Literature Essay Writing Tips

Introduction

Summary:

This handout provides examples and description about writing papers in literature. It discusses research topics, how to begin to research, how to use information, and formatting.

Contributors:Mark Dollar, Purdue OWL
Last Edited: 2011-10-19 02:27:10

What Makes a Good Literature Paper?

An argument

When you write an extended literary essay, often one requiring research, you are essentially making an argument. You are arguing that your perspective-an interpretation, an evaluative judgment, or a critical evaluation-is a valid one.

A debatable thesis statement

Like any argument paper you have ever written for a first-year composition course, you must have a specific, detailed thesis statement that reveals your perspective, and, like any good argument, your perspective must be one which is debatable.

Examples

You would not want to make an argument of this sort:

Shakespeare's Hamlet is a play about a young man who seeks revenge.

That doesn't say anything-it's basically just a summary and is hardly debatable.

A better thesis would be this:

Hamlet experiences internal conflict because he is in love with his mother.

That is debatable, controversial even. The rest of a paper with this argument as its thesis will be an attempt to show, using specific examples from the text and evidence from scholars, (1) how Hamlet is in love with his mother, (2) why he's in love with her, and (3) what implications there are for reading the play in this manner.

You also want to avoid a thesis statement like this:

Spirituality means different things to different people. King Lear, The Book of Romans, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance each view the spirit differently.

Again, that says nothing that's not already self-evident. Why bother writing a paper about that? You're not writing an essay to list works that have nothing in common other than a general topic like "spirituality." You want to find certain works or authors that, while they may have several differences, do have some specific, unifying point. That point is your thesis.

A better thesis would be this:

Lear, Romans, and Zen each view the soul as the center of human personality.

Then you prove it, using examples from the texts that show that the soul is the center of personality.

  • Introduction: Be Brief; give some suggestion of the direction you intend to take in your essay. Indicate the aspects of the book you intend to deal with.
  • Paragraphing: In your plan you should identify very clearly around six distinct points you intend to make and the specific parts of the text that you intend to examine in some detail. When writing your essay you should devote one or two paragraphs to each point. Try to make smooth links between paragraphs.
  • Evidence: When you make a point - you must prove it. Just as a lawyer in court must produce evidence to support his case, so you must produce evidence to prove the comments you make about characters, relationships, themes, style etc. When you make a point, refer to the text. give an example to support what you say. Better still, use a quote.
  • Quotes: Remember to lay out quotes correctly. Start a new line and indent like this:

    writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing:

    "quote quote quote quote quote quote quote quote quote quote quote quote quote quote quote quote quote quote quote quote quote quote quote quote quote quote quote"

    writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing writing:

    Remember to introduce the quote with a colon and use quotation marks. It is important to lay out quotes correctly because it shows you are professional about what you are doing. Keep them short - no more than three or four lines each.

  • Selection: Avoid the trap of just re-telling the story. The important thing is to be selective in the way you use the text. Only refer to those parts of the book that help you to answer the question.
  • Answer the question: it sounds obvious, but it's so easy to forget the question and go off at a tangent. When you have finished a paragraph read it through and ask yourself. "How does this contribute to answering the question?" If it doesn't, change it so that it does address the question directly.
  • Conclusion: At the end, try to draw all the strands of your various points together. This should be the part of your essay, which answers the question most directly and forcefully.
  • Style: Keep it formal. Try to avoid making it chatty. If you imagine you are a lawyer in court trying to prove your point of view about a book, that might help to set the right tone.
  • Be creative: Remember you do not have to agree with other people's points of view about literature. If your ideas are original or different, so long as you develop them clearly, use evidence intelligently and argue persuasively, your point of view will be respected. We want literature to touch you personally and it will often affect different people in different ways. Be creative.

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Checklist after writing your essay

Have you:

  1. Put the full title of the question and the date at the top?
  2. Written in cleat paragraphs?
  3. Produced evidence to prove all your points?
  4. Used at least five quotes?
  5. Answered the question?

Novel essay

Theme, plot, setting, characters, style; fair divisions for any essay. Order and emphasis will depend on bias of question.

If the question is about theme, talk about it in the introduction, then discuss, one per paragraph, how the other aspects contribute to it, and conclude by talking about the success or otherwise of the author in communicating his/her theme.

Drama essay

Theme, plot, setting, characters, technique.

If the question is about technique, talk about how it affects the others-one per paragraph.

Poetry essay

Theme, style, technique (include such aspects as alliteration, assonance, versification, rhyme, rhythm, where appropriate).

THE TITLES OF PLAYS, NOVELS, MAGAZINES, NEWSPAPERS, JOURNALS (things that can stand by themselves) are underlined or italicized. Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie and Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye don't seem to have much in common at first. If you're using a word processor or you have a fancy typewriter, use italics, but do not use both underlines and italics. (Some instructors have adopted rules about using italics that go back to a time when italics on a word processor could be hard to read, so you should ask your instructor if you can use italics. Underlines are always correct.) The titles of poems, short stories, and articles (things that do not generally stand by themselves) require quotation marks.

Tools of the Trade: Subjects and Verbs

Whenever possible, use strong subjects and active constructions, rather than weak verbal nouns or abstractions and weak passive or linking verbs: instead of "Petruchio's denial of Kate of her basic necessities would seem cruel and harsh...," try "By denying Kate the basic necessities of life, Petruchio appears cruel and harsh--but he says that he is just putting on an act." Don't forget that words and even phrases can serve as strong sentence subjects: "Petruchio's 'I'll buckler thee against a million' injects an unexpectedly chivalric note, especially since it follows hard on the heels of his seemingly un-gentlemanly behavior." And remember--use regular quotation marks unless you're quoting material that contains a quotation itself.

In General, Avoid the Swamp of Published Criticism

Do not try to sift through the many hundreds of pounds of critical inquiry about the scene or the play. I am most interested in what you bring to the plays, not the ways in which you try to spew back your versions of what "experts" have written to get tenure or score points with other tweed-jacketed types. Honest confusion and honest mistaking are part of the learning process, so don't try to seek out some other "authority" for your proof.

Literature essay topics help you to narrow down on a certain idea or detail, it is important to choose the essay topics you are interested in. Below are the examples of good literature essay topics:

  • Why does Hamlet Delay Taking Revenge on Claudius
  • The Characters of Hamlet and Horatio
  • Why did Ophelia Commit a Suicide
  • The Rules of Marriage in 14th Century
  • The Tragic Love of Romeo and Juliet
  • Pushkin in the Russian Literature
  • The Poetry that has a Special Meaning for You

Enjoy free sample term papers at YourTermPapers.com provided by Literature degree writers.

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