How to Write a Semiotic Essay
When you're writing a semiotic essay, you have the freedom to interpret your topic in a personally meaningful way, as long as you provide theoretical or cultural evidence to back up your readings. Semiotics simply refers to the study of signs or symbols, which means that you're theorizing about the possible interpretations of a cultural or literary phenomenon. You may be required to identify and analyze a sign or symbol from a literary work or you may be asked to write an analysis of a particular cultural sign, such as the cultural fascination with toy dog breeds, for example. Your semiotic essay should focus tightly on three to five possible interpretations of the sign under study.
Read the assigned novel, poem or short story, if applicable. If your assignment calls you for to identify a meaningful sign from a piece of literature, you need to read the material one time to ground yourself in the setting, plot and characterization of the work. Ideally, you need to read the material a second time, making notes in the margins and looking for recurring themes or ideas that interest you.
Write down up to 10 signs that piqued your interest during your second reading. The first ideas that strike you as potential topics are likely the most obvious to all readers. As a student of the study of signs and symbols, you need to dig deeper, looking for themes or motifs beyond the obvious. For example, if you're reading "Where the Red Fern Grows," an obvious sign would be the significance of red ferns in the novel. However, a deeper study might address the relationship of man to animals, which you can narrow even further by juxtaposing the boy's affection for his dogs with his disregard for raccoons.
Narrow your sign to align the breadth of your study with the assigned essay length. Whether you're given a sign, such as a growing trend toward vegetarian diets, or you choose your own sign from culture or literature, you need to focus on a particular aspect of your sign. Narrowing your scope will help you keep your essay tight and specific. In the case of vegetarian diets, for example, you might hone in on the shift toward veganism in urban populations. In the case of "Where the Red Fern Grows," you could add more specificity by focusing on the boy's violence toward undomesticated animals.
Brainstorm about possible interpretations of your sign. You need at least five solid ideas about why your sign is relevant. If you write your essay about urban vegan trends, you might read that sign as an indication of a growing health initiative, an urban shift toward eating patterns that emphasize natural, whole foods that are low in saturated fat. Other possible interpretations could include a heightened cultural awareness regarding the source of food or a disconnect from traditional notions of appropriate foods.
Write the introduction of your essay, naming your specific sign and setting it up for your reader in a relevant literary, social, historical, theoretical or cultural context. For example, if you're writing about a sign in "Where the Red Fern Grows," ground your reader in the text and historical setting by explaining when the story takes place or when it was published. If you're writing about the violent nature of the boy's relationship to raccoons, you might start with a discussion of the boy's affection for and attachment to his dogs before turning the discussion to his nonchalant disregard for undomesticated wildlife. Conclude your opening section with a thesis that alludes to your interpretations of the cultural or literary signifier under study. Your introduction should make up 20 percent of your essay.
Build the body of your essay using three to five of your interpretations of the sign under study. Each interpretation gets its own paragraph or group of paragraphs, depending on the length of your essay. Try not to repeat your ideas, but instead, get into a deeper explanation of your interpretation for each of your theories.
Conclude your semiotic essay with a discussion of the relevance of your sign in its context. Explain why its important and drive home the significance of your theories. This doesn't mean you need to assert that your essay has all the answers, however. In the end, you want to present your case without closing down the reader's ideas or interpretations.