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