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This Guide was created as a joint project of the Academic Resource Center and the William H. Hannon Library.

Writing about Literature

A good literature paper has a debatable argument (or thesis) that is well supported. This argument is your own original idea, based on a thorough understanding of the text and supported with careful reasoning.

8 steps to writing a great literature paper:

  1. Know the text well!
  2. Explore potential topics.
  3. Choose a topic.
  4. Draft a working thesis.
  5. Gather extensive evidence to support your thesis.
  6. Select your best evidence and refine your thesis.
  7. Organize your paper.
  8. Write a rough draft.

1. Know the text well!
Engage in close reading:

  • After reading once for comprehension, read again and highlight selectively.
  • Annotate the text by writing notes in the margins: comments, questions, or concerns. Any sort of interaction with the text is appropriate here.
  • Using a variation of the Cornell Method, take two-column notes.  Write page numbers and brief summaries in the left column.  In the right, write down your own thoughts or ideas about this moment in the text.
  • Take a break, step back, and think about the text for a while. What ideas and questions are emerging in your mind?

2. Explore potential topics.
Some good topics for writing about literature:

  • Character analysis; for example, how a character grows or changes throughout the text.
  • Compare/contrast the choices that different authors or characters make.
  • Analyze recurring images or motifs. For example, if you’re writing on Great Expectations, you may want to explore the recurring, contrasting images of the marshes and the city or the motif of the “prodigal son.”
  • Literary devices. How does the author achieve certain results by use of irony, foreshadowing, symbols, metaphors, etc.?
  • Discuss a theme. This works best when you can connect the work to a theme you’ve discussed or read about in your course. For example, with Great Expectations, you might discuss the novel’s portrayal of pride leading to a fall.
  • Examine the sources or historical events that informed a work. For example, Shakespeare’s As You Like It was based on an earlier novel by Thomas Lodge; what changes did he make to the story, and why are they significant?
  • Study the social, political, or economic context in which the work was written. How does the context influence the work? For example, what was happening in the 1920s that would explain the meaning of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited”?
  • Adopt a critical perspective. For example, when reading Sophocles’ Antigone, you might write about the portrayal of gender roles, or you might look at the motivations of Victor’s actions in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein.

3. Choose a topic.
Look back at your notes and annotations.

  • What has interested you most?
  • For which topic do you have sufficient evidence to thoroughly explore?
  • Do any of the topics connect well with topics in your course?

4. Draft a working thesis.
Based on your topic and what interests you most:

  • Try out some arguments about the text and brainstorm evidence.
  • Jot down a rough draft of your thesis.
  • Don’t spend too much time on your thesis at this point, as it will probably change.
  • Be careful about launching into an argument without considering all the options and evidence first—you don’t want to hit a dead end!
  • Here are a couple useful links for writing theses:

5. Gather extensive evidence to support your thesis.
There are three types of evidence you might use in a literature paper.

  1. Primary evidence: This kind of evidence will come from your reading and interpretation of the text. It may include:
    1. Quotations
    2. Repeated themes, motifs, or images
    3. Character and plot development
    4. Structure/literary devices of the text
  2. Contextual evidence: This sort of evidence refers to the kind of information you might gather surrounding the text’s or author’s social, political, or economic environment. Possible sources include:
    1. Historical or sociological texts
    2. Other writings by the author
    3. Biographical information about the author
    4. Previous texts of a similar style or possible literary influences on the text
  3. Critical evidence: This sort of evidence will come from peer-reviewed, scholarly sources. The library’s search engine and their page for literature research are good places to start. Possible sources include:
    1. Scholarly journals found through the library’s search engines
    2. Books that have gone through a peer-review process

6. Select your best evidence & refine your thesis.

  • Keep in mind the length and scope of your paper, and decide what is realistic to tackle.
  • Based on the evidence you’ve gathered, revise your theses to make it more focused.
  • Choose the most compelling evidence that directly relates to and supports your thesis.

7. Organize your paper.

  • Plan out the best way to present your evidence and interpretations.
  • Create an outline or another type of map 
  • In your plan, include your thesis, your evidence, and how you plan to interpret your evidence.

8. Write your rough draft.

  • Put your ideas into paragraph form.
  • As long as your thesis is clear, it may help to write your introduction and conclusion last. Start by writing your body paragraphs, which contain the “meat” of your paper—your evidence and interpretations.
  • Remember that all quotations should be introduced, discussed, and woven into the text. Don’t let your quotations exceed 25% of your paper!
  • Your first draft will not be polished! Resist the temptation to edit as you write; that comes with later drafts.

Pitfalls to avoid:

  • Minimize plot summary. Here and there, a sentence or two of plot summary may be necessary to provide context, but the bulk of your paper should be interpretation and analysis.
  • Avoid generalizations by being precise and specific in your explanations.
  • Minimize personal opinions; base your ideas on what the text says.
  • Don’t try to tackle too many ideas in one paper. You probably have a ton of great ideas, but, if they don’t directly relate to your thesis, save them for other papers.
  • Don’t leave your reader wondering how you reached your interpretation or argument. Make sure that you support your ideas thoroughly with evidence.

Conventions specifically for writing about literature:

  • Put the titles of essays in quotation marks and italicize the titles of books.
    Example: “I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King, Jr.
    Example: Rain of Gold by Victor Villaseñor
  • General conventions for writing about literature discourage the use of the personal pronoun (“I”). Instead, use “we” or “the reader” when necessary.
  • Talk about literature in the present tense.
    Incorrect: When Lupe ran to hide from the bandits, she was filled with terror.
    Correct: When Lupe runs to hide from the bandits, she is filled with terror.
  • Use MLA citation style to document all your sources.