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Responding to literature

How to write essays for your English literature courses

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In most English courses, you will be asked to read and respond to a work of literature by writing an essay. This can either be about a poem, a short story or a play. How do you respond to literature and where do you start?

Understand the assignment

 First of all, you can start by making sure you understand the essay guidelines:

  • Read the guidelines carefully.

  • Are there questions that need answering?

  • When is the assignment due?

  • How long should the paper be? (number of words or pages)

  • What citation style is required? (Usually, for English classes, you use MLA.)

  • What physical format is required? (Do you need a title page, margins, line spacing?)

  • Do you need to include secondary sources? What type of sources and how many are required? (books, journal articles? Are websites allowed?)

  • Does your instructor give a grading rubric or criteria for marking the essay? If so, what are they?

  • If you are unclear about the guidelines, check with your instructor.

This guide is intended to help you with the most common types of essays you use when writing about literature: the analytical essay, the compare and contrast essay or the argumentative essay. However, reading your assignment guidelines carefully will help you determine which kind of writing or response your instructor is looking for. The five most common types of academic writing are the following:

Report- Reports are generally fact-based and descriptive with an objective tone. The purpose is to describe something. A book report, for example, will generally focus on a description of setting, characters, plot, conflict, etc. and will not focus too much on analysis. 

Analysis- An analysis is an explanation of how parts of something relate to a whole. The purpose of an analysis is to look closely at certain elements of something and explain how they work together to create larger meaning.

Summary- A summary is an abbreviation of the main points of an original text. Its purpose is to communicate in a condensed fashion the main points of something.

Reflection- A reflection is a personal response to something that is based on your own feelings, sensations, initial reactions, etc. A reflection is subjective, can use first person ("I") and is a good way to start thinking about how a text has made you feel. 

Essay- An essay is a piece of writing that is structured in such a way that it supports a debatable claim. It should be written from an objective standpoint, and its purpose is to persuade the reader to believe the claims you are making. An essay consists of a series of organized paragraphs that offer details in support of a position. In addition to different types of academic writing, there are different types of academic essays.

  • Analytic- The analytical essay is the most common kind of essay you will write for a literature course. The analytic essay goes beyond simple summary and description.  Rather than telling the reader the facts of the situation, the analytic essay demands that you examine information and evaluate it. In other words, the analytic essay does not simply ask what, where and when; it asks how, why and what is the effect of this?
  • Compare and contrast- This is the examination of similarities and differences between two things. You may choose to compare and contrast two stories or two poems by the same or different authors. However, you must have a purpose in deciding why to compare or contrast two texts that goes beyond a mere explanation of the similarities and differences between them. It should explain what the implications of these similarities and differences are, and what one might learn from looking at these two texts side-by-side. You can read more about ways to structure your compare and contrast essay here.
  • Argumentative- Argumentative essays bring up an important debatable issue that has two distinct sides. The thesis of an argumentative essay always clearly states which side of the issue is being supported; it does not merely state that there are two sides to the issue. In literature, you may be arguing why or how your interpretation of a text is valid and insightful, and how it may differ from another common interpretation or analysis.
  • Expository- Expository essays are intended to persuade an audience of a particular position by addressing one side of a debatable issue. In order to write an expository essay you must have a strong, debatable thesis statement (an argument or a claim), evidence to support your thesis, and a logical organization of your materials. Usually, expository essays only deal with one side of an argument without addressing the opposition.
  • Descriptive- The purpose of a descriptive essay is to persuade the reader of a particular position or belief through the use of rich descriptive detail. Descriptive essays are often paired with narrative arguments because effective stories contain evocative descriptions of people, places, and events. Descriptive writing does not just tell readers what to think, but instead shows readers why one way of looking at the world is better than another. These kinds of essays should contain specific details that bring a picture to life for the audience. It focuses on showing rather than telling. This may be less common when you are asked to write about literature, but may be a useful practice when looking to incorporate more creativity and description into your academic writing style.
  • Cause and effect- The cause and effect essay traces the relationship between reasons and results. It asks why something happened, and what the consequence was. This may be less common when you are writing about literature, but is useful for things like illuminating patterns in society and underlining the consequences if trends are not reversed.
  • Research- A research essay can take the form of any of the above essay methods, but must always include credible, scholarly research that supports the claim(s) you are making.

Understand your text

Many English essays analyze how formal elements of a literary text work together to create meaning or affect the reader. Every word, action, place, thought and object described in a literary text is deliberate. Analyzing how an author uses different literary devices can help you identify themes and understand how the author is constructing meaning through their text. 

1. Plot- Plot refers to the elements that govern the unfolding of the actions, including the conflict and its development in a story or play. Probably the single most revealing question you can ask about a work of literature is, "What conflict does it dramatize?" Often, analyzing the conflict can point to the meaning or theme of the story.

1. Characters- In literature, all actions, interactions, speeches, and observations are deliberate. In a story or play, you may expect that each action or speech, no matter how small, is a presentation of the complex inner and outer worlds that constitute a human being. Examining the actions, descriptions, statements and thoughts can give you insight into what the author is trying to say about a particular person with particular experiences.

3. Point of View- Point of view is the speaker, narrator, persona or voice created by the author to tell stories, make observations, present arguments, and express personal attitudes and judgments. There are four common point of views:

  • Omniscient point of view- In this point of view, the author, not one of the characters, tells the story, and the author assumes complete knowledge of the characters' actions and thoughts.
  • Limited omniscient point of view- When this method is used, the author still narrates the story but restricts (limits) his or her revelation—and therefore our knowledge—of the thoughts of all but one character. One name for this character is "central consciousness." A device of plot and characterization that often accompanies this point of view is the character's gradual discovery of himself or herself until the story climaxes in an epiphany. 
  • First person point of view- In the first person position, the author is even more restricted: one of the characters tells the story, eliminating the author as narrator. Here, the narrator is restricted to what one character says he or she observes. The narrator can therefore be unreliable (subject to their own thoughts, experiences, maturity level, etc.) or reliable (a credible source of information).
  • Objective (dramatic) point of view- Objective point of view is the most restricting of all. Though the author is the narrator, he or she refuses to enter the minds of any of the characters. The writer sees them (and lets us see them) as we would in real life. In this method, we learn about the characters from what they say and do, how they look, and what other characters say about them. We don't learn what they think unless they tell us. This is sometimes called "dramatic" point of view, because we learn about characters in the same way we would in a play. 

4. Tone- Tone also has a great deal to do with the narrator. Tone is the narrator's predominant attitude toward the subject, whether that subject be a particular setting, event, character or idea. The narrator conveys tone through the way devices are handled, including word choice, which may be directly stated or indirectly implied. 

4. Structure- A structure is anything made with a clear organizational pattern. Every literary work has a structure of some sort. Sometimes the structure is new and original; often, it follows a known, set format, like that of a sonnet or a haiku. Certain structures have certain meanings attached to them. For example, a sonnet is traditionally used for love poetry. If a poet is writing a love poem following only certain rules of the sonnet structure, that may reveal elements of traditional notions of love that they accept and reject. Analyzing the structure or form of a story or poem can help reveal certain layers of meaning the author may be referencing.

5. Setting- Setting refers to where and when the plot occurs and the environment in which the characters are described as living. This environment includes the natural environment, the material environment, and the social environment. After determining basic questions such as, "Where does the story take place?" and " What sensuous qualities does the author give to the setting?" you can move on to other questions like, "What relationship does place have to characterization and theme?"

6. Imagery- Imagery is a term used for descriptive language that evokes the senses such as sights, sounds, smells, tastes and other physical sensations. The word "imagery" is also used for other kinds of figurative language, such as metaphor and simile.

7. Figurative language- Figurative language is something that is described in terms of something else, usually taking the form of a metaphor or simile.

  • Metaphor- A metaphor compares something to something else without using "like" or "as" or other comparative terms. For example, "Your words are music to my ears." We know that words are not music, but by making this comparison, we ascribe a musical, pleasing quality to these words.
  • Simile- A simile shows similarities between things that are different, using words like "like" or "as". For example: "My love is like a red, red rose" (Burns). What we know about a red rose helps us to understand what the beloved is like.

8. Denotation and Connotation- Denotation and connotation both deal with word meaning.

  • Denotation- means the explicit meaning or dictionary definition of a word.
  • Connotation- refers to the implications, feelings and cultural associations a word has collected through its use over time, for example, the association of red roses with romantic love.

9. Symbolism- A symbol is a thing that represents another thing which is usually larger and more abstract. For example, a cross is a symbol of Christianity, or a heart is a symbol of love. In literature, words, characters, setting, events and situations can all be symbolic.

10. Rhythm- Rhythm is the stresses that come at regular intervals to create effect. Poetry is built on a rhythmic pattern, called metre, which also contributes to effect and meaning. A metrical pattern is made up of a sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables.

11. Rhyme- Rhyme is a sound device in which identical or very similar sounds are repeated, often at the ends of lines in poems or songs.

12. Irony- Irony plays with the differences between appearances and reality, or between meaning and the words used to convey that meaning. An example of verbal irony occurs when a character says or does something without the knowledge that other characters and the readers/ viewers share.

13. Diction- Diction refers to the words and grammatical constructions a writer selects and which may reveal, among other things, the nationality and level of education of the writer or of the literary character given those words by the writer. A writer's diction will affect the "tone" of the text and its meaning.

14. Allusion- Allusion is a reference inside a work to something outside it, such as a person, place, event or other work. A writer making an allusion often presupposes that the reader knows something about the external reference and will understand how it adds to the work.

15. Genre- Genre has its roots in French, meaning "type" or "kind." Literature is divided up into genres or types, which share conventions or similar features. The major literary genres are drama, poetry, and fiction, which can be further subdivided by type. Knowing more about the conventions that are specific to certain genres can help in your analysis and understanding of the text.

Adapted from Writing About Literature by Edgar V. Roberts and Writing the English Essay by Mary Ann Armstrong

Once you have reviewed some of the formal elements of a text, you can start to draw some conclusions about what message the author is trying to convey. 

Literature and poetry usually tell us more than just a story. The story can often be representative of some aspect of what it means to be alive, to be human, to connect or to not connect with others, etc. These are what we call themes.  A theme is a main idea or an underlying meaning of a literary work that may be stated directly or indirectly.

They can be things like

  • Dreams and disillusionment
  • The beauty of simplicity
  • The illusion of power, etc.

Identifying what some of the themes of the story are, and how the author expresses these themes, is a good place to start when deciding what you want to write on.

You can ask yourself questions like

  • Aside from the basic elements of plot, setting, and character development, what is the story really about? Then, how do other literary elements contribute to the development of this theme?
  • What symbols and metaphors does the author use and what might these represent? How do these further enhance an overall theme or message of the story/poem?
  • If there are several themes/messages, how might these be working together? What is the result of the author exploring these issues side-by-side?
  • How might the historical context during which the story/poem was written influence the way the author portrays certain elements of these themes?

Often, your instructor will provide you with a list of questions specific to the text to help you start thinking about it in these terms.