Conventions
of the Literature Essay

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Note that the following guidelines have been provided to address essays you might write for a broad range of English and Literature courses, including those covering poetry, drama and prose. However, you should obviously always check with your individual instructor about what his or her expectations are for a given assignment.

Your audience: unless you are instructed otherwise, you will be writing the paper for your professor or instructor, which means that you can assume that we have read and know the text well. However, very few of us have managed to memorize the whole thing, so you should still include citation information whenever you quote directly from the text or refer to a specific detail (see citation information following). Your paper should include no plot summary or simple paraphrase (for a single poem), except for perhaps a sentence or two in your introduction to describe the basic content of the literary text or selection you are analyzing. Exception: when a particular line of text is ambiguous or difficult, it is more appropriate to paraphrase in order to demonstrate the complexity of meaning.

Citations from the literary text: For a long text you should always include text citation information in parentheses, with the punctuation on the outside of the parentheses -- unless the citation is set off from the rest of the paper. For a long poem such as Beowulf, include a lowercase "L" followed by a period and the line numbers (l. 115–121). For a play include act, scene and lines like this: (2.4.10–15), for Act 2, scene 4, lines 10 through 15. Do not cite page numbers. For a novel or short story, include just the page number in parentheses with no other punctuation, like this: (211). In a more complex paper that cites multiple textual sources, include the last name of the author or writer for each citation with the page number, like this: (Tuttle 125) and (Majid 173). For a paper on a single short poem, you don't need to include line numbers, although referring to specific stanzas is helpful.

Introduction: a substantial introduction (1/2 page or 5–7 sentences) is appropriate even for a short essay. Include the full name and full title of the work you're analyzing (thereafter you can just use the writer's last name). Here's the proper formatting for various genres of literature (none of these uses boldface):

"Title of a Poem Simply in Quotation Marks"
"Title of Short Story or Essay also in Quotation Marks"
Title of a Play, Novel, Book or Film Should Be in Italics or Underlined

In some courses you might want to make a link to the "Introduction" of your main textbook or to some general information about the writer's background provided in the biographical headnote. You can begin your own introduction with some broader observations about the author and text and then narrow your chosen topic to finish the introduction with your thesis statement. However, omit all grand generalizations about very broad themes (see comments below). If the text you're writing about addresses love, avoid the temptation to open (or close) your paper by dwelling upon the general Theme of Love and what it means to humankind blah blah blah. The writers you will be interpreting have probably done a pretty good job of steering far away from all of those awful clichés, so you should, too. Most literary texts pose an interesting problem or unusual perspective or question––perhaps about one of those broad themes––so use the introduction to lay out or explain the problems or questions the writer raises about that issue.

Use of direct quotations: in high school papers students generally use quotations from literature simply to show the basic content of the narrative, to show what happens in the text. For the essay you are writing for this assignment, you will generally eliminate all of those types of quotations. Instead, when you quote directly from the text, you should do so to draw attention to some unusual details or use of language in the text. After the quotation you should follow up by carefully interpreting those details, delving into layers of meaning that a reader might miss simply reading through the text to enjoy the basic content of the story. If you use a long quotation that is set off from the text with larger margins, then you must follow up with careful analysis of many of those details. For a short paper on prose or drama (4–6 pages), you will use primarily shorter quotations (1–2 sentences at most) in each paragraph with perhaps 2 longer quotations for the entire paper. You should include 2–3 brief direct quotations in each paragraph of your essay.

Paragraph length: some professors may disagree about this, but you should aim for paragraphs that are about 1/2-page long, perhaps a bit longer, and generally not longer than a full page. Shorter paragraphs (1/3-page) are more appropriate for journalistic writing. The ideas that you are developing should be complex enough that you need a longer paragraph to develop those interpretations fully.

Conclusion: you can provide a brief recap of your central argument, but do something more inventive with your closing, too. Again, resist the temptation to open up your argument to grand generalizations.

Writing Elements to Avoid or Delete from Your Argument:

First person "I" or "we" and references to your own writing process: Edit out any sentences that describe your process of writing or developing ideas and interpretations for the paper. For example: "When I first read this poem. . ." or "It is necessary to look closely at this text's metaphors." or "After all this I finally understood the meaning of the text" or "In this paper I will be arguing that. . ." or "A careful examination of the images in these stanzas will show. . ." or "Now we can move on to interpreting the final stanza. . ."

Broad, universalizing comments: omit all grand generalizations about very broad themes (related to literature, good and evil, genius, love, death etc.)––anything you might be tempted to put into a Hallmark card about the greatness and beauty of literature. Writing about poetry frequently tempts students to tie a poem's topic to some sort of "common wisdom"––most frequently a poet is probably trying to turn common wisdom on its head, to expose it, or to rethink those broad beliefs.

Straying from the text: this may seem obvious, but make sure that all of your interpretations can be supported by specific details in the text itself. Particularly when explicating poetry, students can sometimes get an idea into their heads that has been inspired in some fashion by the poem, but which is finally not directly relevant to what the poet has actually written. Be careful not to go off on some tangent in which you are speculating about something you think is in the poem; if you can't quote lines to support your interpretation, you need to develop another interpretation.

Speculating about what *might* have happened: occasionally students try out a line of interpretation in which they speculate about what might have happened if the characters had only done something a bit differently. "If Romeo had simply gotten the message about the Friar's plan, then the play would not have ended so tragically." Or "If Hamlet had simply killed off his Uncle Claudius when he had the chance, then he would have survived and become the new King of Denmark." Sometimes in class discussion we get into this sort of speculative mode -- it can be interesting, and sometimes it can lead to some revealing new ideas about a text. But in a formal, interpretive paper, you need to stick to what actually happens in the text. That's what you need to focus on. If you have sentences with that "If. . . then . . . would" pattern, that's probably a sign that you're heading off into speculation. Get back to the text.

Evaluative or "Book Review" style comments: omit all comments that sound like they might belong in a book review or "appreciation essay" about the writer, comments that focus more on whether the literature is "good" or "bad," rather than interpreting the meaning of the text. The writer may indeed be a genius (or perhaps a pompous windbag), but that's not what you're going to be analyzing in your essay. Instead of saying that the language the writer uses is "brilliant," "inspiring," "unique," "written well," "fascinating," "memorable" or, conversely, "awkward," "impenetrable" or whatever. . . simply analyze the meaning of the text. You could point out that certain lines are "puzzling" or "ambiguous" and then move on to working through the meaning of those lines.

Formatting guidelines for submitting essays:

no title page but DO include a title for your essay
also at the top of the page, single spaced: your name, course name, date, word count
choose a standard 12 pt. font (Times Roman or Arial), double-spaced text, about 22 lines per page
maintain 1” margins on all sides of the page
staple any paper that is more than one page long (no paper clips)
please number the pages in the header or footer
very important: keep a back-up copy or photocopy of all formal papers and always submit final draft by email as well

 

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Julia Garrett
Department of English
University of New England