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 Farewell, My Lovely, Raymond Chandler creates a Romantic hero who is trapped in a Modernist setting.
- The title of a story or poem is set off with quotation marks; the title of a play is underlined or italicized:
story: "Sonny's Blues"
poem: "Lady Lazarus"
play: Angels in America or Angels in America
novel: The Book of Illusions or The Book of Illusions
- The first time you refer to an author, use his or her full name. Thereafter, use only his or her last name:
In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain attacks various social conventions of his time. Twain is particularly satirical in his attacks on racism.
- Note that a comma or period is placed inside the quotation marks; a semicolon or colon is placed after the quotation marks:
In "Howl," Ginsberg uses particularly shocking images.
Ginsberg uses particularly shocking images in his poem, "Howl."
Ginsberg uses particularly shocking images in his poem, "Howl"; the poem was highly controversial because of its explicit references to sex and violence.
Ginsberg is doing two things in "Howl": he is paying homage to Walt Whitman, and taking America to task for the way it has squandered its potential.
- Avoid using wordy or grammatically incorrect opening lines:
In Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, he tells an interesting 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 Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane tells an interesting 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 The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane is attacking the thoughtless glorification of war.
- 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 the governess in The Turn of the Screw is haunted, rather than insane,
The governess in The Turn of the Screw is haunted, rather than insane. (Note that this makes you sound more authoritative, as well.)
And instead of saying
If you look closely at the governess, you will see that she is haunted, rather than insane,
A close reading reveals that the governess is haunted, 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.
More detailed directions: The OWL (Online Writing Lab) at Purdue University has several articles that will help you with your papers.
- The following link gives you step by step directions about how to write the literary analysis essays we're doing in this class. I STRONGLY recommend that you read it. http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/713/01/
- The following link shows you how to gather research and use it appropriately in your papers. I STRONGLY recommend that you read it. http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/713/04/
- The following link shows you how to cite your sources correctly and how to format the Works Cited page according to MLA requirements. I STRONGLY recommend that you read it and refer to it as necessary when writing your papers. http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/557/01/
- The Writing Tutorial Services at Indiana University has an excellent article on how to avoid plagiarism. I STRONGLY recommend that you read it and refer to it as necessary when writing your papers. http://www.indiana.edu/~wts/pamphlets/plagiarism.shtml
Using the Databases
As long as you're registered at LA Harbor College, you have access to a number of databases through the Harbor College library. 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 articles on all subjects from many periodicals, including professional and scholarly journals. You can access the databases from the following link; from there, just follow the directions to log into the system:
For these essays, you are not required to do outside research. But if you choose to do some research, as a first step, I would go to the databases main page and try one of the unspecialized databases, "All EBSCO Databases." Academic OneFile, Literature Resource Center, Magill OnLiterature Plus, and Salem Literature are also good. Also check JSTOR; it doesn't specialize in literature, but it does have articles in that field. The most effective way to search these databases is to use the "keyword" option at first, to get the broadest search results. Then you can refine by switching to "author" or "name of work," if necessary. You will probably find many more articles than you need. That's okay--it just gives you lots of choices.
Many of the works we are reading in this class will have been written about in books as well; to find books on your subject, go to the LAHC Library page and click on the "Find Books" link. (There's also a link to click if you're off-campus.)
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.