Literature Essay Guidelines

Dr. Ryan Simmons
Deparment of English and Literature

Analysis: In each essay you should take a position about a text (or texts) assigned for the course, and then attempt to persuade your readers that your position is the correct one. Organize your essay so that your position is clearly stated and methodically defended. A thesis--a summary of the most important point in a sentence or two--should be easily identifiable. Consider ways in which other readers might disagree with you, and then explain why your position seems to make the most sense, or to be the most productive way of reading the work at hand.

Explication: Explication means "close reading." Use specific details and quotations from the text to support your points. If your argument only requires you to summarize the story's plot broadly, your essay will not be as strong as one that digs more deeply into subtle points.

Originality: The thesis and supporting points of your paper should be original as far as possible. It should not simply summarize what someone else (either the author of the literary work or another critic) has already said. And it should not be a statement that most readers would find obvious.

Significance: A strong paper will answer, by its conclusion, the question "So what?" Why is understanding your argument important to a reader's understanding of the literary text. (If you're arguing that Tom Ripley is a sympathetic character in The Talented Mr. Ripley, explain why it's important to realize this.)

Writing: While effective writing is just one of the essential characteristics of a strong literary analysis, it is perhaps the most central: If your readers have difficulty understanding what you are saying, then the value of the essay's other characteristics is likely to be lost. Effective writing involves more than just technical correctness (i.e. proofreading)--it is a matter of putting the whole package together in a form that is both credible and considerate of the reader. Consider what your reader already knows and does not know (as a default, imagine a reader who has read the work(s) you're discussing but doesn't happen to have a copy right in front of him/her). Think out your priorities: What do you most want your readers to understand, believe, or do as a result of reading your essay? As far as possible, make it easy for your readers to accept your conclusions; help them to see the work as you do. Avoid repetitiveness, but also be careful to make the logical progression of ideas clear; in general, writers tend to assume that too much is merely obvious.

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