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Writing About Literature

Writing About: Literature

Nov 23, 2012 - Posted to  Writing in General
While there are plenty of basic rules that apply to any type of writing, all disciplines have a set of guidelines that are specific only to work in those field. After all, a paper on Shakespeare is going to look pretty different from a paper on protein structure.
Here are the things you need to know if you're going to write a paper about literature.

The basics

Voice: active
Style guide: MLA
Person: 3rd
Central argument: thesis statement
Organization: PEAL paragraphs

Types of English papers

Research paper

The most common type of paper in a high school or college English class will be a research paper. For this type of work, you will usually be analyzing a primary source such as a novel, poem, or play. The paper will include a position on the work (i.e., "F. Scott Fitzgerald uses imagery of dust in The Great Gatsby to symbolize the moral disintegration of Gatsby") and should include quotes from the primary text that back up your argument. Research papers will also sometime include secondary source material, i.e., quotes from books or journal articles about your topic.

Essay

An essay is usually a more informal paper about a particular work or topic. It will likely be formatted similar to a research paper, but may be shorter with fewer quotes from the primary work and no quotes from secondary sources.

Book report

A book report is a paper that summarizes and analyzes a single book. It should include practical information like the book's publication date, genre, and plot, along with analysis of the theme, message, tone, and symbolism. Some teachers will also ask for your personal reaction to the book.

Book review

Book reviews differ slightly from book reports in that they focus more on critical analysis of the work. Instead of presenting a summary, a review should tell the reader about the quality of the book. Did it accomplish its goal? Is it well-written? What are its strengths and weaknesses?

Response paper

For a response paper, you want to tell the reader what you personally thought of a particular work. It will be structured just like any other literature paper, but you'll use the first person to discuss how you responded to a novel, play, or poem.

How to write about literature

Close reading

All good English papers start with a close reading of the text. Whether it's a novel, play, poem, or short story, you won't be able to provide a good analysis of the work until you've read it. During your first reading of the text, highlight key passages, words, or phrases that you think are important and take notes about the overall structure of the work. This is a good time to note important characters and plot points, recurring symbols, and any questions you have about the text.
When you're done reading, go back and look at the sections you've marked and review them in the context of the work as a whole. Are there particular passages that highlight the author's message or that provide important information on characterization or theme? Were the questions you had earlier in the work answered by the end? If not, why do you think the author left them unanswered? Now's also the time to look closely at the writing style. What's the tone of the work? How does the author use motifs or imagery? These questions will help you better understand the book and will also be important when you want to develop a thesis for a paper.

Organization

No matter what kind of English paper you're working on, it should be organized into three main parts: the introduction, the body, and the conclusion. In the introduction, you'll introduce the reader to your topic and the work being covered, then present your thesis statement. The body of the paper is where you give your analysis and the evidence that backs up your thesis. Finally, you'll conclude with a paragraph or section that restates your argument and offers final thoughts.

Developing a thesis

The most important part of writing a good English paper is developing a good thesis. Your thesis is a sentence (or sometimes several sentences in a long paper) that sums up the argument you're going to make in your paper. A good thesis will be clear and concise so that readers know exactly what point you're trying to make and can evaluate your evidence as they move through your paper.
A good thesis will also be arguable: there's no point in writing a paper that's trying to prove something the reader already knows. A paper with the thesis statement "Two of the main characters in The Great Gatsby, Tom and Daisy Buchanan, form a greedy, selfish couple incapable of sympathy" isn't going to be very exciting; anyone who's read the book will know what kind of people the main characters are. A better paper might expand on that idea with a thesis that reads "In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald uses the couple Tom and Daisy Buchanan to argue that the American Dream is a lie, and that those who strive for money and physical comforts while ignoring the needs of those around them are morally bankrupt." Notice that we've gone from describing the book to talking about the book's overall theme. A good thesis will dive beneath the surface of characterization and plot to offer a thoughtful look at the work's message, effectiveness, or style.

PEAL paragraphs

Once you've decided on a thesis, you need to back it up with evidence from primary and secondary sources. The best way to make sure you're presenting a good argument is to use PEAL paragraphs in the body of your paper.
P for point: start the paragraph with a topic sentence that tells the reader what this paragraph is going to be about.
E for evidence: next, present a quote from the text or a secondary source.
A for analysis: tell the reader what's important about the evidence you've just given. This is the meat of the paragraph, and it should take up the majority of the space.
L for link: lastly, you should link this evidence back to your thesis statement and the larger argument in your paper.
Obviously, there's a lot of leeway in this format. You might want to include several quotes in the same paragraph or you might be writing a response paper that contains few or no quotes. But in general if you follow this format you'll end up with a clear, well-written argument.

Integrating quotes

An important part of writing English papers is integrating quotes from primary and secondary sources. These quotes are the evidence you use to back up your thesis. When integrating quotes from a primary source like a novel, play, poem, or short story, it's important to provide context for the quote: the reader needs to know the who, when, and where of what's being said. Be careful though, about giving too much detail; the reader doesn't need an entire plot summary. Usually one sentence will be enough: "When discussing her daughter with Nick and Jordan, Daisy says 'I hope she'll be a fool-that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.'"
Secondary source quotes can be integrated into your paper in much the same way. You should provide context for the quote such as the name of the author and a description of the work it's coming from, but again, you don't need to go overboard. Just a sentence will do: "In her biography of Fitzgerald, Walkers notes that Fitzgerald's 'friendship with Ernest Hemingway influenced much of his later work."
No matter where the quote is coming from, it needs to be integrated smoothly into the paper. A quote should never stand by itself, but should instead be part of a longer sentence:
Incorrect
Despite his shortcomings, Gatsby is a still a hopeful character. Even at the very end, he has faith that he can make things right. "Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us."
Correct
Despite his shortcomings, Gatsby is still a hopeful character. He "believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us," and even at the very end he has faith that he can make things right.

Style

Active voice

Paper on literature should be written in the active voice and should avoid the use of to be verbs whenever possible. It will make your paper more interesting and help keep your paper from sounding flat.

3rd person

Unless specified otherwise by your teacher, English papers should always be in the third person. You should never use the word I or you unless you're writing a book report or response paper.

What to avoid

Summarizing

Don't spend too much time summarizing the work you're writing about. Just repeating back detail about character and plot isn't going to impress your teacher. Instead, the paper should be about your analysis and your insight into the text.

Being too broad

A good paper will take a narrow topic and provide a deep, meaningful analysis. If you pick a topic that's too broad, you'll have too much material to be able to write meaningfully about it. For example, you could write a full-length book on "the American dream in F. Scott Fitzgerald's work," so a five page paper isn't going to even begin to cover the whole scope of the topic. If you write that five page paper on "Gatsby's search for the American dream," however, you'll be able to fit in more specific details.

Long quotes

Match the length of your quotes to the length of your paper. If you're writing three pages, you shouldn't be using quotes that are more than a line or two long. If you're writing a much longer paper you can get away with block quotes that take up more space. And keep in mind, in every paragraph your analysis should be at least twice as long as the quote you use, so if you're going to include a six line quote, you'd better have a lot to say about it.

Using bad sources

If you're using secondary sources in your paper, make sure that they're credible. You should be quoting from books or peer-reviewed journals, not unverifiable websites like Wikipedia or blogs. Similarly, you need to be sure you use more than one source in your paper so that your argument looks credible.

A short conclusion

Just because you're done with the body of your paper doesn't mean you're done with the whole thing: the conclusion is just as important as the rest of your paper. In fact, it's the last impression the reader will take away from your work, so spend the time to get it right.
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