Writing essays about literary works, like classic literature, is part of every student’s life. Whether you are in high school or in college, chances are you will be asked one time or another to read a work of literature and then write an essay about it. For example, courses in English often include literary works such as novels, short stories, or plays. Meanwhile, common essays written for such classes include research papers, reaction papers, literary analysis papers, and reflection papers among others. While we have already provided a discussion on how to write a literary analysis paper, there are a few more tips than can be added. These further tips can help you write a better paper.
- Choose a work that speaks to you. There are instances when your teacher will ask you to write about a specific literary work. However, there are also instances when you can choose your own or choose from a list of approved works. If this the case, then make sure that you choose a work that speaks to you. This means choosing one that you enjoy or find interesting, one that you relate to, or one that you feel strongly about. In other words, choose a work that you respond to. You are more likely to come up with a good thesis for your paper and write well when you connect with the work. By contrast, choosing a work that bores, confuses, or repels you will only make the writing process difficult for you.
- Avoid simple summaries. Unless the instructions for your assignment explicitly ask for a summary of the work, avoid simply offering summaries of the work. Including summaries may be sometimes necessary such as when you need to provide the context of your discussion. But keep summaries at a minimum; they are not substitutes for a substantial discussion. Focus on your main arguments and supporting points instead.
- Look out for themes and symbols. Another important consideration when writing your essay is looking for themes and symbols. Themes and symbols are two of the most common literary devices. The theme can be described as the work’s message about a given topic. For instance, an important theme in William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” is that treachery does not pay. Hence, the topic is treachery and the theme is the message that treachery can only lead to the treacherous’ downfall. A symbol, on the other hand, is any object, action, or event that represents something else. For instance, the green light in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” symbolizes the distant dream that Gatsby wants to reach. When reading your work, think about what its messages are. What is it trying to say about you, other people, or the world at large?
- Use the present tense. A common mistake that writers commit when writing about literature is using the past tense. When writing about works of fiction, use the present tense consistently. Remember, fiction is not historical; rather, the work is eternal in the sense that they are always unfolding. For example, if you read “The Great Gatsby” in 2026, the events in the novel are just unfolding for you the same way they are unfolding at this moment if you are reading the book right now. There are times, though, when you will use the past tense or future tense, such as when you are talking about an event that occurred in the past within the work.
- Avoid relying on film adaptation. Many of the most famous and important works in literature have been adapted into a film. While it may be tempting to spend two hours watching a movie rather than devote days to reading that assigned novel, avoid this unless allowed by your professor. A film is basically a condensed version of a literary work; it eliminates characters, dialogues, and plot points that may be central and meaningful. Furthermore, it is rare that films are completely faithful to the original work, as many directors may take artistic license and change crucial details. Using the film as the basis of your essay, therefore, may result in writing a paper that is inadequate and inaccurate. Focus on reading the actual work; you will have better chances of getting it right this way.
- Keep your points convincing. Since essays on literary works are subjective to some extent, many students fall under the notion that any discussion is acceptable. This notion sometimes causes students to turn out discussions that are shallow, confusing, far-fetched, or simply unconvincing. For example, a student might interpret a poem in a way that is far too implausible. Keep in mind that a thesis is only as good as the quality of the evidence and the way it is argued. When writing an essay on literary works, be sure to substantiate your claims with evidence and sound reasoning.
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