Writing about Literature


1. LO: mystery openings. 10. L Terms: using literary terms.
2. LC: placing commas. 11. What was said in class.
3. LTh: thesis. 12. L Tone: objective tone.
4. L Sum: plot summary and paraphrase. 13. L Org: mechanical organization.
5. LCon: context. 14. LA: refer clearly to the author.
6. LVT: present tense. 15. Background information.
7. LT: dull titles. 16. Secondary sources.
8. LI: the irrelevant "I" and "me." 17. LR: "in/of the poem/story/play."
9. LB: boasting. 18. LSh: "this shows that" pattern.

1. LO: avoid mystery openings. Include early in your essay--usually in the opening sentences--a phrase like "in Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice." Even if your teacher gave everyone the same topic, and your title includes the title of the work, you should indicate your subject.

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2. LC: place commas carefully. The first sentence below wrongly implies that Jane Austen wrote only one novel. Correct the error by using a comma after but not before the title.

WRONG: In her novel, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen. . . .

RIGHT: In her novel Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen. . . .

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3. LTh: make your thesis interpretative. A good thesis usually includes two features:

(1) A specific aspect of the work: a theme, character, writing technique, or issue.

(2) A statement about the meaning or effect of the work as a whole, usually pertaining to character or theme.

The most common flaw in student writing is the omission of the second feature, as in the first version below. For more information, see Topic and Thesis under The Essay (Part Five).

INCOMPLETE: Andrew Marvell uses imagery in his poem "To His Coy Mistress."

BETTER: In his poem "To His Coy Mistress," Andrew Marvell uses contrasting images of death and youthful energy to present his philosophy of living for the pleasure of the day.

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4. L Sum: avoid plot summary and paraphrase. Assume that your readers have read the work. Your task is not to tell them what happens in a story, or to paraphrase a poem. Your task is to interpret the work--that is, to explain what the work says and to analyze the way the work says it.

SUMMARY: Sammy is a convenience store clerk. One day three girls walk into the store wearing swimsuits. When the manager scolds them, Sammy decides to quit his job.

INTERPRETATION: Sammy's reasons for quitting are more complex than he realizes. . . .

You may need to remind your reader of factual details in a particular passage in order to comment upon it, especially if you are writing about a long novel. If so, keep the summary brief--a sentence is usually enough--and go on to the commentary you want to make.

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5. LCon: provide context. Do not make your reader look up passages. Your readers have read the work, but they do not have it memorized. Help them with a brief explanatory phrase:

WRONG: Chapter Twenty-One is an ironic scene.

BETTER: Jane's return to Gateshead is an ironic scene.

Avoid mentioning line or page numbers except in citations. Even readers who have memorized John Milton's poem "L'Allegro" do not automatically know what line 134 is:

WRONG: Line 134 uses a metaphor.

BETTER: Milton compares Shakespeare's poetry to "native wood-notes wild" (134).

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6. LVT: use present tense. Although most fiction is narrated in the past tense, and although stories and plays may be set in the past, it is conventional to write about the action that takes place in them using the present tense.

WRONG: Huckleberry Finn ran away from home and rafted up the river.

RIGHT: Huckleberry Finn runs away from home and rafts up the river.

Often writers using the present tense inadvertently shift to the past after using a quotation:

WRONG: Gulliver is shipwrecked in a strange land. When he awakens, he makes a startling discovery: "I found my arms and legs were strongly fastened on each side to the ground" (17). He was a prisoner of tiny people called Lilliputians.

There is no error until was, which should be is. Influenced by the past tense in the quotation, the writer mistakenly shifts tense. There are two exceptions to the present-tense rule. One is the occasional situation in which you talk about two different times in the work:

Huck now is sorry that he played a trick on Jim.

The other is the situation in which you talk about historical facts pertaining to the work. In the example below, the first verb is in the present tense because it refers to fictional events within the novel; the other two verbs are in the past tense because they refer to historical facts.

Dr. Frankenstein conducts experiments involving electricity, which still seemed mysterious in 1818 when Mary Shelley wrote the novel.

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7. LT: avoid dull titles. "Hamlet" is not an appropriate title for an essay about Hamlet. Make your title a statement about the work. One useful pattern is a creative title or quotation followed by a colon and an explanatory subtitle. If the title or subtitle is long, center them on separate lines, with one blank line between them.

DULL: "The Road Not Taken" Essay. Comparison Essay on Huckleberry Finn.

BETTER: Wise Passiveness: William Wordsworth's Religion of Nature.

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8. LI: avoid the irrelevant "I" and "me." Do not write "I feel the poem means . . ." or "When I first read the story. . . ." Readers will assume that any argument you present is your own, unless you explicitly state otherwise: "Some commentators have argued that Twain's novel is racist." You need no apology for offering an opinion, but you do need to support it with evidence and reasoning.

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9. LB: do not boast. Avoid phrases like "deeper meaning" or "hidden meaning." They sound like boasting, and they give the false impression that writers set out to deceive readers. Be more objective. Sometimes students who write "deeper" or "hidden meaning" are really talking about the difference between figurative and literal meanings:

BOASTFUL: Although Frost's poem seems on the surface to be about two roads, on a deeper level it is really about choices in life.

OBJECTIVE: The roads in Frost's poem are symbols of the choices everyone faces in life.

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10. L Terms: avoid using literary terms for their own sake.

WRONG (ANALYSIS WITHOUT INTERPRETATION): Sidney's poem is an Italian sonnet, with an octave and a sestet. Its rhyme scheme is abbaabbacdcdee. Sidney uses personification to describe the moon. Line 10 has a rhetorical question and irony.

The reader's reaction will rightly be "So what?" When you identify the form and find the devices, you have done valuable work, but your job is not finished. There is no reason to mention formal and stylistic features unless you use them to explain what the work says and how it says it.

BETTER: In the octave Sidney personifies the pale, silent moon as an unhappy lover. The sestet asks rhetorically whether lovers on the moon are as cruel as their earthly counterparts. The ironic question "Is constant love deemed there but want of wit?" criticizes proud beauties who regard devoted lovers as fools.

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11. Do not repeat what was said in class. Teachers do not want reports of what they or any of your classmates said. Teachers want primarily to see one thing: original thinking by you. If the class discussed one line for twenty minutes, you probably will not have much new to say about it, but it is probably not the only line worth talking about at length. Look for that other line, that fresh insight, that new angle, that surprising connection between events that happen thirty chapters apart.

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12. L Tone: maintain an objective tone. It is just as inappropriate to write "Fitzgerald's profound wisdom and poetic language make The Great Gatsby a timeless classic," as it is to write "The Great Gatsby is tedious, sentimental hogwash." Your purpose as a literary critic is to interpret, not to praise or blame. You have an audience to convince. Your style should be restrained and objective; there is room for liveliness and wit, but they should be governed with discretion. Even if you do find The Great Gatsby beautiful and moving, the greatest service you can do Fitzgerald is to demonstrate the beauty of his novel through your insightful explication. The judgments of calm reason carry more weight than those of passionate hyperbole.

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13. L Org: avoid mechanical organization. Insightful essays may have monotonous organization:

PARAGRAPH 2: In the first stanza the poet says, [quotation]. By this she means. . . .

PARAGRAPH 3: In the second stanza the poet says, [quotation]. By this she means. . . .

PARAGRAPH 3: The poet writes in stanza three, [quotation]. These lines say. . . .

Next year the same student, studying novels, will probably write, "In the first chapter. . . ." Your essay is your own argument and should be ordered by its own logic. There are many possibilities: move back and forth between contrasting characters or conflicting attitudes toward death; build an argument that proves the hero's tragic flaw is pride; illustrate ways the first-person narrator is made the object of irony. The organization need not be predictable and dull.

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14. LA: refer clearly to the author. Two errors are common.

1. The first time you mention an author, use the full name: Robert Frost. In later references use the last name only: Frost, not Mr. Frost or Robert. Writers unsure how to refer to the author produce awkward phrasing:

AWKWARD: Symbolism of roads is used to talk about choices.

BETTER: Frost uses roads to symbolize choices.

2. Use terms like speaker, narrator and persona only when poems and stories are clearly written from an ironic point of view. Otherwise they are usually unnecessary. Although Andrew Marvell may not have addressed his poem "To His Coy Mistress" to a real person, and may never even have had a coy mistress, nothing is gained by saying, "The speaker urges his mistress to seize the day."

If you write "the narrator," the error is worse, because "To His Coy Mistress" is not a narrative poem. Just write, "Marvell urges. . . ." On the other hand, Thomas Hardy wrote poems using the voices of a naive young soldier, a dead man, and a dog. To refer to such a poem, use the speaker or a term like the soldier: "Hardy uses irony to reveal the speaker's uncertainty."

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15. Omit unnecessary background information. Do not write, "William Shakespeare, a famous English poet born in 1564. . . ." Assume the reader knows who the author is.

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16. Use secondary sources with caution. Reference to literary criticism usually does beginning students more harm than good. Your library and the internet contain a vast number of sources. Students with good intentions who carefully document their sources still become bogged down in inappropriate choices and technical jargon. Teachers want to know what you think. If you do want to use outside sources, see your teacher for advice on which ones to use and how to use them. You are responsible for documenting your use of the sources according to proper form. Undocumented use of others' ideas (not just others' phrasing) can put you in the embarrassing position of appearing to have intended to commit plagiarism. See the section on Documentation in Part Five.

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17. LR: do not repeat "in/of the poem/story/play." After your initial paragraph names the work you are talking about, there is no need to remind readers. Omit phrases like the ones italicized:

In the play, Romeo is in love with Juliet. The third stanza of the poem uses a metaphor.

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18. LSh: do not rely on the "this shows that" pattern. Students who learn to ask good questions ("Why does the writer include this detail? What does it reveal about the character?") may fall into mechanical and awkward patterns of commenting on evidence. They can afford to be more creative. For more information, see sections 8 and 9 of Quoting Literature in Part Five.

MECHANICAL: Emily's cane has "a tarnished gold head" (27). This shows that. . . .

MECHANICAL: Emily's cane has "a tarnished gold head" (27), symbolizing that. . . .

BETTER: The "tarnished gold head" (27) on Emily's cane is a symbol of. . . .

BETTER: Like the "tarnished gold head" (27) on her cane, Emily is. . . .

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