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 italicized:
story: "The Storm"
poem: "Ballad of Birmingham"
novel: Feast of Love
- The first time you refer to an author, use his or her full name. Thereafter, use only his or her last name:
In "How to Talk to Girls at Parties," Neil Gaiman paints a portrait of a boy who is about to have a shocking experience. In order to make the narrator's growth more apparent, Gaiman 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.
Your textbook, Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing, has chapters containing detailed instructions on how to write about fiction, poetry, and drama. Each section includes examples of rough drafts, revisions, and completed papers. I strongly recommend that you read these; they will give you a much clearer idea of what is expected of your papers.
For information on using MLA format to cite and document correctly, see Chapter 3 in your text, The Writing Tutorial Services at Indiana University, or The Purdue University Online Writing Lab.
About Wikipedia, SparkNotes, Cliffs Notes, Gradesaver, etc.
Avoid citing Wikipedia, SparkNotes, Cliffs Notes, Gradesaver, and other such sites in academic essays. Since Wikipedia 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.
The other sites, SparkNotes, etc., are elementary sites with simple information that doesn't dig too deep. Professors think of them as "cheat" sites: people who are too lazy to read the book look at the plot summaries on SparkNotes. People who are too lazy to think and do their own analysis get all their ideas from Cliffs Notes and Gradesaver.
Like Wikipedia, these sites have their uses; they can be a good place to get started if you are totally lost. But please don't stop there: go find more academic and challenging sources. And for Heaven's sake, DO NOT cite them in your Works Cited list if you want your professors to take you seriously.