Writing in Literature: Overview
In many ways, writing a paper for an English class is no different than writing one for any other class. You are still required to read the material thoroughly, do research, and make an argument of some kind. An essay on literature does present, however, some unique differences, which can cause trouble for the unprepared writer. These pages will provide you with some ideas on how to deal with those differences.
In English classes, two of the most common paper assignments are writing prompt papers and general research papers. Writing prompts are shorter papers assigned throughout the semester or as in-class assignments. Research papers (term papers) are usually much longer than writing prompt papers and are often due half-way through or near the end of the semester. They usually carry a large percentage of the grade.
Other OWL Resources:
Writing in Literature: Writing the Prompt Paper
Whether you are given a selection of prompts to choose from or just one, knowing something about the various sorts of writing prompts can help you understand what your teacher expects and how you should approach the project.
“Compare and Contrast”
This classic writing prompt can be quite challenging because it sounds almost as if you are being asked to compile a list of similarities and differences. While a list might be of use in the planning stage, this prompt asks you to use what you discover to arrive at a conclusion about the two works under discussion.
Example: “Compare and contrast the two endings for Dickens’ Great Expectations paying special attention to the situation of Stella at the close of the novel.”
- Find three or four elements from the texts upon which to base your comparison.
- Examine possible connections and determine a thesis.
- Base your outline around the elements you’ve chosen, remembering to give equal coverage to each side.
“Discuss the theme of x as it appears in works a, b, and c.”
This is an extended or re-named compare and contrast prompt. In this situation, you are given a general theme, such as “loss of innocence” or “self-revelation.” Your job is to use the instances of that theme to arrive at some general conclusions regarding how the theme works in the text you are analyzing.
Example: “Discuss the ways in which Shakespeare talks about the passing of time in three of the sonnets we read for class.”
- Re-read carefully the selected works looking specifically for the theme or motif in question. Then research the ways in which other critics have examined this theme.
- Determine your argument. Will you make a claim for similarity (“A, b, and c use x in much the same way.”), difference (“A, b, and c, when dealing with x, take highly individual approaches.”), or superiority (“While a and b deal with x, c clearly demonstrates a richer, more nuanced treatment.”)?
- Organize your paper around the works, making each point deal thoroughly with a discrete work. Remember that connections are of the utmost importance for this paper, so pay close attention to your transitions.
“What is the role of women/the role of class/the role of the Other as presented in this work?”
All three examples above serve as first steps to the larger world of literary theory and criticism. Writing prompts like this ask you to examine a work from a particular perspective. You may not be comfortable with this new perspective. Chances are that since your instructor has given you such an assignment, the issues in question will be at least partially covered in class.
Example: “Discuss the ways in which the outsider or Other is dealt with in James Joyce’s story “The Dead.”
- Categorize the persons or characters in the piece. What are they in the most general, stereotypical way? Male or female? Lower or upper class? Natives or foreigners? Strangers or friends?
- Examine the ways in which the characters you’ve categorized fit or don’t fit into the boxes you’ve assigned them. Do they support or undermine the categories, and what do others (including the author) say about them and their place in the world?
- Write your paper as if you were giving a new definition (or an amended definition)of the category in question using the text as your guide. Your main points should highlight the ways in which the text uses or discards the accepted categories.
“Critic A has famously said “B” about this work. In light of our study of the piece in question, would you agree or disagree, why or why not?”
This sort of question is often asked as an in-class essay, but can appear as a prompt for larger papers. The goal of a question like this is to give you the opportunity to deal with the critical voices of others in your own writings.
Example: “C.S. Lewis has said that Chaucer is “our foremost poet of joy” in the English language, and in this field he “has few equals and no masters.” Discuss how this applies to the ending of “The Knight’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales.”
- Read and re-read the quote from the prompt several times. Ask yourself what seems to be the quote’s central claim.
- Apply that claim to the relevant passage or work. In a way, you are being asked not to examine the literature so much as the claim about the literature. Does it hold up to scrutiny in light of the actual text?
- Your instructor would be equally pleased whether you agree or disagree with the critic’s views as long as you do so in a scholarly fashion. Structure your paper around the claims made by the quote and use lines from the text to support your own reaction.
Writing in Literature: General Research Papers
English instructors often assign papers with few restrictions on subject matter. While this can be quite liberating, it can also be disconcerting. If you can write about virtually anything, which piece of anything should you choose? Many students find themselves paralyzed when faced with this kind of openness, but there are strategies for dealing with it.
Choose Something You Like
Literature is an art form, and as such it is meant to move, inspire or even outrage its readers. If you have a lot of options, choose something that appeals to you, even if you cannot justify your choice.
Example: Suppose you are taking a class on Jane Austen. Even though you’ve only seen the movie, deciding now to write on Sense and Sensibility will make you more interested when you get to the novel in class.
Make Your Choice Early
Even during the first week in the semester, try to make some preliminary decisions on the subjects of your major assignments, and then read those works first. You will be better prepared when the semester heats up later on, and if you really cannot stand your choice, you have time to make another.
Example: As you walk home from the bookstore with a stack of literature, make some preliminary choices on what might be interesting based solely on some preliminary reading you do that evening. Set aside the one you like best and start reading it that evening.
Turning Interest into Interesting
Saying that you like a work is not the same as writing a paper about it, but it can be a good place to start. Analyze your attraction for the piece and try to jot down answers to basic questions like these:
- What do I like about this piece?
- Why do these things appeal to me?
- What makes them different enough from the surrounding material that they stand out in my mind?
- Where does that difference come from?
- How is it achieved?
You may also use some of the invention strategies outlined above.
Reading the Readers
Literary criticism can seem daunting to a first time reader. Sometimes when you find yourself confused by a work, a basic analysis by a noted scholar can clear things up immensely. Your instructor is your best source for recommended reading, but you can also find sources on your own. Anything calling itself an “Introduction” or “Overview” of an author or work is probably a good bet. Remember to take notes.
Example: After reading some of Dante’s Divine Comedy, you find yourself intrigued but confused by the astronomical references in the poem. An essay on Dante’s astronomy may not only clear up your confusion, but suggest some possible paper topics, as well.
Straight to the Top
Talking to your teacher about choosing your topic can be helpful, but only if you handle it correctly. Instructors are wary of giving their students specific instructions; choosing a topic is part of the learning process. However, his or her familiarity with the literature can point you in new directions. Instead of looking for specific answers, go looking for advice.
Example: You go to your instructor’s office hours with a list of about five ideas for a paper you’ve been thinking about. Instead of asking “Which one should I write?” say, “These things have been of particular interest to me during our class time. Where can I find more information about them?”
Researching Literature and Libraries
Literary scholarship resembles other disciplines in many ways, and the general research strategies remain useful for English students. Remember that, like any other field, there is always growth and change as innovations in reading, historical discoveries, and technological advancements are made. When you research, try to gain an understanding of recent developments in the field.
The traditional depository of information, the library remains an essential part of any student’s research. Remember: the internet can take you only so far. These are some suggestions for entering the library with a literature paper in mind.
Other reserach resources can be found in the Research and Citation and the Internet Literacy areas on the Purdue OWL
The position of librarian requires great technical skill and significant learning. Knowing when to seek a librarian’s assistance is the mark of a wise student.
When to use: trouble with keyword searches, access to microfilm and microfiche, further research
- Remember to bring: specific questions (A librarian will not do your research for you.)
Inter-Library Loan (ILL)
While most colleges and universities pride themselves in their book collections, the chances are great that at some point you will need a book from another library. Make yourself familiar with the inter-library loan system of your university as soon as possible and do not be hesitant to use it.
When to use: after searching a database (like the MLA), when your library has little or no scholarship on the author you’re reading.
Remember to bring: plenty of time (The turnaround is quick, but not instantaneous: something you may not have as a deadline approaches.)
Often held in a separate section of the library, literary journals are the headlines of scholarship in the field. This is where you’ll find the most recent work being done on your chosen text.
A list of important journals:
- General: PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, Book Reviews
- Medieval: Florilegium, Medieval Studies, Studies in the Age of Chaucer
- Renaissance: Shakespeare Quarterly, Renaissance Quarterly
- Restoration and 18th Century: British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Eighteenth-Century Studies
- 19th Century: Victorian Poetry, Nineteenth-Century Literature
- 20th Century to Present: Modern Fiction Studies, Studies in Short Fiction
- American Studies: American Literary History, American Literature, Sewanee Review
Literature often appears in various editions. This is doubly true for older and/or famous works. These various editions can provide further information and the library is a good place to examine them. Especially helpful if you can find them are the Norton Critical Editions of important texts which combine thorough annotation with a breadth of scholarly viewpoints.
When to use: reading a work in translation, reading a text that has multiple versions, reading a text that has been adapted for modern English.
Remember to bring: Note-taking tools. If you like the way a certain edition presents or translates a given text, you will need to cite it properly if you decide to use it in your paper.
Publication Catalogues, Dictionaries, and Encyclopedias
The Modern Language Association, along with several other groups, regularly publishes a catalogue of scholarship released in the preceding year. Several dictionaries and encyclopedias provide information specific to time periods, genres, and regions of history and literature. As long as you remember that these works are meant to provide general knowledge to facilitate further investigation, they are wonderful places to start.
Useful Dictionaries and Manuals:
- A Handbook to Literature, (English majors should think seriously about purchasing this book.)
- Literary Research Guide,
- Oxford English Dictionary
- A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory
- Topical Dictionaries (i.e. dictionaries focused on a specific time period or theme: The Middle English Dictionary for example.)
- Golden Tree Bibliographies
- The Year’s Work in English Studies
- American Humanities Index
- The Catholic Encyclopedia
- The Encyclopedia of World Theater
- The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics
- Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia
- Cambridge Guide to Literature in English
Researching on the Internet
With every passing year, more and more tools for research in English become available online. Here are some of the most useful:
- JSTOR: A collection of articles and essays in PDF format.
- MLA Database: The primary research tool for finding literary scholarship. This site should be your first stop on the way to inter-library loan.
- OED Online: The dictionary in searchable database form
A number of Purdue OWL resources will help you with research on the Internet.
Researching a specific piece of literature can sometimes be overwhelming. A simple keyword search, even in the library database, can sometimes yield a hundred hits or more, and a national database can yield thousands. Even when you narrow down the field to something rather specific, you can still find yourself faced with a pile of books and essays. How do you absorb all that info?
You won’t, and you shouldn’t, read everything you pull off the library shelves or order through inter-library loan. Reading criticism requires looking through books for the information you need and ignoring what is irrelevant. Even if your stack of books seems taller than you, keep firmly in mind the knowledge that you will actually read only a portion.
Preview of Coming Attractions
If your can, skim a book’s table of contents and introduction, or skim the first few paragraphs of an essay. This should give you a basic idea of the substance of the piece and, once you’re used to the language, a hint of the author’s critical stance.
The Index is Your Friend
Most scholarly books are well-indexed, and you should head there next. Search around the index for words that are the same or similar to your topic then check out the pages wherein those words appear. Read the paragraph or paragraphs surrounding the word to get an idea of how connected the passage is to your own work. You may find something very useful or it may be a passing reference.
Watch the Feet
The footnotes and/or endnotes of a scholar’s work demonstrate the author’s research and may provide additional sources of information to you. If you find a chapter or article particularly interesting, chances are the author’s source material will be helpful as well.
You may find yourself disagreeing, sometimes significantly, with what you read in a critic’s work. do not let yourself be convinced based solely on the scholar’s expert status, and do not let an opinion you don’t share turn you away from material you can use. Make a note of your disagreement and press on.
Worksheet for Reading Literary Criticism
- Vital Stats: List Author, Title, Publication Date, Year
- Introduction/Conclusion: Rank usefulness to your project on a scale: 1= least useful 5= most useful
- Index: List page numbers with keywords having to do with your project: Keyword #1:, Keyword #2:, Keyword #3:
- Footnotes: Check around your keywords in the text for useful footnotes: Footnote #1:, Footnote #2:, Footnote #3:
- Decision: Is it worth reading the whole article, chapter, or book? Yes/No
- Objections, Notes, and Ideas:
Practice: Time yourself doing steps 1-5 with 10 books.
Arguments in an Essay on Literature
One of the great struggles for writers in literature is making and sustaining coherent arguments in their papers. Although argument is an essential part of all papers, the literary paper has aspects of rhetoric that are all its own.
Other OWL Resources:
- Creating a Thesis Statement
- Establishing an Argument
- Logic in Argumentative Writing
- Organizing Your Argument Presentation
A good argument in an essay on literature has:
A tight, specific focus
Rather than broad sweeping statements, a good argument teases out a single aspect of a piece of literature and analyzes it in minute detail: literature under the microscope.
Example: Loose: “Characters in this novel spend time a great deal of time looking at each other, and an examination of those gazes can give us great insight into the characters."
- Too big. You would have to write a book to do the subject justice.
- Too general. Whose gaze is being considered? Are we considering the object of the gaze? The person doing the looking? What insight exactly is to be gained?
Tighter: “When the protagonist turns her gaze upon her former lover in their final meeting, it is her own fears, her emotional blindness, and her refusal to learn from the past that can be read in her eyes as she looks upon him."
- Small. Rather than gazes in general, this statement focuses on one event.
- Specific. It makes an arguable claim about the implications and suggests a close reading to support those claims.
A step beyond the teacher’s assignment
Some may tell you that a good paper rephrases a writing prompt as a statement rather than a question. Do not believe it. Instructors want to see evidence that you have read the work in question with enough seriousness to reply to the prompts given in your own way. Remember: If an answer seems obvious, keep digging.
A gaze that remains fixed on the work in question
When your argument ceases to discuss the work itself and begins to focus on the personal (your own reaction) or the biographical (the author’s life), you need to get back on track. Make no mistake: a sense of audience and information about the author can be important. When these details become central to the essay, however, you are no longer writing on literature.
Example: “One of the worst parts of this book begins in chapter three when . . .”
This statement reflects a personal reaction to the work. If you want to show that a particular piece or part of a piece is better or worse than others, begin with your evidence rather than starting with emotion.
“This could be a result of the time the author spent in jail in 1938. On the 30th of April he was arrested on charges of . . .”
Although evidence is vital to a sound paper, the statement above focuses on historical rather than critical evidence. If you include biographical information, always be ready to direct that information back into the main point of the essay. Stray from your topic only as long as is strictly necessary.
Reading a Novel or Story
This resource discusses pointers for reading and responding to a novel or story.
Other OWL Resources:
Pay Attention to Relationships
Whether bonds of blood or emotion that tie characters together, it is their connections to each other and the way those connections evolve that forms the central action of much fiction. Consider drawing a brief relationship chart like this:
Listen to Characters
When characters in novels speak or ponder at length, it’s time to pay attention. Like soliloquies in drama, a lengthy speech or inner monologue can give you insight into the character’s motives, an idea of his or her world view, and even a clue to central themes in the work.
Practice: Go back over a chapter or story you just read, looking at only what is written inside quotation marks. If the book you’re reading is yours, highlight or otherwise mark each one. Now, read through the chapter once more, reading only your marked passages.
Look Out for Re-occurring Images, Phrases, or Bit Characters
Poetry isn’t the only place to find verbal imagery and symbolism. If you find yourself asking “Haven’t I seen this before?” then you may have discovered an important motif.
Practice: After you’ve finished a novel, re-read the first chapter and see if you recognize any key words from the last chapter of the book. Are there any similarities or coincidences between the two?
Reading a Poem
This resource should help you read and write about poetry.
Other OWL Resources:
Poetry is formed not only of words on the page but also the sounds of the voice. Reading a poem aloud gives you the full experience of the piece. It also clues you in to the emphasis placed on words by the stress of the meter, an emphasis vital to your understanding of the poem.
Practice: As you read, move your hand or nod your head as you try to sound out the beats of the meter.
Know the Form
Poetry is an ancient art with centuries of tradition behind it. When a poet chooses a certain verse form, that choice implies a certain set of understandings and assumptions. Knowing the common forms of poetry and the history of the forms can help you grasp how the poem should be read.
Practice: After you’ve determined the form of a poem, spend a little time with a dictionary or online researching on the form and its history. Consider how the poem would change if the poet had chosen a different form.
The economy of poetry invests each word with powerful meaning. It is important, therefore, to be aware of the multiple definitions of the words the poet uses. Have your dictionary handy when you read poetry. If you can, look up the definitions of important words in the Oxford English Dictionary. This will allow you to see the meaning of the word during the time of the poet.
Practice: Circle two or three important words in a poem you’ve read. Use a dictionary to look up the full definition for those words and consider how the meaning of the poem could change depending on the different definitions for the word your dictionary provides.
Reading a Play
This resource should help you read and write about plays.
Find the Film
If at all possible, rent and watch a version of the play you’re reading. Many libraries have collections of recorded stage performances, and it will help you immensely to see the drama performed even if (as is often the case with Shakespeare) it is an abbreviated version. Of course, it goes without saying that if you can see it performed live, by all means do so.
Practice: Look up the title of a Shakespeare play on a movie database website. See if you can find a direct film adaptation (Taming of the Shrew) and a modern retelling of a play (10 Things I Hate About You, based on the same play).
Remember which Characters are on Stage
It’s easy to skip the stage directions when you read, but resist the temptation. Knowing who is on stage at any given time helps you figure out what characters are aware of at any given time. Also, remember that when only one character is on stage, you’re usually going to get a glimpse of that character’s thoughts and motivations.
Practice: Halfway through reading a scene, stop reading and, from memory, see if you can name every character currently on stage. Perhaps even draw out the stage to see who is doing what, where.
Hear the Play
Before the 20th Century, when people described the experience of a play they would say not that they “saw” a play, but that they “heard” a play. Unlike movies or television, with close-ups and cutaways, a play happens in real time, and it happens in your ears. Read out loud important scenes or read parts with others. This lets the sometimes hidden drama of a printed play out into its natural element.
Practice: Many plays can be found in their audio-only formats. This is especially true of Shakespeare plays. See if you can find and hear a CD or mp3 version of the play you’re studying.