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Betsy P.
Experienced Professor of English and Humanities
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Writing
TutorMe
Question:

Why was I always taught to use the five-paragraph essay format when my college professors are now saying that I have to have more paragraphs?

Betsy P.
Answer:

The five-paragraph essay format is useful mainly for completing the essay sections of standardized tests. For any essay longer than around 600 words (less than two double-spaced pages), the five-paragraph essay format falls to pieces. Imagine an eight to 10 page paper with only five paragraphs! For one thing, it would be dreadfully difficult to read, with each paragraph wending on, unbroken, for pages at a time. Worse yet, because each paragraph should focus on a single topic, trying to keep to only five paragraphs makes it virtually impossible to discuss a subject in any detail. A better approach to essay organization is to consider a five-PART essay format: introduction, conclusion, and three argument points as the body. Better still is to ensure that you not only provide two or three proofs supporting your perspective but that you also bring up at least one opposing view in order to demonstrate how your interpretation is superior.

Literature
TutorMe
Question:

I’m really confused about genre! I know that plays have dialogue, so if I’m discussing a conversation between two characters in a story, shouldn’t I refer to it as a play? Like, when Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet are talking to each other in Jane Austen’s _Pride and Prejudice_? I don’t understand why my professor jumped down my throat when I called it a play in my last research paper.

Betsy P.
Answer:

Numerous students display massive confusion about genres, to the point that, in research essays, students will refer to poems as plays or novels as poems or plays as novels. Genre is, admittedly, a confusing concept, in large part because—kind of like a genealogical family tree—the primary three genres (poetry, prose, and drama) immediately propagate into what can certainly seem like an infinite variety of categories. To name just a couple of subsets of each genre, you can be confronted with lyric vs. narrative (poetry), history vs. biography (prose), tragedy vs. romantic comedy (drama). Other genres include satire, romance, science fiction, and, well, you get the point. Another complication with understanding genres (or generic classifications) is that each of the three primary types of writing uses supposedly distinguishing elements—but some of these elements can overlap! Grade school students are taught that prose and drama both have characters and settings and dialogue—so how does one distinguish between the two genres? And what about narrative poetry, which can also include characters and settings and dialogue? The confusions about writing classifications are certainly understandable, but it is, indeed, possible to make sense of the genres sufficiently that you can compose a research paper on, for instance, Shakespeare’s sonnets without once referring to his poetry as a play or a novel.

English
TutorMe
Question:

Literature is completely subjective, so isn’t my opinion about something I read always right?

Betsy P.
Answer:

Literary texts, while open to interpretation, are still bound by their wording and historical contexts. Opinions differ from interpretations, and it is interpretive work which is of most significance in discussing literature. Think about it this way: maybe you believe strawberry ice cream is the most delicious flavor of ice cream possible and that anybody who doesn’t agree is crazy. Well, that is your opinion, certainly, and, though people might hope to convince you that everybody has a right to make their own decisions about favorite ice cream flavors, nobody can deny you your opinion. When it comes to discussions about texts, though, it is less than useful to base a discussion on your opinion that one poem is funny or another is boring. Interpretations, in contrast with opinions, are like pieces of detective work in which you draw on clues in the text and its contexts (historical, social, cultural, etc.) and combine these observations with the unique insight you bring to your reading based on the knowledge and understanding you have gathered through your experiences and studies. Literary interpretations can change over time based on new perspectives and realizations, but each interpretation must be supported by the contents of the literary work itself. A well-argued interpretation can persuade a listener or reader to accept your argument as valid, but a person who hates the taste of strawberry ice cream is never going to love it just to avoid your disapproval.

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