A A A print this page

How to Write a Critical Essay on Literature

Some Guidelines and Techniques for Writing about Works of Literature

Getting an Idea
How do you get an idea? To begin, read the text carefully, as many times as you can. (If you are working with a long work of literature, like an epic poem or a novel, select a passage from the work that seems important to you, and re-read it several times.) React to it: try to understand your reactions. Underline, in the text, any words, phrases or ideas that strike you as interesting or significant, and then take notes in which you try to record and analyze your responses. Read over your notes to see if any pattern is developing in the way that you're thinking about the work.

You may wish to focus on an aspect of the work that for you is troubling, confusing, or inconsistent. Clarify for yourself just what the problem is, for you, with this image or idea or use of language. Then concentrate on this particular aspect of the work, trying to see how it fits, how it operates in the work as a whole. That is, define a problem for yourself and attempt to solve it. Your solution to the problem will be the topic or focus of your essay; this solution may suggest an idea about the meaning or significance of the work as a whole.

Because you are dealing with a carefully composed text, you may want to concentrate on how it works. How is it structured? What sorts of images or symbols, or figurative language, or rhetorical techniques, or narrative strategies does the author employ? Does he or she use any of them consistently in conjunction with a specific emotion or idea? To what end? How effective is the writer's use of these techniques? How well are the writer's methods suited to his or her purposes?

Some Techniques for Writing the Essay
When you begin the process of pre-writing, you probably will not really have a clear thesis, and your organization may be confused. But as you work through your ideas, more and more clarity about your thesis and organization will emerge. Here are things to keep in mind as you are writing, but especially as you are revising the essay.

1. Thesis (what it's not): Your essay should not just summarize the story's action or the writer's argument; your thesis should make an argument of your own about the poem, story, or play. Paraphrase the poem's lines (or summarize the story's or play's events) only when you need to do so for the purpose of commenting on them or of supporting an assertion you've made. When you are writing on a difficult text, you may need to summarize the writer's argument in order to clarify the meaning of the text for your reader. At times, it is alright to do this before going on to make your own argument. But to establish another writer's meaning is not the same thing as asserting a point-of-view of your own. Your own argument must go beyond establishing the text's literal meaning, even though an understanding of the literal meaning is the foundation of your whole argument. Be sure that you have the literal meaning of the text right before you begin to develop your own interpretation. If you have any questions about what the text's literal meaning is (or about the difference between literal meaning and interpretation), check with your teacher.

2. Thesis (what it should be)::Your thesis should assert some point of your own about the way form and content relate to each other in this text. Your thesis should answer some question that you have about the text.

Beware of making statements that merely describe but don't assert or explain anything (e.g., "Solomon uses similes from the world of nature in Song of Songs"). Once you've made this observation, you'll want to discuss how and why he does so, and to what end. You will probably find yourself moving from comments and observations about technique or rhetoric or language to a consideration of what your analysis means or signifies in the work as a whole. This is an attempt to answer the most important question, "SO WHAT?"

3. Organization: You should not structure your essay according to the chronology of the story's or play's plot or according to the order of the poem's lines or stanzas, but according to the dictates of your own argument. Your thoughts should control everything in the essay, rather than being only a reflection of (or explanation of or explications of) the author's or artist's ideas. Your transitions should help make clear the logical progression of your argument, rather than charting a temporal progression (e.g. "and then"). Unless you have an especially good reason for moving through the text or story in the order that the writer has written it, don't. If you do do so, then you are probably just paraphrasing rather than making an argument of your own.

4. Evidence: Always support your assertions with details from the text (in the form of brief paraphrase or short summary or short quotation or, when necessary, longer quotation). Set up the quotations you are using, by giving us some sense of who is speaking and when. Allow us to see the context from which you've taken your quotations. Don't expect quotations to speak for themselves; you need to explain them, so that we can see them in the way you want us to.

Credits: This guide is based on one written by the staff of the Writing Program at the University of Virginia in the 1980s. Since then it has been revised many times, using the principles of writing agreed upon by faculty in the English department and the Writing Program at Millsaps College.