I keep going off-topic when I'm writing for class. How do I fix this?
It's very easy to start wandering from the point when you write, especially if you're getting ideas about the subject as you go. The most efficient way to combat this problem is to create an outline of what you will talk about before starting to write. Make sure to include the thesis of each paragraph and the points you'll make to support your claim. If you focus on the logic of your paper in an outline, when you still have the big picture in front of you, it will be a lot easier to keep that big picture in your head when you're in the middle of writing the actual words. The same goes for writing in-class essays. Even though you may not have the time to think about and plan the topic like you would have for a take-home paper, you can still jot down the points you want to make in the order you want to make them before starting in. It will be time well spent. However, especially if you really care about the subject or are in a higher-level course, going off-topic in a draft can sometimes be useful. The times when you get off-topic and start some off-road exploring tend to be the times when you will start making new and unexpected discoveries about the subject you are writing about. If that is important to you, you might want to consider writing about the subject, getting as off-topic as you like, then choosing the best bits from that draft and crafting an outline from there.
I can barely understand a scene in the Shakespeare play I'm studying. How can I get comfortable reading and writing about it?
The language in Shakespeare's plays is a different kind of English, and it's completely normal to be confused by it at first. However, you really can train your brain to understand it- like any other muscle, it just takes some practice. The first thing to remember about Shakespeare is that the text of his plays is just a blueprint for performance. Watching a theatrical production or film of the play that you're studying will help you understand the plot structure and characters much better, as you are seeing the play as it is meant to be seen. Do remember that many of these plays and films will have adapted the original text, typically by cutting scenes, so they should never be used in the place of the script. Second, find a really good plot synopsis of the play that goes through the play scene by scene. Reading one scene at a time will cement your understanding of the language and help you grapple with the language in bite-size pieces. As you become more comfortable with reading Shakespeare, try writing your own scene synopses instead of using pre-existing ones. Read the notes in the edition of the play you are reading. They are a wealth of information that will help you understand the play much better and much quicker than you would otherwise. If you don't have an edition with notes, get one. I would recommend the Oxford Shakespeare editions but check with your teacher before buying one in case they have a different recommendation that might suit you better. Finally, don't panic if you don't understand everything right away. If approached slowly and methodically, Shakespeare really does become understandable. The richness of his language and imagery is confusing at first but is a huge reason why he is still so revered today. The more you engage with the language using the steps above, the easier it will become to understand some of the most influential literature in Western history.
I have to write a first-year English paper, and I don't know what to write about. What do I do?
The only secret to choosing a good essay topic is to pick a subject that you're interested in. If you have to make up your topic, a useful first step is to make a list of everything in the text you're writing about that interested you when you read it. This list may include characters, scenes, descriptions, or even things that confused you. Now, go through the items on your list and think of possible questions you could ask them to form the basis of your essay. For example, perhaps the madwoman in the attic in Jane Eyre caught your attention. You might want to look at the treatment of mental illness during Charlotte Brontë's life or compare the madwoman to another character in the novel. If your professor has a list of essay questions you can choose from, I would recommend making the list of things you're interested in any way. In this context, think about what essay topic would be most appropriate for what you're interested in. If the essay you want to write is slightly different than any topic, check with your professor to make sure that is ok. In most cases, they will be more than happy for you to write about something different. They'll be reading a lot of similar essays, so your paper will really stand out. Basing the paper on what you're interested helps in two different ways. First, it helps you enjoy the process of writing more, because you're writing about something that you enjoy- or at least are curious about. Second, your paper has a greater chance of being passionate and original, because you are basing your essay on your individual experience of the text. This typically translates to higher grades. However, remember that your topic is meant to illuminate the text. For example, if you do decide to write about the historical background of mental illness and the madwoman in Jane Eyre, make sure that you use that historical information to draw a conclusion about the book. The topic should be creative, but they should always center around the text at hand. The other thing to bear in mind when writing the first-year paper is that the five-paragraph essay you learned in high school isn't relevant anymore. Use as many paragraphs as you need to get your point across. Keep the introduction and conclusion, of course, but don't limit your content to three paragraphs or you will rarely be able to cover your topic in depth.