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InfoTrac College Edition

Writing About Literature

Writing about literature can be challenging even for students who enjoy reading. Many students who did well in high school literature courses find themselves unprepared for the kind of writing expected by college English instructors. In college, instructors demand more than a summary of what a book or story is "about" or a personal impression of what a poem "means."


Whether your topic is a poem, play, short story, or novel -- critical writing depends on critical reading:
*     Read any biographical or background information
The more you know about the writer or the background of the work, the more prepared you will be to appreciate the writer's ideas. Refer to an encyclopedia, examine literary resources, or search the Internet.
*     Read the work more than once
In the second reading, move beyond on understanding simply what happens to what the work means and how the writer develops theme, plot, conflict, and character.
*     Develop a topic by asking questions
* What is the author's main point?
* Who are the main characters?
* What conflict does the main character face?
* Do characters seem to represent something larger -- a group of people or an idea?
* How is the conflict resolved?
* Are there dominant moods or impressions? How are they created?
* Does the author use any special effects such as flashbacks or different narrators?


In writing about literature, it is not necessary to attempt to write about the entire work or even comment on all the actions and thoughts of the main character. Most papers -- even research papers -- do not provide enough space to address more than one or two narrow points.

*     Comment on a key scene or passage
Rather than write a paper that tries to explain an entire story or play, comment on one scene. Select a passage that reveals something about the character, expresses the writer's attitude toward the subject, or sets up a conflict. Read the passage aloud to gain a new perspective on the work. Often hearing words and phrases can provide insight into the author's intent, a character's attitude, or the work's style.
* What does Hamlet's first soliloquy capture?
* What do Jay Gatsby's lavish parties represent?
* At what point in A Separate Peace does the narrator's attitude about Phineas change?
*     Analyze a minor character
Major characters can resist analysis. Select a minor character and study the role he or she plays in the plot. Does this character serve as a foil or contrasting element to the hero? Does this character serve as a spokesperson for a point of view?
* What does Polonius represent?
* The Great Gatsby ends in a murder-suicide. Why does Gatsby's death overshadow that of his killer? What does George Wilson represent? Is he also a victim?
* What does Brinker represent about the way young people responded to World War II?
*     Analyze a particular theme or technique
Read through the work and note how the author uses a prevailing pattern of imagery.
* How does Shakespeare use imagery to describe the corruption in Denmark?
* How does Fitzgerald use the device of Nick Carroway, the narrator, develop the elusive character of Jay Gatsby?
* How does John Knowles describe the prep school? Is it an oasis during the violence of World War II?

Remember that a work of literature is not like a piece of abstract art that means whatever you want it to. You must base your opinions and analysis on the text.


Search the Modern Language Association's abstracts online or in print to locate sources about the author, the work, or the literary technique. Many of the articles you will find may be very technical and may not match your subject. Consider using biographical sources about the author or historical or psychological books and articles about your subject:

You can use psychological sources to analyze a character's actions or situation. Review information about suicide to discuss Willy Loman's final act in Death of a Salesman.

You can use historical sources to analyze a character or plot: Review black history to provide insight into the social background of Invisible Man or Native Son.

Above all, make sure that your paper does more than summarize the plot.

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From The Sundance Reader, Third Edition, Web Site by Mark Connelly.