How to Write a Literary Essay

Literary analysis essays are more than just summaries of novels, poems, short stories or other works of literature. These assignments encourage you to think about a text critically and examine it carefully, exploring questions you find relevant or intriguing. Strategies for reading and planning before you begin can help make your literary essay more effective.

Preparatory Critical Reading Strategies

As you read the text you are writing on, highlight or underline sections you find interesting. Make notes about the text, including your own reaction or opinion about the work. After reading through your notes, you might find that you have a problem or question regarding some aspect of the text. For example, you might be curious about how Jake's physical and emotional injuries lead him to an aimless life that epitomizes the “Lost Generation” in The Sun Also Rises. Your attempt to address and explain such an issue forms the basis of your essay.

Make notes about literary devices the author uses, such as figurative language, that relate to your question. Ask yourself about the narrative strategies, such as the point of view, and why the author would use these techniques to express these ideas.

The Thesis Statement

As you think about the problem or question you want to answer in your essay, a version of a thesis statement should begin to emerge. The thesis statement is a declarative sentence that tells the reader the purpose of your essay. A thesis statement should be your viewpoint and be debatable; you want your thesis to argue for your interpretation of the text.

For example, “Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is about two star-crossed lovers” is not a good thesis statement; it merely summarizes what the play is about. A better thesis statement might read, “While Romeo and Juliet declare their love is real, their relationship is little more than a fleeting teenage romance.” This second statement is specific and controversial.Write your thesis statement down, but remember that it might change or develop as you write your essay.

Putting the Argument Together

Now that you have a draft of your thesis in place, make an outline of the argument you will make in the body of your essay. Two things make a literary essay -- your argument and the evidence you found to support it. A literary essay should have at least three body paragraphs that support your thesis. Avoid organizing your essay to the plot structure of the text, but rather present a logical progression of your argument; for example, to argue the Romeo and Juliet thesis, you might have paragraphs describing the behavior of Romeo, Juliet and their families.

You need convincing examples to support your ideas. This evidence might be a brief summary tied to the relevance to your topic, a specific detail from the text or even direct quotations. Write down at least three main ideas that support your thesis; under those headings, write as many examples you can find from the text. The headings can serve as your topic sentences, and the details and examples are used to make up the bulk of the body paragraphs.

Beginnings and Endings

Some students like to write the introduction first, while others like to wait until the body of the essay is complete. Either way, you need to write an introduction that captures the reader’s attention and ends with your thesis statement. Your introduction should also include the author’s name and title of the text your literary essay is about.

Finish the essay with a conclusion that first restates your thesis and uses any closing remarks to tie up the essay. Do not introduce new ideas in your conclusion. Give your essay a title that refers to the author or text but does not simply use the title of the work you’re writing about.