Some semesters can seem like the perfect storm—reading unfamiliar material, advanced writing, and seemingly not enough time to do it all.
Before you start feeling like you’re drowning, learn how to take charge of your essay and be the captain of your own ship.
Although it might feel like you’re trying to pilot a boat with no knowledge of how it works or where you’re going, I’m here to help navigate you through the treacherous waters of writing about literature.
You’ll not only get a rundown about the different parts of your vessel (different types of essays and literary devices), but you’ll also get helpful tips on how to pick a course and guide your ship to your destination.
1. How Are You Writing About Literature?
The first thing you have to know is what kind of ship you’re in charge of—or what kind of essay you’re writing. If you know how to canoe, but not how to sail, your sailboat probably isn’t going to get very far.
Likewise, you can write the best literary analysis in the world, but if you’re supposed to write an argumentative essay, you’re not going to get a very good grade.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the different types of essays:
An analytical essay is one in which you analyze and interpret the literature. Most of the time, this will include a brief summary of the story, followed by an analysis of the themes, literary devices, characters, or any other components.
Sometimes, your instructor will let you know what to write about. A prompt could be, “Analyze symbolism in The Scarlet Letter.” Or it could ask you a question—for example, “Why is Nick the narrator (and not Gatsby) in The Great Gatsby?“
However, you might also have less direct instructions. Prompts can be more vague, such as, “Write a literary analysis about ‘Mother Tongue.’” If your prompt is broad like this, don’t write about every single literary device. Pick one or two, and give strong support.
An argumentative essay is one in which you’re trying to prove your thesis is correct among other options. This could mean arguing what an author is trying to prove in his or her story, or which parts of the plot were most critical to the outcome of the story.
In an argumentative essay, you’ll want to state what you’re arguing, but also be aware of and address other arguments.
As the name suggests, in a persuasive essay, you’re trying to persuade your readers to adopt your viewpoint. It’s very similar to the argumentative essay, except there aren’t a finite number of arguments involved. Therefore, you don’t really have to address other arguments.
Many of these essays involve questions about the actions of certain characters, such as whether a character was right to do whatever he or she did. It also might involve explaining why a certain theme is the most important of the story.
An expository essay is one where you explain an idea. This could mean explaining what the author’s main idea is, or even explaining your reaction to the literature.
2. Know How to Recognize and Use Literary Devices
No matter what type of essay you write, a large part of your body paragraphs will include literary devices—such as symbolism, metaphors, personification, foreshadowing, and others—as support.
When you’re reading a novel, play, or poem, read with these devices in mind and make notes when you find them. This will help when you start putting ideas together for your essay because you can see how often each literary device is used, by which characters, and relating to which themes.
It’s easier when you have a prompt or topic assigned to you, so you aren’t writing every detail down and can focus more closely on just one theme or issue.
3. Don’t Underestimate the Power of a Good Outline
Before you set sail and start going full speed into writing your essay, you need a map. When writing about literature, your outline serves as that map.
You can make it as minimal or full as you want, but it’s always helpful to get your ideas organized so that you’re not scrambling. It also makes it easy to stick to your charted course—your thesis statement.
Make sure you add supporting details in the body paragraph section, so you know in what order you want to present your support. Once you’re done, you’ll have a much clearer picture of how to complete your essay.
If you’re still feeling like you’re treading water on your essay or outline, check out some example literary analysis essays for inspiration.
4. When Writing About Literature, Do It Academically
Okay—so you’ve drawn out your map and you’re ready to get started. Remember first that you’re the captain of your ship—so speak like one! There is no “I think” in academic writing.
Instead, you simply state what you have to say. Writing about literature requires you to write in the third person. This means you never refer to yourself or your audience directly. This not only makes your writing more concise, but it also makes you sound more sure of what you’re writing about.
I think Suzanne Collins wrote The Hunger Games series as a critique of modern society’s obsession with violence.
Suzanne Collins wrote The Hunger Games series as a critique of modern society’s obsession with violence.
5. Don’t Forget to Be Interesting
When sailors are on a boat, it’s not all work and no play. They have to sing songs and make things fun. So when you’re writing about literature, you don’t have to be so academic that you make it boring. This will make the journey seem much longer to your readers.
Write with some personality, and you’ll not only find that your readers like reading your essays more, but also that you enjoy writing them more.
6. Writing About Literature Always Involves a Thesis Statement
Ah, the mighty thesis statement. Why is it so important? Think about it this way—if you’re steering your ship, you want your crew to know where to go, so you state your charted course. This intended course is your thesis statement, and your readers are your crew members.
To put it bluntly, a thesis statement tells your readers what you intend to accomplish in your essay. For a persuasive essay, for example, the thesis statement would let readers know what you’re trying to convince them of. An argumentative essay would state your side of the argument and why you think you’re right.
You don’t have to explain all the details up-front—your crew will know what to do with new information as they get it. Just include the basic details for right now so that you can get your readers on board.
A thesis statement for an essay on Lord of the Flies might go as follows:
In Lord of the Flies, William Golding uses the symbolism of the conch shell, Piggy’s glasses, and fire to depict the rise and fall of civilization.
In this example, you would stick to your course by ensuring each body paragraph talks about either the conch, Piggy’s glasses, or fire.
7. Support, Don’t Summarize
Just like a sailboat needs strong winds to move it forward to its destination, you need strong support for your essay. This means you cannot summarize.
Sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference between support and summary, especially when you’re writing about literature. After all, all of your support comes from the novel, play, or poem you’re reading.
There is, however, a difference between summary and support.
Summary means simply regurgitating what’s in the text. For example, you give a quote from a character or write about a certain plot point.
Support, on the other hand, takes summary one step further—it links the quote or the plot point back to your thesis statement and explains why it’s important. Don’t assume your readers are going to make the same connections you did—spell it out for them.
Need some more help with the different between summary and support? Read How to Write a Good Essay: Stop Summarizing, Start Commentating.
For good measure, here’s a few sources on analyzing and writing about literature to make sailing through your essay a little smoother:
- How to Write a Literary Analysis That Works
- Literary Analysis Essay Tips from a Kibin Editor
- How to Analyze a Poem and Sound Smart Doing It
- How to Compare and Contrast Poems Like a Lit Major
8. Know How to Write a Great Conclusion
So you’ve almost made it to your final destination—the end of your essay. However, you still have to bring the ship to port. You don’t want to have sailed this far just to have your vessel crash at the dock, do you?
In terms of writing your essay, a great conclusion adds the final touches. Briefly restate your thesis and your main supporting ideas. Don’t use the same words, of course. You’ve made a long journey—you want to add some insights you’ve gained along the way.
Before you put the final word on your paper, make sure you tie up any loose ends. Your conclusion needs to give your essay a sense of wholeness or completeness.
9. Know You Have Support
No captain gets anywhere by his or herself.
That’s why the Kibin editors are here for you. They’re happy to make sure you have all the technical details in order—the rigging and booms, the grammar, punctuation, and flow.
With our support, writing about literature is nothing but smooth sailing.