Writing Essays About Literature
Contributor: Jenny Geer

Hints about the analytical essays

Assignments: There are three papers in this class, the first due Feb. 16, the second due Mar.317 and the third due May 5. (Note that the syllabus had May 4; that was a mistake.) All of the papers should be about 5 pages long. At least one of the papers should analyze a single novel (little or no research needed). The other two papers can do the same, but you can also choose to analyze two books (no more than two) and/or to write a research report on an aspect of history or culture that you find particularly enlightening or interesting with regard to a novel or its author. The different types of papers needn't be submitted in any special order, and you can write on the same novel twice (although not all three times).

Getting an idea: It all starts with close reading. Read the novel carefully, as many times as you can. Note passages or ideas that strike you as interesting or important, and try to understand how they work and why. Look for aspects of the work that seem puzzling, confusing, or inconsistent to you or your classmates, and try to see how they fit, how they operate in the work. Go through the e-mail responses and class discussion notes: Is there anything that lots of people found confusing? Anything that generated two or three very different interpretations? A statement made in class or on e-mail that you think is mistaken or incomplete?

Making a point: This is crucial in an analytical essay about literature (or in almost any kind of writing about almost any subject!) For this kind of essay, that means that the thesis should answer a question about the novel(s), and that question should have more than one plausible answer. I'll be posting a list of possible questions for each novel; you're free to draw on those or to find your own. The paper doesn't have to state the question, though it can. Thinking about the paper in this way will help avoid the most common pitfall in informative writing: stating an obvious fact at great length. (Think Mary's comments in Pride and Prejudice or those op-ed pieces that tell us that lack of sleep can cause stress. We know already.)  But what counts as a really obvious point? Basically, it's one that no reasonable person who's read the book(s) can disagree with. For instance, "Pride and Prejudice contains several comic characters" or "Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Eyre are very different heroines" are both true statements, but there's not much else to say. It would be far better to discuss why you think those comic characters or those differences are there, or what effect they have, or what point(s) the author(s) seem to be making through them. The answers to those questions aren't necessarily obvious at all, and the rest of us will learn something from your interpretation. And that's the main reason to write an analytical paper in the first place—to teach people something.

Organizing the paper: Assume that your readers know the work, so don't bother with a lot of plot summary. Just tell them what you're talking about and who wrote it in the first sentence or two of the introduction, and remind them about the particular characters scenes issues you're interested in as you go along.  In general, start body paragraphs with your own ideas, the reasons you believe your thesis. Then describe, paraphrase, or quote from the work(s) to back up your ideas. This way, your paper sounds more like yours (as it should) and less like a summary.  Include specific details from the work(s)to back up your points. Theories aren't worth much without supporting evidence. Most importantly, explain your evidence. Remember, you've thought about this subject more than your readers have. What's obvious to you probably won't be obvious to them, so tell readers exactly what interpretation you want them to get out of the evidence. If you leave it up to them to figure out, nine times out of ten they'll come up with the opposite idea from the one you wanted them to have! In a novel, having readers fill in the blanks is interesting, and it helps drive the plot. In an essay that aims to teach, it's just plain frustrating.

Mechanics: I've attached a sheet about basic punctuation rules that may be helpful. And proofread, please, even after running Spellcheck. According to a computer, a sentence like "It freeze yew lodes of thyme" is just fine.

Citation: You want to let your readers know when you're quoting from someone else or using their idea. The rationale behind this seemingly picky rule is simple: it's rude to use someone else's words or idea without giving them credit. (Remember the total jerk from middle school who copied everything you did, and then had the nerve to wonder why you got mad when they told peopleyou were following them? Don't be that person.) So, if you quote, let us know who said it, and put it in quotation marks. If you use someone else's idea (including from e-mail), even if you put it in your own words, let us know who said it and where you found it. Finally, before you quote, add a sentence or part of one that lets your readers know who said it, where, and (if appropriate), when. This lets everyone know the source of your quote and provides a nice transition, ensuring that your paper flows smoothly.  In general, cite prose like this: As so-and-so says, "Blah, blah, blah" (20). Note that the page number alone is in the parenthesis, and that the period comes after them. If you're writing a paper about one work, and it's the only thing you quote from, you don't have to put the author's last name in the parentheses. If you're quoting more than one work, put the author's last name in the parentheses as well as the page number: (Austen 27). Finally, if you're quoting more than one work by the same author, put part of the title in the parentheses, too: (Woolf, Dalloway 2-3).  For long quotes: more than three lines of poetry or prose. Indent 10 spaces, and put the period before the parentheses: The cat Sat on the mat Staring at A rat. ( 1-4)

Hints about the research projects

Again, these are optional. Like the other papers, they should be about 5 pages long; unlike the other papers, these should explain a particular aspect of contemporary society or history that you find interesting with regard to a novel. For instance, if you were doing a research report on Pride and Prejudice, you could work on Jane Austen's life, on the early reviews of the novel, on certain marriage customs or points of etiquette at the time, on the post office, on the kind of landscape gardening Pemberley might have had. . . The possibilities are very wide, so feel free to indulge your interests and curiosity.

Research: Naturally, I'll be happy to give you any topic-specific hints I might have, and so will the research librarians. These projects should draw on at least 6 sources, 4 primary and 2 secondary. (Primary sources are things written during the time period: the novels are primary sources. Secondary sources are modern books, articles, or web sites about that time period: the editors' introductions to the novels are secondary sources.) Since the possibilities are so wide, and since the Wa libraries have so many materials, it's crucial to narrow your topic as much as possible before you get into the primary sources. Unless you're already knowledgeable on the topic, it's wise to read a secondary source first, and use it to help guide you to an interesting subtopic. Secondary sources also tend to have good bibliographies that you can find lists of primary sources in. Don't be surprised if sources contradict each other; that, too, is interesting for readers to know.

Organization: This type of paper really needs to answer one question, and in the first paragraph or so: why should your readers care about this topic? (If you're stuck on answering this question, try to think about why it first interested you. ) The next three or four pages should focus on explaining the topic—the earlier hints about including lots of details and explaining your evidence are crucial, since your readers definitely will be less familiar with the subject than you are. Feel free to use tables, maps, or illustrations if appropriate. The final page or two should discuss the implications of all this research: how does it affect our understanding of the novel, or of the points the author is making?

Citation: You should include a Works Cited page of your sources. If you've got any questions about the proper way to cite a particular source, I'll be happy to help you.

Revisions: What are they? First of all, they're short—no more than a paragraph or two. That's because they're practice drills, in a way; they focus on improving particular parts of the paper so you can apply that concept more confidently in your next paper. For instance, if the paper stated its point most clearly in the conclusion (it happens!), I might ask you to rewrite the introduction to include that clear point; if some of the body paragraphs didn't explain their evidence, I might ask you to revise them accordingly. I'll comment on these revisions, but since they're for practice, I'll grade them only by Credit/No Credit: either you made a conscientious effort or you didn't.