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How to Write a Composition Essay in Film and Theatre Studies: Step-by-Step Guide

What is a composition essay? The answer depends on the course you take and the preferences of your instructor. Strictly speaking, it is not any specific type of written assignment – rather, it is a blanket term covering all the basic types of creative writing. If your task says “composition essay”, it simply means that you have to write an essay, without specifying what type of essay it is – persuasive, expository or something else. If possible, clarify the details of your task with the instructor – it will save you from time-consuming rewritings later on. If no clarifications are available, consider it an invitation to choose the mode of writing on your own and use this opportunity to choose one that suits you best.

This amount of freedom is of particular importance when you work with a discipline like film and theatre studies, because it gives you so many opportunities of analyzing, evaluating and expressing your opinions about both existing theatrical productions and films and their theory in general.

In this guide, we will cover writing a composition essay in this discipline from the preliminary stages to eventual editing and revision of the finished piece.

PRE-WRITING STAGE

  1. Specify Your Topic
  2. Look for Sources
  3. Evaluate Sources
  4. Write a Thesis Statement

WRITING TIPS

  1. Write a Great Introductory Paragraph
  2. Use a Variety of Sentence Structures
  3. Go Beyond the Obvious
  4. Build Your Composition around Topic Sentences

EDITING & PROOFREADING

  1. Take a Break
  2. Proofread Backwards
  3. Make a List of Your Typical Mistakes
  4. Read the Text Aloud
  5. Ask for Feedback from Multiple Sources
  6. Do not Trust Spell- and Grammar-Checkers

Pre-writing Stage

1. Specify Your Topic

Sometimes you get your topic directly from your instructor. If you are given a vague assignment like a composition essay, you probably have to think about a topic yourself. This amount of freedom may look encouraging, but do not forget that it is just as important part of an assignment as everything else. Your instructors check if you can independently find and narrow down a topic that will yield a high-quality composition. Pick whatever you like, but make sure your topic is:

Tired of all the guides and never-ending instructions?
  • Interesting. Do not be tempted to choose something that is simple to write – a composition is not a very large assignment, but you will spend plenty of time researching. If the topic is boring, you will have only yourself to blame for selecting it;
  • Specific. Good research always focuses on a relatively narrow subject. Not Shakespearean tragedy, but a particular play. Better yet, a particular motive in a particular play;
  • Researchable. Before you present your choice of topic to your instructor, spend some time looking for sources of information on it. if there is no literature to refer to, even the most fascinating topic will fall through;
  • Supportable. Again, check the existing body of literature on the topic to see if there is research that contradicts and refutes your thesis. It does not mean that you should forgo a viewpoint if you see a contradiction – if you have counterarguments, it is all right. However, if you see that your viewpoint was carefully examined and rejected, look for something else.

Eventually, you should end up with a manageable topic like one of these:

  • Influence of Silent Films on the Further Development of Cinematography and Modern-Day Films;
  • The use of Special Effects before the Rise of Computer Generated Graphics;
  • The History of Censorship in the American Film Industry;
  • Shakespeare’s Influence on the Elizabethan Theatre;
  • Traces of Roman Theatrical Traditions in Modern Dramaturgy.

2. Look for Sources

Looking for sources of information used to be mostly limited to visiting a library and going through its index. Today, it is much more complex: there are many more types of sources and places where you can look for them.

  • Libraries. Most libraries have replaced or supplemented their old card catalogs with electronic ones, which is fine if your research is limited to newer sources. However, many libraries do not have the entirety of their catalogs digitized, and older sources may still only be located using a card catalog;
  • Reference librarians. Do not be afraid to approach them – it is their job to help you, and they know how to do it. You can greatly improve the results by narrowing down your research question first – the more specific you are, the more likely is a librarian to offer you viable sources;
  • Experienced people. Individuals with background in filmmaking and theatre themselves can be an excellent source of information, and having an actual interview as one of the references will improve the credibility of your paper;
  • Scholarly databases. Your primary source of references for everything related to peer-reviewed articles and periodical scholarly publications. Some of the most commonly used include JSTOR, Google Scholar and Microsoft Academic.

3. Evaluate Sources

Although you should try to diversify your sources of information and gather data by various means, keep in mind that not all of them are equally valuable and reliable. It is particularly true for online publications – most of them are not moderated and quality controlled in any way, which means that before referring to them you should verify them on your own. Printed sources are somewhat more reliable, but you still have to check each of them before using the materials from them in your writing. Pay attention to:

  • Date of publication. Is it new? Has any other important research on the same topic been published since then?
  • Possible bias. Is the author or publisher likely to be biased? Can they have an agenda in addition to simply imparting information? Is the author’s viewpoint reflected in the presentation of information? Is the author or the publisher connected to organizations or ideologies that may be interested in promoting a particular viewpoint?
  • Authority. Does the author have relevant credentials and background to speak about the subject?

The most reliable sources are peer-reviewed articles from scholarly journals. However, they also vary in usefulness: pay attention to the author’s h-index. It reflects both the author’s contribution to his/her relevant field of study and current activity. The higher it is, the better.

4. Write a Thesis Statement

Before you proceed to present your ideas to the reader, you should figure out what these ideas are for yourself. Thesis statement expresses the central thought of your paper, an idea around which everything else revolves. It is important to understand how it is different from a topic or a research question. A topic delineates your area of study – e.g., ‘The Role of Folklore in Screenplays for Horror Films’. A research question is what you intend to answer in your paper – e.g., ‘What is the role of folklore elements in horror films?’ A thesis statement states your main idea, with the rest of the paper backing up your claim and providing evidence for it – e.g., ‘Horror films both heavily borrow from folklore of different cultures and contribute to modern day folklore or urban legends’.

Another important characteristic of a good thesis is its deniability. In other words, it should contain a statement that an intelligent and well-informed person can argue against. A self-evident idea (‘Horror films aim to scare the audience’) cannot be a thesis, as there is nothing to prove or explain.

Writing Tips

1. Write a Great Introductory Paragraph

Introduction is where you should put most time and effort, because it is your only opportunity to make a first impression. Ideally, the reader should be sufficiently fascinated by the first sentence (the ‘hook’) to naturally move over to the following supporting information and reach the thesis statement, explaining your take on the subject matter. There is now universal approach to writing the first paragraph, but some methods have been long known for their effectiveness:

  • An anecdote. A real-life story relevant to the issue is an excellent way to draw attention, especially if you can relate a personal experience or refer to an acquaintance related to the film industry;
  • A question. A thought-provoking, unexpected question, especially if it is seemingly unrelated to the topic can encourage the reader to read on just to understand what it is about;
  • An outrageous statement. One of the best ways to attract the audience’s attention is to say something they are most likely to disagree with.

2. Use a Variety of Sentence Structures

Some composition writing manuals suggest that you should stick to particular types of sentence structures: keep your sentences relatively short, around 25-35 words, avoid using multiple clauses and so on. It may be a good advice for beginner writers who tend to either write in overly simplistic short sentences or create confusing multi-clause monstrosities in a misled attempt to sound serious. If you strive for your language to be great rather than passable, you should ditch any mechanical approach. The most characteristic feature of great language is not using sentences of the same length, but exactly the opposite – variability. Use a variety of sentence lengths and structures. Intersperse simple short sentences with complex long ones. Do not shy away from an occasional sentence fragment.

3. Go Beyond the Obvious

While your instructor hardly expects a G.K. Chesterton’s level of wit and paradox from your writing, you can significantly improve your chances of getting an excellent grade if you refuse to follow the path of the least resistance. For example, a composition on the tradition of horror films can cover an interesting but rather obvious venue of discussing various methods of instilling the sense of suspense in the audience. Alternatively, you can show insight and make a step further and discuss the purpose of horror films from a psychologist’s viewpoint.

4. Build Your Composition around Topic Sentences

Topic sentences are the first sentences of a new paragraph that point out what this paragraph is about. They have multiple purposes: they introduce a new topic and connect it to the point of the preceding paragraph, they make it easier to find the right place in your composition, they help you organize your thoughts.

Make your topic sentences something like small thesis statements. Focus them on a single idea, leaving the details for the following supporting sentences. Once you finish the composition, go over it and see if you can glean its basis contents and structure only from the first sentences of each paragraph.

Editing & Proofreading

1. Take a Break

It is important that you do not start proofreading immediately after finishing writing. You have to let yourself forget the text a little bit so that you do not anticipate every word. A couple of days is an ideal amount, but even as little as half an hour will help.

2. Proofread Backwards

Proofreading primarily concerns with small units of the text: words and sentences. To emphasize it, try proofreading backwards: starting at an end and working through your composition sentence by sentence. This will help you to abstract yourself from the overall structure and pay attention to individual words and clauses.

3. Make a List of Your Typical Mistakes

If you do not have one already, compile a list of mistakes you know you are prone to. Look through the corrections and comments your instructors made in your previous works and take note of what crops up multiple times. When you proofread, cover one type of mistakes at a time.

4. Read the Text Aloud

It will force you to slow down, pay closer attention and notice the difference between what you intended to write and how it turned out.

5. Ask for Feedback from Multiple Sources

No matter how attentive you are, you are not the judge of the quality of your own writing. You know the inner workings of the text and anticipate what follows what. Ask somebody to read your composition and point out if there is anything wrong with it. Are there any gaps in logic? Unsupported conjectures? Factual mistakes? Misused words? If possible, get feedback from several unrelated sources.

6. Do not Trust Spell- and Grammar-Checkers

The spell/grammar checker in your word processor (as well as more specialized online tools) can help you notice mistakes that evaded your attention, but they tend to make blunders of their own, so do not rely on them too much. When in doubt, look an issue in a grammar reference book or consult an experienced proofreader.

While the details and the structure of an assignment you receive from your instructor may vary, these tips remain relevant no matter what – use them, and you will see that writing a composition essay in film and theatre studies is not as difficult as you used to think.