Tips on College Essays About Literature

Writing about literature requires you to position yourself among other readers and add to the conversation.
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When you write an essay about literature, your task is quite different than the average writing assignment. In a lab report, you're required to explain methods and report results. In an argumentative essay, you're required to examine angles of an issue and defend a side. But when you write about literature, your job is to open up a new meaning of the work by applying analysis to a specific area of focus. This requires critical thinking, decision making and an ability to think outside the box.

1 Take a Position

Even though an essay about literature is not an argumentative piece about an issue or current event, it still requires a thesis. A thesis is a position, or main argument behind the existence of the paper. For example, if you're writing a paper about Ernest Hemingway's story "Hills Like White Elephants" you would run into a wall if you attempted to analyze the whole story in one essay. Forming a thesis, however, allows you to narrow your focus. If you establish a thesis such as, "The use of dialogue in 'Hills Like White Elephants' allows Hemingway to explore the themes of gender, social class and communication," you've narrowed your focus sufficiently to create a scope for your paper.

2 Defend with Arguments

When you write about literature, each paragraph of the paper should focus on a specific argument. Use a topic sentence which introduces a claim, and then follow with supporting evidence from the text. You should use a mixture of quotations from the text and paraphrasing. Details strengthen your writing, so avoid simply summarizing the story. For example, if your first paragraph explores the use of dialogue to examine gender in Hemingway's story, pull quotations and examples from the story and analyze them.

3 Analyze

The heart of any paper on literature is its analysis. After all, if you don't analyze, you're simply summarizing the plot. After you pull evidence from the story, novel or poem, analyze it by discussing its meaning, tone and structure. Be specific. For example, if you were to analyze a line from a Hemingway story, you would include the quote in your paragraph and then break it down, discussing the character's tone, word choice and motivations. Ask yourself what the dialogue shows about the relationship between characters. It's OK to explore multiple meanings, even if they are contradictory. The purpose of your paper is to explore, not to prove.

4 Link Arguments Together

Each argument in the paper should link to the thesis or overall purpose of the essay. After each paragraph, show a clear tie back to the thesis of the work. For example, after a paragraph discussing the way dialogue in Hemingway's story explores social class, draw a clear connection between the examples you've analyzed and the meaning of the story as a whole. Avoid pulling any parts of the story out of context. Instead, link everything back to your original thesis to keep your analysis objective and rational.

Jan Archer holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science and a master's degree in creative writing. Roth has written trade books for Books-a-Million and has published articles on green living, wellness and education topics. She taught business writing, literature, creative writing and English composition at the college level for five years.