Writing: Literary Units

Most students don't have to worry about essay sections or chapters, but that doesn't mean their papers don't include smaller literary units that make up the whole. One of the difficulties almost all students face, and that few writing programs address, is the problem of coherence. When essays are seen as complete units by themselves, it's no surprise that such difficulty exists: keeping even two or three pages straight is quite a job for beginning writers.

Obviously, it's essential that students keep the overall theme of their paper in mind at all times. But it's just as essential that they keep the different parts clear in their minds, or else they'll be overwhelmed with the big idea and unable to flesh it out appropriately. This is partly because because every big idea is composed of smaller, subservient ideas; and partly because it's always easier and less dangerous to climb stairs one at a time rather than trying to leap from the first floor to the second story.

What are literary units? Quite simply, they're any section of a larger work that contains an idea or important element meant to serve the larger picture being presented. They can be long or short, though length will largely be determined by the length of the essay or paper itself. Lopsided units will almost always result in a lopsided idea, and since communication of ideas is the primary goal of all writing, this is basically literary suicide.

Most essays and papers aren't long, and therefore most of them don't need headings for different units, but it's a very helpful practice to include section headings while composing rough drafts. Not only do headings help you keep track of where you are, they help demonstrate whether your ideas are lopsided, which ones need to be fleshed out more, and which ones would be better if they were scaled down or even removed.

Probably the single most important thing to keep in mind during the writing process is that writing is largely the process of eliminating extraneous words and ideas. If students can begin to see the smaller sections into which their larger works are divided, they can better analyze what is unnecessary and keep what's relevant. Thinking in terms of units will also help them logically, as they learn how to organize their thoughts, and how all ideas interrelate and either complement or oppose one another.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.

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