and I am sorry if I am restating many things you already know. Remember that the easiest way to be a good film student is to just be a good student generally. Familiarize yourself with visual signifiers, film language as much as possible, and immerse yourself in media. I hope this can help in any small way. I really do wish you good luck on your upcoming essays and as a film student.