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 "The Tell-tale Heart," Edgar Allan Poe presents a narrator who is rational but insane.
- The title of a story or poem is set off with quotation marks; the title of a play is underlined or italicized:
story: "The Storm"
poem: "Ballad of Birmingham"
play: Proof or Proof
novel: Like Water for Chocolate or Like Water for Chocolate
- The first time you refer to an author, use his or her full name. Thereafter, use only his or her last name:
In "The Yellow Wallpaper," Charlotte Perkins Gilman paints a portrait of a woman who is losing her mind. In order to make the narrator's disorientation more vivid, Gilman tells the story from the first person point of view.
- Note that a comma or period is placed inside the quotation marks; a semicolon or colon is placed after the quotation marks:
In "The Storm," Calixta encounters a former lover.
Kate Chopin is making a controversial point in "The Storm."
Kate Chopin has created an ambiguous ending for "The Storm"; this leaves the interpretation of the story up to the reader.
Not many events occur in "The Storm": a thunderstorm, an affair, and a homecoming are the extent of the plot.
- Avoid using wordy or grammatically incorrect opening lines:
In Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-tale Heart," 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 "The Tell-tale Heart," Edgar Allan Poe 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:
Contrary to popular belief, the narrator in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-tale Heart" is not insane. He is evil.
- 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 Poe's narrator is evil, rather than insane, try Poe's narrator is evil, rather than insane. (Note that this makes you sound more authoritative, as well.) And instead of saying If you look closely at Poe's narrator, you will see that he is evil, rather than insane, try A close reading reveals that Poe's narrator 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.
About Wikipedia, SparkNotes, and Databases
DO NOT cite 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.
Also avoid SparkNotes, ENotes and similar sites. Teachers hate them since they provide only the most superficial analyses. Avoid citing them in academic papers; instead, go find analyses from more reputable academic sources: university and scholarly websites, peer-reviewed journals in library databases, and books. Don't be scared by that word "databases." The databases are just collected electronic versions of articles published in print magazines, journals, and newspapers. They also sometimes contain e-books. You can search them and find tons of good material. There's more about how to use the databases on the Writing About Literature page.
--The mural on this page is called "Rural Highway." It's the mural painted for the Middleport, N.Y. Post Office by Marianne Appel in 1941. More information about this mural can be found at Western New York Heritage Press.
--During the Depression in the 1930s and early 1940s, the U.S. government commissioned a number of murals for post offices across the United States. Many of these were quite amazing. To read more about them, CLICK HERE.