Professor Celia Easton

Department of English, State University of New York College at Geneseo

Conventions of Writing Papers about Literature

The first thought any writer should give to a literary paper is not "What am I going to say?" but "Who is my audience?"  You can think of the audience of your literature paper as an informed and intelligent fellow student.  Ultimately, of course, most essays are evaluated by a professor, but that professor is not a bored or sneering reader looking for a single interpretation.  The professor is interested in the same literary work that you are writing about, probably knows a good deal about it, and wants to be persuaded by a claim that you make about this piece of literature.

You are writing to someone who knows the work at least as well as you do.  Your job is to remind your audience of passages in the text that provide evidence for the argument you want to create about your text, not to describe the plot to someone who has never read the text.


All college essays need an introduction, a body, and a conclusion.  In a literature paper, the essay's introduction invites your reader into your analysis and provides a thesis that describes the direction of your argument.  The essay's body is composed of a series of close, interpretive readings of passages from the literary text that support the assertion of your thesis.  The essay's conclusion thoughtfully reflects on what you have presented in the paper.  It does not simply repeat your thesis.


Introductory pitfalls.  The following are errors that inexperienced writers make when writing introductory paragraphs.

Praising the bard.  Frightened at the blank five or ten pages they have yet to fill, some students rely on a warm-up sentence that goes something like this: "The great Renaissance poet and playwright, William Shakespeare, masterfully wrote his famous play, Hamlet, just as the sixteenth century drew to a close."  Rarely do opening lines like this have anything to do with the thesis of the paper, and they should be edited out in the final draft.  Your professor and your fellow students are doubtless aware of Shakespeare's well-received reputation and have no need for information extraneous to your topic.  Only include such phrases if they startlingly contrast commonly received ideas.  E.g., "Many have praised Shakespeare as the greatest of poets writing in English, but he is far surpassed by the exquisite wit and expression of the stand-up comedian Andrew Dice Clay."  Be prepared, of course, to defend your extraordinary claims.

Lab talk.  The noun "essay" is derived from a French verb that means "to try" or "to attempt."  When you write an essay, you are yourself using a literary form.  An essay is an extended work of prose composed to explore or examine an idea.  It is not a scientific proof, and the rhetoric of the laboratory has no place in the literary essay.  In poorly written essays, such "lab talk" shows up in a sentence like this: "In this paper I will prove that Elizabeth Bennet is an unknowing social satirist in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice."  You may, indeed, follow a scientific route in crafting an inductive argument, one that gathers examples and draws conclusions by examining them together.  But inductive arguments, as any scientist will tell you, are never exhaustive.  Claims of proof about an object of interpretation will not lend your paper any authority.  You gain authority through the originality, thoroughness, and intelligence of your analysis.

Therapy thesis.  Most people have had the experience of being personally moved by a literary work.  Kate Chopin's novel, The Awakening, or James Baldwin's novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain, might parallel a self-discovery experience you have had.  Reading a poem like Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night" might force you to face your love and grief for a parent or relative who has died.  The cathartic power of art has been appreciated since the days of the early Greeks, and an emotional response to a work of literature is a legitimate response.  When Odysseus bows his head to hide the tears he sheds in listening to the singing of the poet in the court of the Phaiakians, however, he is not writing a literary essay.  The fact that a poem or a play touched a raw nerve is great.  But not every response we have to a work of literature is an appropriate response for a literary essay.  You need not deny your feelings in your essay; you simply need to take care that they  do not assume the place of literary analysis.  Make sure you discuss the poem, not simply the friend John Keats seems to be describing; analyze the force of John Donne's imagery rather than the religious experience you have had.

Good Starts. It is as impossible to prescribe a formula for the opening line of a literary essay as it is to tell a poet or novelist what the first line of her literary work should be.  If you believe that your purpose is simply to satisfy an assignment that scarcely interests you, feel free to start your essay with a sentence that will allow your reader to share your boredom.  But if your object is to attract the interest of your reader, craft a sentence about your topic that introduces it in a dignified, yet unexpected, manner.  An essay's topic is the narrowed down idea you have decided to discuss as it relates to a literary work.  E.g., you might choose to write about distortions of biblical narrative in Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Prologue."  Somewhere within your first paragraph you want to include a sentence or two that describes your thesis.  A thesis is your assertion about your topic, a statement that indicates to your reader what the direction of the argument in your essay will be.  Just as you want to avoid hubristic claims of "proof" in your thesis, you should also avoid shy qualifications.  There is no need to muffle your thoughts with phrases like, "I believe that" or "In my opinion."  Your reader assumes that everything you write that you do not attribute to another author is your opinion.

2.  GO

In the body.  Whether your essay is three pages or twenty, you want to use your space to make a case for your thesis.  While you may decide to bring in extra-textual information that has a bearing on your argument, such as biographical information, historical background, or psychological parallels, most college literary essays also pay very close attention to the primary work.

Writing literary analysis.  "To analyze" means to pull something apart to carefully examine the pieces.  When you analyze a poem, a story, a novel, or a play, you select lines or passages to discuss to make a claim about the whole work.  Sometimes you analyze the author's mode of expression: Why is this choppy? clear? rhyming?  Sometimes you interpret the objects the author has written about: Is the red dress seductive? Is a cigar just a cigar?  Sometimes you explain the patterns of imagery and metaphors the author has created: Why are so many women compared with food in Aphra Behn's The Rover?  All of your analytical passages combine to support your essay's thesis.

Creating your own organization.  It is not necessary to imitate the chronology of the literary work you are analyzing.  Since both you and your reader have completed a reading of the literature you are discussing, you can draw upon examples from all sections of the text in whatever order best suits your argument.

Limiting Description.  When writing about a novel, a story, or a play, remember that your reader already knows the plot.  Concentrate on how the author expresses what happens.  You can refer to events and ideas without describing them as though they were completely new to your reader.  E.g., rather than telling your reader that Celie is raped by her stepfather in Alice Walker's The Color Purple, you might claim, "When Celie is raped by her stepfather, she describes her pain and confusion in fragmented sentences and innocently crude language." From there you would provide textual examples, and comment upon each one you select.

Using Secondary Sources.  In literature, secondary sources are usually critical essays and books that have been published on the primary, literary work you are reading.  When your professor tells you that you do not need to use secondary sources to write your essay, he means that he wants to read your interpretation alone.  Sometimes a professor will ask you to write a report on a critical essay.  In that case you can summarize and evaluate the position taken by the critic whose article you read.

When you are required to incorporate secondary sources into your essay, you must make sure that you are not simply writing a report.  Your essay is still governed by your thesis.  Sometimes you will agree with the critic you have read; other times you will disagree.  You may indicate a critic's view on your topic whether it supports or refutes your thesis.  In either case, you should find examples of the way in which a critic's interpretation works, or examples that contradict the critic's interpretation.  In one sense, you must analyze the critical essay as carefully as you are analyzing the literary work.  Never let a secondary source dominate your essay.

You will find the most current critical approaches in journal articles rather than books, because they are published more quickly.  You can find articles on an author you are studying by consulting the MLA (Modern Language Association) Index.  You can now search the MLA Index online through Geneseo's GLOCAT.  If the Milne library does not subscribe to the journal that interests you, you can obtain a photocopy of the article you need through inter-library loan.  Please give the librarian several weeks' notice.

Using quotations.  Here is an oxymoron on the use of quotations: sparse bounty.  It is hard to claim that you are interested in the way an author expresses himself if you fail to demonstrate that expression in your essay.  On the other hand, you want to make sure that the passages you quote, whether in a primary or secondary source, need to be quoted.  Quote only passages that would lose their effectiveness if they were paraphrased.  Never use a quotation to substitute for your own prose.  Your prose must control your essay.  This is particularly important when you draw upon secondary critical sources.  Unless you are going to analyze a long passage of criticism, you should paraphrase what the author has to say.  ALWAYS INCLUDE A TAG LINE ON ANY QUOTATION YOU INCLUDE IN THIS ESSAY.  For example, a minimal tag line might be

 In The Second Treatise of Government, John Locke claims, " . . . ."

Is this clear?  Handbook writers call quotations without tag lines "dropped quotations."  A quotation should never appear in the prose of your essay without some of your words attached to it.  Don't just borrow someone's else's words because they sound good (even if you provide a citation).  Writing is hard work.  Do it.

When do you set off a quotation from the body of prose of your essay?  If a passage of prose is fifty words or four typed lines (or longer), or if you are quoting four or more lines of poetry, nest the quotation, indenting the left margin 10 spaces (your tab is five spaces).  When you set off a quotation, you do not use quotation marks.  For example:

In contrast with her mature, understated, though biting, social satire found in the later novels, Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility exemplifies the author's most vicious comedic voice.  Certainly Austen can be gentle toward the romantic Marianne, as her description of Barton Cottage as "defective" for being regularly shaped and tastefully decorated illustrates (61); but she does not spare the characters who are capable of great cruelty:
Mrs. John Dashwood had never been a favourite with any of her husband's family; but she had had no opportunity, till the present, of shewing them with how little attention to the comfort of other people she could act when occasion required it. (41)
Notice that the parenthetical reference follows the period in a set off quotation; the period or semicolon follows the parentheses when the quotation is in the body of your essay.  If your quotation contains a quotation, indicate so by single quotation marks inside double quotation marks in a quotation in the body of your paper (FOR EXAMPLE: John Dashwood speaks somberly before acting hypocritically: "'It was my father's last request to me,' replied her husband, 'that I should assist his widows and daughters.'"); use double quotation marks within a set-off quotation.  You will find that British punctuation differs from American punctuation.  Follow American punctuation for your essays written in the United States.

Plagiarism.  When you use secondary sources, and when you refer to the primary work, you must be sure to cite your source properly.  You will find formats for citing sources at the end of this document.  The College defines plagiarism this way: "(1) Direct quotation without appropriate punctuation and citation of source; (2) Paraphrase of expression or thought without proper attribution; (3) Dependence upon a source for a plan, organization or argument without appropriate citation."

There are also positive reasons to cite sources.  Your reader will certainly want to know the context of your quotation or paraphrase, whether of a literary or a critical work.  If a critical work sounds interesting, your reader may want to know where to find it.  Finally, it is important to distinguish a critic's ideas from your own so that you get credit for the original thinking you have done.

3.  STOP

Weak conclusions.  The following are inappropriate ways to conclude a literary essay:

Sudden stop.  One way to avoid the task of reflecting upon what you have just written is to omit your conclusion and simply end your paper with your last example.  Both you and your reader will find this unsatisfying, however.  A conclusion makes you responsible for what you have claimed.  Think of it as the opportunity to assert something about your topic that you could not have asserted before you presented your examples.  Most writers find that they have made discoveries about their topic in the process of writing their essays.  This is why an essay takes at least two drafts.  Instead of an abrupt stop, indicate the kind of discovery your interpretative examples have made possible.

Apology.  Some writers do not like such responsibility.  Insecure writers may end their papers with sentences such as these:
 "I really do not know what to make of this."
 "I ran out of time and I could not draw this together."
 "I was very upset while I was writing this and I hope you will take that into consideration while you are grading it."
 "I'm sorry this isn't any better than it is.  I didn't budget my time well."
Don't apologize.  If your paper is indeed as dreadful as your apology suggests, your whining only underscores its inadequacies.  If your paper is actually not all that bad, an apology could undermine the favorable impression you have made.  Apologetic lines have nothing to do with your argument, so they do not belong in your essay.  Do yourself a favor, as well, and keep them off post-it notes and index cards attached to your essay.  Apologize to yourself if you are unhappy with your performance, and take responsibility for the work you hand in.

As a famous writer once said. It is tempting to end your paper with a quotation.  Weary after five or ten pages of your own prose, you turn to a pithy, artistic phrase to stop the show.  Again, you may be neglecting your responsibility here if you try to let someone draw your conclusion for you.  Take the time to reflect on what you have written and explain those reflections to your reader.  Use a quotation to complement--not to substitute for--your thoughts.

As I've just said.  Any writer can be proud of completing five or ten pages of thoughtful, well executed prose.  Writing is time-consuming, hard work.  Remember, however, that it will not take your reader nearly as long to read your work as it took you to write it, and most readers can remember what they have just read in a brief essay.  In a literary essay, if you weigh down your conclusion with a repetition of what you have just said, you risk insulting your reader's intelligence.  Use the key words you have focused on in the course of the essay to trigger your reader's memory.  In some science writing, a conclusion does conventionally repeat what has been stated in the body.  Remember to distinguish literary essays from science essays.

Good endings.  Put your pen down.  Take your fingers off the keyboard.  Think about why you care about this topic.  Without looking at the words you have written, but fully informed by the examples you have provided in the body of the essay, write a draft of a concluding paragraph.  Start a few sentences this way: "This approach to this poem is important because _______."  "I now understand ______ about this topic, because _______."  "After spending time with this writer I can see that he ________."    When you compose your final draft of this concluding paragraph, edit out these phrases and keep the assertions in the blanks.  The draft sentence, "After spending time with this writer I can see that he is not really religious but he includes many biblical quotations in his essay to make himself sound more credible" becomes in a final edited version, "John Locke infuses the Second Treatise with biblical quotations to gain rhetorical credibility rather than to demonstrate religious faith."   The draft sentence, "This approach to this poem is important because it shows that Alexander Pope's rhyming couplets intensify the satire of his verse" becomes "Alexander Pope's rhyming couplets intensify the satire of his verse."  "Rhyming couplets" and "satire" were probably key words in the body of your essay.  You remind your reader of your discussion, and you conclude with a well-founded claim.  Expand in a few more thoughtful sentences, and you have your conclusion.


Papers in literature should be prepared according to The MLA Handbook.  The latest version of this style book indicates that you should not use footnotes for simple citations.  Use footnotes only for explanations that you cannot incorporate into your essay.  Simple citations should be made parenthetically in your essay.  A bibliography sheet called "Works Cited" (you will not put the title in quotation marks) should follow your essay. Here you list both primary and secondary sources (only those actually cited in your essay), alphabetically, in bibliography style, with a hanging indent.  The MLA style guide, which demonstrates the conventional format for bibliographies, is reprinted in most composition handbooks and is also available in Milne Library.  You can also look at the handbooks in my office.  It is in your interest to buy and own a writing handbook.

Here is an example of a parenthetical citation for a primary source:

Fielding satirizes the hypocritical intellectualism of the clergy through the utterances of Parson Barnabas in Joseph Andrews.  Pushed for an explanation of spiritual requirements by Joseph, who believes he will die shortly, Barnabas defines by tautology: "Joseph desired to know what [Christian] forgiveness was.  'That is,' answered Barnabas, 'to forgive them as -- as -- it is to forgive them as -- in short, it is to forgive them as a Christian'" (Fielding, 49).  Exhausted by his physical condition, Joseph abandons his spiritual quest. Fielding implies that Barnabas' healthy parishioners are regularly exhausted by their spiritual leader's obfuscated doctrine.
In this example, the essay writer includes a quotation that contains a quotation, and indicates this with double and single quotation marks.  The quotation comes from page 49 of Fielding's novel.  Quotation marks are placed at the beginning and end of the quotation, but the period follows the parentheses.  The bracketed word, "Christian," does not appear in Fielding's sentence (the word "that" appears, instead), but "Christian" is implied by a portion of the text not quoted, and the bracketed word clarifies the quotation for the reader.  The reader can turn to the "Works Cited" page and find this listing:

Fielding, Henry.  Joseph Andrews.  Ed. Martin C. Battestin.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961.

Joseph Andrews was first published in 1742, but this bibliographical listing serves to indicate which edition of the novel the essay writer has used for her paper.  It is not intended to be a history of the publication of the the work.

Here are some other sample bibliographic entries for a "Works Cited" page.

Abrams, M. H., ed.  The Norton Anthology of English Literature.  5th ed.  Vol. 1.

New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986.
Chaucer, Geoffrey.  "The Franklin's Tale." The Norton Anthology of English Literature.
Ed. M. H. Abrams.  5th ed.  Vol. 1.  New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986.  163-185.
Locke, John.  Second Treatise of Government.  Ed. Richard Cox.  Arlington Heights:
Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1982.
Mulisch, Harry.  The Assault.  Trans. Claire Nicolas White.  New York: Pantheon, 1985.

Swift, Jonathan.  Gulliver's Travels.  Ed. Louis A. Landa.  Boston:

Houghton Mifflin, 1960.
For an article that appears in a journal with continuous paging throughout a single year (MLA sample):

McLuhan, Marshall.  "Pound, Eliot, and the Rhetoric of The Waste Land."  New Literary

History 10 (1979): 557-580.
The second and subsequent lines of a bibliographic entry are indented one tab space to highlight the last name of the author in the first line.  Note that the writer does not include either "vol." or "pp."  The format of the entry indicates to the reader that the volume is 10 and the article is found on pages 557-580.

For a book by more than one author:

Anderson, Bonnie S., and Judith P. Zinnser.  A History of Their Own: Women

in Europe from Prehistory to the Present.  Vol. 1.  New York: Harper

and Row, 1989.  2 vols.

Here, the writer indicates that only the first volume of a two volume work has been used.  "New York" here refers to the city, not the state.

Do not number bibliographic entries.  Always use a hanging indent and alphabetize by authors' last names.  If no author is available, alphabetize by the first word of the title.

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