Writing About Literature
When writing about literature, you follow the same basic conventions required of any expository essay. That is, you
- state a thesis in your introduction
- develop that thesis by giving supporting reasons and evidence in the body of the essay
- conclude with a summary of your main points and a restatement of the thesis
- cite and document any quotes.
There are a few conventions in writing about literature of which you should be aware.
- In the introduction to your essay, mention the title of the work and the author's full name:
In King Lear, William Shakespeare explores the various results of literal and figurative blindness.
- The title of a story or poem is set off with quotation marks; the title of a play is underlined or italicized:
story: "The Wife of Bath's Tale"
poem: "The Flea"
play: Dr. Faustus or Dr. Faustus
novel: Gulliver's Travels or Gulliver's Travels
- The first time you refer to an author, use his or her full name. Thereafter, use only his or her last name:
In The Beggar's Opera, John Gay attacks various social and political figures of his time. Gay is particularly vicious in his attacks on Robert Walpole, the Prime Minister.
- Note that a comma or period is placed inside the quotation marks; a semicolon or colon is placed after the quotation marks:
In "The Flea," the narrator uses a unique line of argument.
John Donne a shocking and unexpected image to represent true love in "The Canonization."
John Donne leaves us in suspense at the end of "The Flea"; we don't know if his lover will be convinced by his argument or not.
George Herbert uses an unusual technique in "Easter Wings": the poem, as it appears on the page, looks like a pair of wings.
- Avoid using wordy or grammatically incorrect opening lines:
In Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, he tells a fascinating story.
In this sentence, "he" doesn't refer to anyone; and if you use the author's name, you don't need "he," too. Try it this way:
In Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift tells a fascinating story.
But there's still a problem: This opening sentence doesn't tell your reader what your essay is about. It's filler, without real content. Get to your point quickly and directly, perhaps like this:
In Gulliver's Travels Jonathan Swift is satirizing many of the social and political ideas of his time.
- Unless you have been asked to write a personal essay, avoid using the first person ("I") and the second person ("you") in your essays. Most college essays are supposed to preserve a formal tone, and using "I" and "you" gives the essay too casual a tone. Instead of saying,
I think Francisco in The Duchess of Malfi is evil, rather than insane,
Francisco in The Duchess of Malfi is evil, rather than insane. (Note that this makes you sound more authoritative, as well.)
And instead of saying
If you look closely at Francisco, you will see that he is evil, rather than insane,
A close reading reveals that Francisco is evil, rather than insane.
For information on using MLA format to cite and document correctly, see The Writing Tutorial Services at Indiana University, or The Purdue University Online Writing Lab.
Avoid citing Wikipedia in academic essays. Since it is not edited by reputable experts, it often has errors and isn't reliable. It's okay to use it as a starting point for your own research, but go on and find other sources to verify the information, and cite those in your essay.