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Writing Essays About Film

A common tendency among undergraduates is to short-circuit the process of writing a paper by ignoring what could be called the “prewriting” stage, which involves a number of steps that should be initiated LONG before the due-date. This “9-step program” is as follows:


The research stage actually starts with the selection of a topic, i.e., the broad subject area for investigation. It is often a good idea to start with a few films that you like, a filmmaker whose work you particularly enjoy or a period in history that intrigues you. The main secret to writing a good essay is to focus on a topic that interests you.


Refers to the specific focus of the research. An important first step in research is to narrow the topic to manageable proportions. You should limit yourself to a few films or a very specific historical period. Avoid being too broad (like trying to write the complete history of world cinema!). But you should also avoid being too narrow (although there are fine fine books on individual films, you should try to cover at least two or three productions). The nature of the issue selected is important in choosing the appropriate approach.

Research Question

Start with a single, stimulating research question. Possible hypotheses may emerge at the working outline stage, but these should be based on wide reading and thinking – not on a “hunch”. The research question sets the direction of the assignment. The student’s task is to develop an answer or thesis (what is it that this paper will try to “demonstrate”). This stage is a crucial one. Besides setting the direction of the research, the phrasing of the question helps to establish the tone of the paper and defines its scope. Although the essay may contain descriptive, narrative, or biographical material, the solution to the problem requires analysis.

Working Bibliography

Students should develop a working bibliography – books, periodicals, magazines, newspapers, web sites etc. – before starting the working outline. Learn how to use a complex research library. There are many resources available to help you find articles and books on films and filmmakers. You should start by visiting the Carleton University Library Web sites devoted to Film-related resources:

If you cannot find enough sources, change the issue immediately.

Working Outline

Developing a preliminary structure for the essay before you have finished collecting information is most helpful. The working outline is a tentative list of main factors around which you anticipate the final answer will be structured. Unlike the Plan (stage 7), the working outline puts less emphasis on a linear structure than on a fluid arrangement of ideas emerging from the research question. Points included in the working outline constitute parameters within which the thesis will be articulated. During later stages of research, these points will be tested, and their importance and relevance determined. A good working outline provides an analytical framework for the next stage – the collecting of information. It helps to ensure a disciplined and ordered piece of work. The preparatory reading associated with the development of this working outline provides a solid background reservoir of knowledge on the topic as well.

Collecting and Classifying Information

Only now are you ready to start the research proper – the gathering and weighing of evidence to develop an answer to the research question. Systematic information-gathering and recording are essential if you are to make the best use of your research time and apply your discoveries to construct a coherent and convincing essay. The working outline provides the structure not only for collecting information but also for classifying and evaluating it. If a piece of information does not fit into this framework, you have two choices – either discard it as irrelevant, or create another section in the working outline to incorporate the information. A comprehensive and organized system of research notes is essential for a successful essay.


At this point, the ideas from the outline must be arranged much more specifically as “arguments” founded on the information gathered in stage 6. Too many essays are of the “cut-and-paste” variety, composed of excerpts from a few books spread out on the table, or from “highlighted” photocopies of periodical articles. A good piece of work should have a clear linear structure that should be worked out at this stage. The plan might include five main sections: an introduction; three main arguments (it could be two or four); and a conclusion. Subsequently, each of the three (or two or four) central arguments could be subdivided into two or three specific points. If your notes have been classified according to the headings in your outline, the progressive breakdown of detail at each stage is not difficult.

Rough Draft

Drafting the material in the body to substantiate the thesis is a most important task. Many students seem determined to cram all their research notes into the paper. In doing so, they clutter and destroy their answers. If the research has been carried out properly, you should end up with far more material than you can possibly use. In the rough draft stage, there is a tendency to overwrite, and this is all right to a point, but be prepared, in the final stage, to prune ruthlessly. Ideally, every word, every phrase, every sentence, every paragraph must justify its presence. If you have prepared the ground properly, according to this model, the rough draft should very nearly “write itself”. Now is the time to let it flow without worrying too much about the niceties of style and form. Suppress the urge to polish your writing – one sentence at a time – at this stage. Get it out. Here, your subconscious plays an extraordinarily major role.

Final Copy

Along with the various stages of the prewriting process, this final stage is the one most frequently overlooked or wilfully ignored. Too often, the student submits what in effect is still a rough draft. This is insulting to the reader and, needless to say, simply unprofessional. A clean and polished final draft is important because readers are impressed by a neat, orderly, coherent piece of work. Imagine sitting down to read a section of your favorite Guide to Film Studies and being comforted wit numberous spilling terrors, vaulty gammar and tynsax, purky and caucasionally, nery vearly nicomprenensnible snapages with suspicious stains – gravy, jam, coffee, blood, sweat, tears, or worse – we have seen it all!! I suspect you would give it up in disgust and scream: “Who the &*#$ wrote this piece of &*!% ?” So the old saw applies here, too: you not only have to be professional, you have to appear to be professional. The “look” of your paper (cover page; standard margins; standard font; page numbers; titles in italics; appropriate indents for quotations etc.) is of the essence at this stage.

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Writing for Film Studies: Advice from Professors
Content by Carter Staub and Savannah Gillespie, Site by Megan Venable

(printable version here)

Below are interviews with two professors, Abagail Cheever, Ph.D., and Joe Essid, Ph.D. They offer insight about what to expect from a film studies paper, how an essay for film studies may differ from an essay for a literature class, and how film can be incorporated into the study of literature. Key points from the interviews follow the videos.

Abagail Cheever, Ph.D. :

Key Points:

Students "write as if it were a novel... never thinking about how the visual elements of the frame also work to tell that story"

  • College students are used to sitting down and deeply analyzing a poem or piece of literature. Film is similar to that, but it must involve the visual aspects of the piece.
  • Essays must address the visual aspect of the film.

"Where has the director placed the camera, and how does that affect what I see in front of me?"

  • Writing for literature, students look at the language, and use quotations to provide evidence for their thesis. Film is similar, but to drive to the point, students must look to the visual aspect as a kind of text; listen to the dialogue and follow the narrative, but also look to how that story is conveyed.
  • Film tells its story through pictures.

"A discussion of both the narrative and the plot, but also a discussion of how the visuals are being used in conjunction to that"

  • In an analytical paper, one must talk about the film's meaning. What is the film trying to communicate through both the visuals and narrative? It is important to note that the visual and the narrative components are directly linked and therefore, what you see on screen is almost always a reflection of whatever part of the story the director chose to emphasize during that time.
  • Two ways to accomplish this: by either explaining the narrative aspects and then going back to explain the visual pieces in conjunction, or by doing the two simultaneously.

Joe Essid, Ph.D. :

Key Points:

"Film provides different types of techniques that are related to motion"

  • Film contains a few differences in comparison to literary critiques, such as vocabulary, authorial techniques, and camera motion.

"Novices... will tend to review the film instead of getting into the technical details"

  • Changing the minds of students who do not want to deeply analyze, and believe that by deeply analyzing, it will ruin the movie going experience.
  • Ridding of the confusion of vocabulary and difference in ideas such as shot, scene, and sequence, will help allow viewers better understand and interpret film.
  • Knowing the language, and going under the surface of the film to understand more than just the plot.

"Go beyond plot into film-making"

  • A writer must be aware that words alone sometimes cannot capture what occurs on screen. There must be an interplay between image and word; employ effective adjectives and adverbs.
  • Must use action verbs in writing about film.

"Students need to learn to communicate in multiple genres"

  • Must stress the visual aspect of learning.

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