Students Writing Literature Papers:
The best way to begin any paper is by doing a close
reading of literature or a critical
reading of the essay's argument before you begin writing
to make sure you really understand the material. See the close
reading exercise online or in the course packet for help with
(2) Make sure you know what
every word means in a passage you are analyzing or discussing.
If you are examining a source from past centuries, you should
consult The Oxford English Dictionary (the
online version available from the library's webpage or the big multi-volume hardcopy version in the English Department's main
office) to find obsolete or outmoded meanings of words. Often
the meaning of words have changed somewhat over the years.
For instance, a seventeenth-century speaker might call a woman
his mistress without implying any adultery--the word
is simply a polite way of referring to the relationship a
modern speaker would call a girlfriend. If Shakespeare
calls someone fond, that word doesn't mean loving or
affectionate, it means silly or stupid. In the same way, if
a speaker in Old English or Middle English calls someone silly,
he means happy, innocent, or blessed. Be sure the
word means what you think it means!
(3) When writing about a novel,
short story, or other narrative, don't summarize the story.
I've already read it, and I don't need you to spoonfeed the
tale to me. Spend your time instead focusing on specific passages,
specific scenes, or specific characters. Close
reading is the key!
(4) All your essays should have
a thesis. A thesis is an argument about a debatable point
that your essay will prove by pointing to textual evidence
and using logic. You should not simply describe or summarize
the qualities of the piece of literature, you should fashion
an original argument about it.
addition to primary sources (i.e., the original
poems, writings, or novels that provide the focus of your
paper), you will want to make judicious use of secondary
sources (scholarly writings or analyses about that
poem, story, or novel that is the focus of your paper.) For
instance, if I were writing a paper on Shakespeare's use of
tragic conventions in Macbeth, the play Macbeth
would be a primary source, as would Aristotle's definition
of tragedy in The Poetics. For secondary sources,
I might use Willard Farnham's book, The Medieval Heritage
of Elizabethan Tragedy, or a lecture such as A. C. Bradley's
"Lecture on Macbeth" as reprinted in Shakespearean
Tragedy, or a peer-reviewed
article from Shakespeare Quarterly or a similar
(6) See also all the tips
for writers of research papers.