6 Writing about Literature


In 200-level and 300-level English courses, you’ll be asked to write a formal analysis (sometimes called a “research paper,” a “term paper,” or even a “documented literary analysis”). This paper should present an original argument about an aspect or aspects of literature and should engage with critical sources. It is important to keep in mind that this assignment is not a report. It should not merely rehearse the critical arguments that have already been made about your topic. Rather, the argument should be based on your own close reading of your chosen text(s) and, at the same time, demonstrate the scholarly maturity that comes with situating this argument in relation to the work of other scholars. Material from these sources should be carefully documented using the MLA style of documentation.

Here are some tips:

  • Organization counts. Make sure you have a focused, detailed thesis within your introductory paragraphSucceeding paragraphs should state a topic and supply evidence and argument to support that topic. Don’t forget the conclusion. A strong conclusion leaves your reader with a clear sense of your perspective and helps the reader to recall the most important aspects of your argument.
  • Don’t let the critics run away with your paper. Subordinate their views to your own, and make sure that the preponderance of the paper is yours. Never cite a critical view that you do not understand.
  • Remember to revise your work and proof-read carefully. Some professors care more about one aspect of paper writing than others. Some particularly hate to see documentation errors; for others sloppy writing (lots of spelling, punctuation and other mechanical errors) spells doom. Always do your best work, and don’t assume that you can neglect any aspect of your essay.
  • The Help guides page at the LND Library website also can help you use the different databases, find articles and books, navigate the library catalog, and cite sources using MLA style.


Analysis of theme(s)

A theme is a recurring idea or concept in a text. It is not explicit; therefore, the writer must to look for repeated imagery or symbols, examine the relationships between plot, setting, characters, and structure, and think about the feelings evoked throughout the text. Common themes in literature include love, jealousy, and friendship. If assigned to analyze a theme in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, you could analyze the theme of friendship between Huck and Jim.

Exploration of one or more characteristic(s) of an author’s style and approach

Consider analyzing the author’s use of imagery or setting:

Analyzing Setting

“Setting refers to the natural or artificial scenery or environment in which characters in literature live and move. Seeing also includes what in the theater would be called props or properties—the implements employed by the characters in various activities. Such things as the time of day and the consequent amount of light at which an event occurs, the flora and fauna, the sounds described, the smells, and the weather are also part of the setting. Paintbrushes, apples, pitchforks, rafts, six-shooters, watches, automobiles, horses and buggies, and innumerable other items belong to the setting. References to clothing, descriptions of physical appearance, and spatial relationships among the characters are also part of setting.” (Edgar V. Roberts, Writing Themes about Literature)

In order to create an argument about the function of the setting in a particular work, you need to identify the principal settings and to see how they work. Here are some steps you can take:

1) Read the story and mark references to setting. Start with the place and time of the action and then focus upon recurrent details and objects.

2) Think about what the story is about. What happens? What is its point? Is it a story about love, jealousy, gain, or loss? What is the main experience here?

3) Look through your setting notes and see if they fall into any pattern. What are the interesting shifts and contrasts?

4) Determine how the setting relates to either the main point of the story (step 2) or to some part of it. In other words what does the setting have to do with character or action? What are its effects? Whatever you decide here will be your thesis statement.

5) Make an outline, indicating what aspects of setting you will discuss and what you intend to say about them. Discard notes that are not central to your plan (you don’t have to discuss everything). Focus on the four or five key passages in the story that you wish to examine. List them in your outline in the order in which they occur.

Analyzing Imagery

As distinct from character, theme, and plot, imagery occurs primarily in language, in the metaphors (i.e. comparisons), similes (comparisons with “like” or “as”), or other forms of figurative (pictorial) language in a literary work. Sometimes setting, i.e., the locality or placing of scenes, or stage props (like swords, flowers, blood, winecups) can also be considered under the rubric of imagery. But whatever the expression, images primarily are visual and concrete, i.e., things which the reader sees or can imagine seeing. Some examples are flowers, tears, animals, the moon, sun, stars, diseases, floods, metals, darkness and light.

In order to create an argument about the significance of an image in a particular work, identify a principal image or image cluster and to see how it works by following these steps:

1) Read the work and mark recurrent images or image clusters. If you are seeing references to roses, e. g., references to other thorns or to other flowers might also be pertinent parts of a cluster. Look at notes to the images carefully. Take out your microscope. You may also track down occurrences of related words with the help of a concordance (See Marvin Spevack’s Concordance to Shakespeare in the library) or electronic word searches. You can use secondary sources for this assignment as well.

2) Think about what the play is about. What happens? What is its point? Is it a play about love, jealousy, gain, or loss? What is the main experience here? Look through your images and image clusters and see if they fall into any pattern. What are the interesting shifts? Do they generally appear in the speeches of certain characters? in certain scenes? Do we have a progression or development? Significant contrasts?

3) Determine how the images or image clusters (step 3) relate to either the main point of the play (step 2) or to some part of it. In other words what do the images have to do with character or action? What are their effects? Whatever you decide here will be your thesis statement.

4) Make an outline, indicating what your image pattern is and what you intend to say about it. Discard images that are not central to your plan (you don’t have to discuss everything). Focus on the four or five key passages in the play that you wish to examine. List them in your outline in the order in which they occur.

5) Read Criticism and watch films to deepen understanding and refine your thesis. Compile a bibliography. Adjust outline as necessary.

Placement of a work or works in literary historical context

By placing a work in its literary historical context, one can trace the influences a historical period had on an author and/or the creation of his/her work(s). In doing this, a literary historical critic gains insights about the nature of a particular historical period. Using the historical context as a lens through which to read literature allows one to gain an understanding of both larger social issues, as well as the personal struggles that everyday people endured. As Janet E. Gardner explains in Writing about Literature,

“We may be able to learn from parish burial records, for example, how common childhood mortality was at a particular time in English history, but only when we read Ben Johnson’s poem “On My First Son” do we begin to understand how this mortality may have affected the parents who lost their children. Likewise, the few pages of James Joyce’s story “Araby” may tell us more about how adolescent boys lived and thought in turn-of-the-century Dublin than several volumes of social history” (Gardner 147-8).

Comparison/contrast of works sharing similarities but written by different authors and/or in different literary periods

While there are many forms of compare-and-contrast essays, the best ones use the points of comparison and contrast that they identify between the works in order to make a claim about how one text illuminates the other or how they illuminate each other. Rather than a simple delineation of differences and similarities, your essay should use those differences and similarities to make a larger argument about how comparing the two texts reveals some unexpected or non-obvious about one or both of the works.

Most often, such claims work to show how texts do similar things differently. Therefore, often the best structure for this kind of argument is to detail enough similarities between the works (especially works written by vastly different authors and/or in different literary periods) to justify your comparison and to narrow the scope of your discussion. In other words, first show how your two vastly different texts are attempting similar things. Then, focus the remainder of your essay on the nuanced differences between each text’s approach to those similar things and the way in which juxtaposing them illuminates our understanding of one or both.

Poetry Explication

Explication, from explicare meaning “to unfold,” is an exercise in analysis. In it, the writer shows that he or she can read a poem and explain how it the various choices a poet makes shape its message and affect the reader. One writes an explication by paying close attention to the meaning of words, to their sounds, to their placement in lines and sentences. One then explains how the parts contribute to the whole. This exercise trains the ear, eye, and mind. It develops critical faculties and discipline.

1) Read the poem out loud several times. Look up in a dictionary at least 10 words in it for meanings, alternate meanings, and for shades of meaning. Take notes. Jot down some general observations about the poem and your initial reactions.

2) Ask yourself who is the speaker? What is the situation and what is the poem about? Be as precise and as specific as possible. What about tone, diction [level of word choice—high, medium, low, or slang], mood? Jot down your answers.

3) Underline all repetitions or devices of sound that you notice. Pay attention to any surprising shifts of sound or meaning. Ask yourself what effects they have? Jot down your answers.

4) Type the poem out (double-spaced) on a separate sheet of paper. Number the lines and mark all stressed and unstressed syllables. Mark also significant devices of sound: caesuras [breaks within a line, usually signalled by punctuation], alliteration, or assonance (“significant” means important enough for you to discuss later). This does not count in the four pages and must be handed in with the poem.

5) Write in your first paragraph a brief summary of the poem, i.e. a notice of its central statement and constituent parts. Show some emotion or interest here; don’t be flat or effusive (avoid general and meaningless praise: “this is a wonderful or incredible or brilliant poem”).

6) Quote the first few lines of the poem (1-4, or whatever you’re comfortable with). Talk about the speaker and situation, about what is said, how, and why. Note connotations and overtones, how sound creates or enhances sense. Don’t ever notice a poetic device without explaining its effect. Pay attention to sound and sense, to music and meaning.

7) Repeat step 3 for the rest of the poem, working your way through slowly and carefully. Note instances of repetition and their effects; note development of phrases or ideas. Note images and be account for shifts in tone, sound, rhythm, diction, or subject. Discuss the ending of the poem separately.

8) For a conclusion write a brief, specific statement about the effect or meaning or artistry of the poem, about structures or patterns or insights that your analysis has revealed. Look through your opening paragraph for hints that you can now develop in closing. Or revise opening in light of what you have discovered.


Your thesis must make an argument, not an observation.

An “observation” suggests something that is generally true about the text, like an objective element of the plot or an image used by the author. For example, if we are writing about the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf we might make an observation about the way animal imagery seems to function for the Geat warriors. We might observe that while the Geats feature an image of a boar on their battle helmets (thus seemingly identifying with this ferocious animal), there are other moments in the text when the Geats shun vicious monsters (when they are reluctant to fight the dragon, for example.) Someone who has read the work carefully probably wouldn’t disagree with this observation; it refers to an image used by the narrator and a specific plot point. This observation does, however, pose a question or “problem” for the careful reader: what do we as readers make of this apparent contradiction? Why is this juxtaposition important for the narrative more broadly? What are the consequences of this juxtaposition on plot, theme, or character? So what?

An “argument”—your thesis statement— is your solution to this problem. The thesis answers the “so what” question by explaining the significance of the observation and explaining why an invested reader should care about this detail. For example, one might argue that the juxtaposition of the Geats ferocious helmets and their subsequent unwillingness to approach the dragon suggests an inherent difference between the warriors’ appearance (outward show) and their actions. This seems to be a theme in the work. The Danish coastguard who greets the Geats when they arrive in Denmark remarks that there is often a difference between “what is said” and “what is done,” and at the end of the epic, Wiglaf says that this discrepancy between word and action will ultimately impair the Geats’ ability to protect their kingdom. A thesis statement could read: “The difference between the Geats ferocious appearance and their later unwillingness to fight fearful monsters like the dragon suggests a devastating discrepancy between their appearance and their actions—a discrepancy that is responsible for the deterioration of the warrior culture in the epic.”

It is important to keep in mind that your thesis statement should argue something with which a reader can disagree. If I argued the thesis above, the body of my essay would not only need to prove that there is, in fact, a contradiction between the Geats’ appearance and action, but would also necessarily provide additional textual examples of how this discrepancy contributes to the deterioration of the warrior kingdoms in the epic. And, I’d need to be aware that other readers might not see the same contradiction. For example, another viable thesis statement could read: “As clear from biblical references in the text, humans identify with animals over monsters because animals are more like humans. Both humans and animals were created by God and thereby remind men of Divinity; whereas, monsters are perversions of God’s nature and thereby indicate a diabolic presence.” Rather than suggesting a contradiction, the imagery on the helmet suggests a righteous identification with God’s creation and an equally righteous aversion to things that are not “of God.” These two thesis statements offer opposite solutions to the problem posed above; both are viable and could be supported with textual evidence; and both make points with which a careful reader could disagree.


Before a literary scholar can begin writing about a piece of literature, one must engage in the exercise of close reading. As the term suggests, “close reading” means closely examining the words on a page in order to come up with a reading or an interpretation about the greater meaning of a work.

How does one “read closely”?

  • The first task involves dissecting a passage or phrase by analyzing literary elements that stick out. For instance, is the tone, diction, syntax, style, imagery, figurative language, theme(s), cultural/historical/religious references, rhyme, rhythm and meter, etc. significant in the passage or stanza? Take notes on whatever seems significant by writing in the margins of your text or keeping a reading journal.
  • After taking notes, the second task in close reading is looking for patterns or interruptions of patterns. Gather the evidence collected and think about how each one works together to create the work as a whole or how these elements contribute to or complicate larger issues such as theme, setting, characterization.
  • Finally, think about the purpose and the effect of these significant elements/patterns in the work as a whole. This means asking why and how: Why is an author using a particular metaphor, tone, diction, etc. and how does it affect one’s understanding of the passage? How are they all related to one another? How do they help us understand the larger work?

The steps listed above are a pre-writing exercise, designed to help you identify a potential thesis. Once you have formulated a thesis about how to read a larger work, you can use the smaller significant elements as evidence. This evidence will then need to be analyzed in order to support that thesis.


Defining Literary Criticism
Literary criticism is a disciplined attempt to analyze some aspect or aspects of one or more works of art—for our purposes, mostly literary art (plays, novels, short stories, essays, poems). Serious literary critics study their primary materials very closely and repeatedly, examine the contexts in which the works they are studying were produced, and read widely in the work of other literary critics on their subject before producing their own original analysis of a work or works of literature. Generally, literary criticism is published in one of three forms: in a book; in an article published in a professional journal, whether print-based or online; or in an article published in a book as part of a collection. These formats insure that experts in the appropriate field(s) have reviewed the literary criticism and judged its accuracy in points of fact, its attention to scholarship in the field, etc. These formats are peer-reviewed sources(also known as “refereed sources”). Peer-reviewed means that a source has been rigorously scrutinized by other experts before publication.

Why consult and cite literary criticism?
• Reading a variety of views increases your knowledge of your subject and helps you to demonstrate to your reader that you have considered views other than your own.
• Reading literary criticism enables you to weigh your conclusions against others’ to check your logic and to see whether you have covered all significant aspects of your argument.
• Citing others’ views makes you appear a more knowledgeable writer to your readers.
• Citing literary critics whose views agree with yours can strengthen your case (although you must still supply the appropriate evidence).
• Taking issue with a critic with whom you disagree can also strengthen your case if you present your counterargument effectively.
• Literary criticism can enable you and your readers to see how evaluations and analyses of literature have changed over time.

Where do I find literary criticism?
Encyclopedia articles do not offer true literary criticism, nor do Cliff’s Notes, Spark Notes, or “overviews” of authors, works, or literary topics available online. Some websites post serious scholarship, but many are run by fans or students who may or may not know more than you do(!) Wikipedia, for example, is not a peer-reviewed source; any one can post and update information on this site and, as a result, it is not a reliable resource. If you find your sources either through the SHARC catalogue or the MLA Bibliography database online (the bibliographical resource of the Modern Language Association), you are unlikely to go wrong:

• Use books and articles from the Loyola/Notre Dame Library or other libraries and articles located via the library databases. Internet material must have been published in a book or journal before being placed online. (Recall your library workshop.)
• Good sources can be found through Project Muse and the MLA Bibliography database, but avoid the “Biographies” and “Overview” tabs in the Literature Resource Center. This information can be useful to provide background for your research, but you should not use it in your paper as one of the documented sources.
• The MLA Bibliography database is the primary research database for researchers in literature. If a this database doesn’t supply a .pdf of an article you want to look at, write down the full publication information, and search for the journal in the ejournals section of our library’s homepage.


Formal analysis involves a close reading of the literary elements of a text. A formal analysis examines elements such as setting, imagery, characters, tone, form/structure, and language. The goal of a formal analysis is to create meaning by exploring how these elements work together in any given text. You can compare parts of a text or you can analyze how parts of a text relate to the whole text.


Follow the MLA style of documentation, which is a parenthetical style. Remember that you need a “Works Cited” page and a “Bibliography” page, and these should follow MLA format, not one you create on the spur of the moment or borrow from some other discipline. The “Works Cited” page lists all works you cite in the essay, the “Bibliography” lists all the works you consulted, including all of those cited. You should always note your professor’s requirements as to minimum number of sources.

The Department’s handbook (A Writer’s Reference by Diana Hacker) provides information under the MLA tab about how to provide parenthetical documentation and prepare a bibliography and list of works cited. You may also consult dianahacker.com/resdoc/ for online help. Use the “Humanities” resources tab. A quick look at the sample MLA paper in the Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference will give you a general sense of how MLA documentation works.


Every paper must contain an introduction (which states the argumentative thesis), subsequent argument paragraphs, and a conclusion.


As Janet E. Gardner writes in Writing About Literature, “Essentially, and introduction accomplishes two things. First, it gives a sense of both your topic and your approach to that topic, which is why it is common to make your thesis statement a part of the introduction. Second, an introduction compels your readers’ interest and makes them want to read on and find out what your paper has to say. Some common strategies used in effective introductions are to begin with a probing rhetorical question, a vivid description, or an intriguing quotation. Weak introductions tend to speak in generalities or in philosophical ideas that are only tangentially related to the real topic of your paper. Don’t spin your wheels: get specific and get to the point right away.”

Your introduction is your opportunity to catch your reader’s attention and involve that person in the ideas you put forth in your paper. Imagine riding in an elevator with someone you’d like to strike up a conversation with about a specific topic. How do you do it? How do you catch that person’s attention before the ride is up? You can’t just immediately throw your claims and evidence at that person, yet at the same time, he or she is unlikely to be compelled by vague general statements about “the history of time” or where and when a certain person was born. And you can’t stand there all day getting to the point. Instead, you look for compelling point of interest that is both related to where you’d like to go with your discussion, and is of shared interest between you and that person. After raising the topic through this point of common ground, you can then put forth what you will claim about it.


A complete argument paragraph consists of the following components:

1. Topic Sentence: Suggests generally what the paragraph is talking about; often includes a transition from previous paragraphs.

2. Claim: Makes a very specific claim that the paragraph will argue is true; you’ll likely derive this claim from your thesis statement (together,
all your paragraph claims will work to prove your thesis).

3. Evidence: Provides the textual support for the claim.

4. Analysis: Explains how the evidence actually relates to the argument. This is typically the most challenging part of composing your
paragraph, and it is often forgotten (much to the peril of both reader and writer!). Here, you must articulate how the passage you’ve just cited supports
the paragraph claim/argument premise. You must explain how the textual evidence means what you think it means. Never rely on the reader to be able to
interpret the evidence on his or her own. That is, if your argument is a statement with which the careful reader can disagree, this means that the evidence
you provide can likely be interpreted in many different ways. You need to guide your reader in interpreting the evidence so as to argue why your claim is

5. Conclusion: Offers implications of the argument and evidence, often transitions to the next paragraph. This often answers the “so what?” question. It
articulates why what you’ve just proven matters and usually articulates how your argument claims relates to/proves the thesis statement.

After the explanation of evidence, a well-developed paragraph might also include:

Additional Evidence/Explanation: What other evidence is there to support your claim?

Concession/ Nonclusion (these are an inseparable pair!): What evidence might contradict your claim? (The concession acknowledges the perceived
opposition (perhaps in the form of another critic) or the skeptical reader). And, why, despite this evidence, is your argument still more effective than the
concession? (The nonclusion is essential—never end a paragraph with a concession; take the concession into account while further proving your argument!)


As Janet E. Gardner points out in Writing About Literature, “Your conclusion should give your reader something new to think about, a reason not to just forget your essay. Some writers like to use the conclusion to return to an idea, a quotation, or an image first raised in the introduction, creating a satisfying feeling of completeness and self-containment…. Some writers use the conclusion to show the implications of their claims or the connections between literature and real life. This is your chance to make a good final impression, so don’t waste it with a simple summary and restatement.”

This doesn’t mean that your conclusion should not restate your thesis. Your conclusion is the place in which you draw together all the threads of your argument and neatly tie them up. When Gardner says not to “waste” your conclusion with “simple summary and restatement,” she means don’t ONLY summarize and restate. Your should absolutely recap your main points, but a good conclusion ALSO does more. Additionally, treading the path between not giving your reader anything new in the conclusion and introducing more unsupported claims can be tricky. The conclusion is a good place to SUGGEST the further implications of your argument, for life, for literature, for an author’s body of work, etc., but be careful that you don’t find yourself making new claims your reader is unlikely to agree with. These implications should follow naturally from the structure of your argument and often are best expressed with less-definitive phrasing (i.e. “perhaps,” implies,” “suggests,” “hints,” “may,” etc.).


1) Revise again and again. All good writing is rewriting. Clarify, define, smooth-out rough spots. Work to develop ideas, and round out paragraphs. Try to be more accurate and graceful, to clean up mistakes, and to correct embarrassing errors. Look hard at your evidence. Be tough and cut out the nonsense.

2) Proofread carefully, by means of spell-check and by your own reading. Make sure you have supplied a title, page numbers for the paper. (No decorative bindings; use 12-point type, double spaced, with standard page margins.)

3) Make sure you have provided accurate documentation for every quotation and outside source cited or consulted.


• It is a good idea to include a full quotation when the critic says something particularly well. Paraphrase when the idea is important, but the wording is nothing special. (Document both.)

• Don’t let the critics run away with your paper. Instead, keep their ideas subordinated to your own and use them to support your own claims. Typically, your paragraphs should begin with your topic sentence, then provide your evidence from the text, and then (perhaps) include a comment or comments from critics. A rare exception might be when you are disagreeing with a critic. In this instance, you may wish to state the opposing idea first, and then follow up by expressing your disagreement and presenting the evidence for your point of view.

• Cited passages should be integrated into your text and be attributed to thier originators. For example, “Elgin Slapworthy has observed that ‘Dickens remembered this period in his boyhood as both painful and humiliating’ ” (237). Don’t just pop in a quotation without making the context and source of the quotation clear. Attribution in the text makes the essay read more smoothly and cuts down on the amount of parenthetical documentation that must be provided.

• Quotations of more than three lines should be indented and set off in the text. Setting off indicates quotation, so quotation marks are not needed, unless you have a quotation within a quotation.

As Prof. Bladderstock argues:
Austen’s prose has often been imitated but never matched. Even my own brilliant Austen parody, Sense and Susceptibility, fell short in regard to dialogue.
Austen’s uncanny ability to combine sense and wit, while suiting words and phrasing to character, is difficult, perhaps impossible to reproduce. (132)

• A quotation within a quotation—say you quote a critic who quotes a passage from Dorothy Sayers—this should be indicated by using single quotation marks: According to Evangeline Pink, “Sayers’ use of the line, ‘So, you’re one of them,’ echoes a statement in the trial of the infamous Madeline Smith” (299).


Just as scientists provide data to support their results, literary critics must use evidence from literature in order to convince their audience that they have a cogent argument. Evidence must be provided in every body paragraph in order to support your claims. Where will you find evidence? First, you must do a close reading of the text. It is much easier to first analyze and think about how the smaller literary elements work together to create the whole work, rather than randomly thumbing through a work to find support for your thesis. When you provide evidence, you are providing proof from the text that shows your audience that your thesis is valid. Critics most commonly provide evidence by quoting a line or a passage from a work. When you provide evidence, it is imperative not to take it out of context. For example, if a character is joking with another character that he will kill himself if he fails his chemistry test and there’s no other mention of death in the work, it would be unfair to represent this character as suicidal by eliminating the context of him joking. Accurately quoting and fairly representing events/characters/etc. adds to your credibility as a writer. If you find evidence that counters your thesis, you should still engage with it. Think about what your critics would say and come up with a response to show how that particular piece of evidence might still support your stance. Once you’re done gathering evidence, you can move on to the analysis portion in which you explain how the evidence supports your claims.


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