Ways to Write About Literature

&   Analyze a theme in the work, or analyze the plot and how it displays the theme. For example, what are some of the conflicts? How do events connect to each other? Do some events foreshadow others? Does the writer offer a lesson to be learned or a way of looking at life or the world? Is the author responding to some event he or she experienced or recalling some past moment?

&   Analyze characters: consider their behavior, how they are described, what they say, and how all this fits into the plot or theme of the work or its setting. Does your interpretation tell you anything more about the characters or the theme or the culture or time period in which the work is set? Do the characters change or stay the same? Is there a minor character worth analyzing in terms of the theme or plot or effect on a major character?

&   Analyze the structure of the work: Is it chronological? Does it skip around? Are you given clues by the writer as to what will happen?

&   Analyze the narrator: Who is telling the story, someone outside the events or one of the characters? Does the narrator tell the reader the characters’ thoughts? Does the author write in the first person, using “I”? What is the narrator’s tone or attitude?

&   Look at type or genre of the work—is it a play (tragedy or comedy), a short story, a novel, or a poem? How does this work compare to others of its type? Does it blend several genres of literature? Does it use elements common to this its genre? Is it an effective example of the genre? Why?

&   Analyze the work in terms of gender. How does the work portray women or men? How does it define their roles in the family? in society? in the workplace?

&   Reader Response: Is the meaning of the text is constructed by readers? Focus on the reactions of the audience to the work. Why do readers respond as they do to this work?

&   Biography: Research the life of the author. What about the author’s life is reflected in this particular work? For example, if you are reading The Diary of Anne Frank, you should know about the events which formed the background of her memoir, namely World War II, racial/ethnic hatred, and the Holocaust?

&   Resist the obvious meaning of the work: Read skeptically; look for internal inconsistencies; focus on ambiguities.

Writing the assignment

&   Read the work all the way through.

&   Avoid writing a plot summary, unless specifically asked to do so. Most if not all of your college assignments will call for analysis and/or research.

&   Ask yourself some questions: What aspect of the work interests, surprises, pleases, or upsets you? What questions does the work raise in your mind? What characters or literary devices (such as setting, images, or language) stand out in your mind? What new insights did you gain from your reading?

&   Put the answer(s) to your question(s) into a thesis. Does that thesis seem so obvious that it’s not fresh or interesting to write about? Try delving deeper to see the complexity behind the obvious, or choose another question to answer.

&   If possible, read the whole work again, or skim it to look for evidence of what you want to write about. A second reading can help you find support for your thesis that may not have been apparent as you read the work the first time. Are there examples of dialogue that help support your point? Or can you find something a character did or said, an incident in the story, a recurring image (motif), or a surprise twist that supports your point? If the work is printed in a book you own, use your highlighter, or take notes in the margins. If the book is not yours, write your notes on the computer. In either case, keep a list of the numbers of the pages you will want to refer to when you write your paper.

&   Support your main point with reasoned arguments and evidence from the work itself.

&   As you write your first draft, be prepared to discover new insights or connections you had not originally thought of. Writing is often an act of discovering what we think, so your paper may change shape or go off in a slightly different direction. Then you will need to revise the thesis and perhaps the introductory section, as well.


Adapted from: Harris, Muriel. Prentice Hall Reference Guide. 6th ed. Upper Saddler River, NJ: Purdue University, 2006.