English 152 Literature Writing Guidelines

These guidelines for writing papers about literature are organized into four sections: general guidelines, fiction guidelines, poetry guidelines, and drama guidelines. To view each section, click on the links at the left of your screen. You may also click on the links to read the primary sources (the literature featured in the examples.)

Writing a Literary Essay

A literary essay is an essay in which you will interpret and analyze a literary text: a fictional work, such as a short story or novel; a poem; or a dramatic work, informally called a play. To write a competent literary essay, you will need to read and study the literary work (known as a primary text) carefully. Then, considering your class assignment carefully, you should choose a topic and focus for your essay. An early step in drafting your essay will be to create a suitable thesis statement.

Thesis Statement (Fiction, Poetry, and Drama)

A thesis is a precisely worded statement that summarizes the main idea to be presented in an essay. In order to direct and control the development of the essay, a thesis should specify the limited aspects of the topic that will be included in the discussion. The thesis statement of a literary essay is the sentence that outlines the analysis the essay will present. A good literary thesis is specific, concise, and purposeful. Study the models below for illustrations of weak and improved thesis statements. For additional models from each genre, visit the fictionpoetry, and drama sections of this web site.

Quoting from Primary Sources (Literary Texts)

In a direct quotation, a passage from a text is inserted verbatim (i.e., word for word) in an essay. Be sure to enclose direct quotations within a double quotation mark. The only changes that are permitted in direct quotations are the following:

  • Adding a brief explanatory word or phrase enclosed in brackets. (See examples below.)
  • Omitting a portion of text, indicated with an ellipsis (i.e., three dots). (See examples below.)
  • Changing a lower case letter to a capital to a lower case letter. (See examples below.)

Quoting from Secondary Sources (Critical or Biographical Works)

1. Limit the use of verbatim quotations when you are using secondary sources.  In general, only ten to fifteen percent of your secondary source references should be in the form of direct quotations.The subsequent secondary source citations are from an article by Daniel Deneau.

Explanation: Use direct quotation of secondary sources only for a few exceptionally well-phrased critical statements.  Use summary or paraphrase for most references to critical or biographical sources. (See “Paraphrasing from Secondary Sources” below.)

2. Just as with a primary source quotation, introduce a secondary source quotation with a coherent introductory phrase, and enclose the quotation in quotation marks.

3. Identify the author in your parenthetical citation if his or her name is not included in the introductory phrase.

Paraphrasing from Secondary Sources (Critical or Biographical Sources)

While verbatim quotations are important in a literary essay, students should take care not to quote excessively.  In general, not more than ten to fifteen percent of a research essay should be presented in the form of verbatim quotations from secondary sources.  Another useful method for bringing secondary sources into a literary essay is to use paraphrased ideas. A paraphrase is a restatement in your own words of a secondary source. Up to forty or fifty percent of your research essay may be based on information obtained from critical sources in the form of paraphrased ideas.

1. Introduce any paraphrased ideas that you obtain from secondary sources with an appropriate and coherent introductory phrase, and follow each paraphrased idea with a parenthetical citation.  Do not use quotation marks for paraphrased information.

2. Identify the author in your parenthetical citation if his or her name is not included in the introductory phrase.

3. Be sure to paraphrase secondary sources accurately; never misrepresent a critic’s ideas.

4. Be sure to introduce every paraphrased idea, and follow it with a parenthetical citation.  Adding a parenthetical citation at the conclusion of several paraphrased sentences is not adequate because you must acknowledge every idea that you obtain from a source.

Drafting the Literary Analysis Essay

1. Draft a literary analysis (as you would draft any other type of essay) by identifying your working thesis and informally outlining your main sub-topics.

2. Begin your first draft with your own ideas about the literary selection that you are analyzing.

3. After you have drafted your own ideas, support those ideas with specific details from the text of the selection—details about characters, setting, images, symbols, plot, or other relevant information. (DO NOT JUST SUMMARIZE THE PLOT, HOWEVER!) You should also support your ideas with specific quotations from the text of the selection.  See specific directions for “Quoting from Primary Sources” above.

4. Once you have provided your own analysis, add supporting information from the critical or biographical sources that you have consulted.  See specific directions for “Quoting from Secondary Sources” and “Paraphrasing from Secondary Sources” above.

5. Revise and edit the first draft of your essay before you write the final draft.


Drafting the Essay Introduction

After you formulate your essay’s thesis, develop your introductory paragraph.  You may capture the reader’s interest in a variety of ways, for example, by writing a provocative question, using a quotation from the text of the literary selection, or discussing a major theme of the selection.

Drafting and Revising Body Paragraphs Using Both Primary and Secondary Source Synthesis

After the opening paragraph, including the thesis statement, has been presented, body paragraphs, such as the ones below, develop the essay’s argument.

Preparing theWorks Cited Page

1. Begin a new page that you name Works Cited.

2. In alphabetical order, list all of the sources that you have quoted or paraphrased, using the author’s last name or the first important word of the title (if no author is listed).  Do not number the entries on the Works Cited page.

3. Provide all of the required publication information about each source , whether the publication is a book, a periodical, or an electronic source. (Example: Deneau, Daniel. Explicator, Summer 2003, Vol. 61.)

4. Use correct MLA form for each entry.  Follow the models given in your MLA handbook or use the library site.

5. Double space all lines on the Works Cited page.