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Tips for Writing About Literature

Updated on May 12, 2012

Guidelines for Writing About Literature

If you are required to write about literature for a composition course or literature survey course, you will find helpful tips in this Hub article. This article focuses on writing about short stories, but the ideas here relate to other forms of literature a well. Start by reading the short story at least twice. Read the first time for the pleasure of reading and to see what happens. Then read again to help you identify the theme(s), symbols, foreshadowing, point of view and/or other literary devices. Once you have read the story twice, you have a better understanding of what happens as well as why the characters act as they do.

Give your essay a creative title, not the title of the short story alone. You may wish to write the essay and return to the title, but remember to add this vital element. The title, like a newspaper headline, functions to attract the readers' attention and hint at the subject to follow. If you were writing about "A Rose for Emily" by William Faulkner, you might consider a title like this one: The Mad Woman in "A Rose for Emily." Another title for an essay on Faulkner's story could be like this one: Emily's Madness. In the actual title, omit the period. Do not put your own title in italics, all capital letters, bold, or underlining. If you do include the author's title, put that title only in quotation marks.

When writing an essay about a short story, identify the story by author and title early in the introductory paragraph. Put the title in quotation marks. Give the author's first and last names the first time you identify the author. Thereafter, refer to the author by the last name, never the first name alone. Be sure you spell the author's and character's names correctly. If we misspell a person's or a character's name, we no longer refer to the same person or character. For example, Michael Meyers is not the same as Michael Myers even though the difference is one "e."

In your essay, give relevant details, but do not retell the story. If you were writing about Alice Munro's "An Ounce of Cure," you could identify the unnamed, teen narrator's plight with a sentence somewhat like the following: Munro's narrator suffers from her first heartbreak when Martin Collingwood tells her he is breaking up with her. The narrator follows this heartbreak by making bad choices which lead to long-term consequences. Then use the story itself to support your assertions. What bad decisions does the narrator make? What happens as a result of her poor choices? How does she resolve those problems? Or does she?

Other Technical Points

Write about the literature in the present tense. EX: The narrator follows, the narrator chooses, Alice Munro indicates..... Avoid the second person, you. Write in third person, using third person pronouns and any noun such as character, student, and author. Avoid contractions; write words out: do not, cannot, and will not, for example. Always weave quotations into your text; they should never sit by themselves. EX: In "An Ounce of Cure," the narrator sees the alcohol Mr. Berryman has left on the counter. In retelling the incident, the narrator explains, "Now here is where my ignorance, my disastrous innocence, comes in" (Munro 18).

Use these guidelines to help you write the essay, but they can also help you in the proofreading of the final draft. Good luck!



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