Suggestions for Writing Literature Essays

Prefatory Matter. Your name, course title, and the date are necessary, but you do not have to be fancy. Place this information on a corner of your first page. Why waste paper by creating a separate title page?

Titles. Use titles. They help to introduce your paper to the reader. Center your title (unless you have a better formatting idea).

Introduction. Introductions should identify the work (or works) of literature being discussed, name the author (or authors), and briefly present the issue that the body of your essay will more fully develop (your thesis). Basically, introductions suggest that something interesting is occurring in a particular work of literature.

Your introduction should be straightforward, but it should not be simplistic. Do not present your essay in microcosm in the introduction. Do not present the specifics of your paper's structure. The following is a poor introduction: "This is an essay in which I am going to write about Jonathan Milton's "L'Alegro and "Il PEnseroso". John Milton, you may remember, wrote Paradise Lost. He was a religious poet. This essay will not discuss Paradise Lost or relgion but the two poems just recently mentioned above. It will compare and contrast the entirety of both poems. This paper will, itself, be self-contained within the stipulated four-page limit. I will discuss first light imagery, relating it to the meaning of the poems. Then I will relate the other times of imagery to the overall meaning. Then I will discuss the characterizations of the poetic voices. I begin."

Quoting Titles. Titles of individually published texts--dramas, novels, philosophy texts--are italicized. Titles of works that are published in collections--songs, poems, short stories, magazine articles--are placed in quotation marks.

Hyphenation. In general, when two words modify a noun, such as in the phrase "well-structured comedy," the two words are hyphenated. Consider the following examples:

Scott cannot read enough eighteenth-century poetry.

Tom would prefer to have lived during the eighteenth century.

In the first example "eighteenth century" is hyphenated because the two words act adjectivally to modify "poetry"; in the second example "eighteenth century" is not hyphenated: "century" is the noun and "eighteenth" is its adjective.

Spacing/Formatting. Proper formatting influences your reader. You should double space your text. Margins of one inch (or one and one quarter inch) all around are common. Use page numbers.

Quotations. Quotations of less than four lines can be cited within the body of your paper. Make sure that you use quotation marks, maintain the capitalization of the text, identify line endings with slashes, and provide citation by line number. Most literary publications use the MLA style. For example:

John Berryman begins his fifth sonnet with the lines: "The poet hunched, so, whom the worlds admire, / Rising as I came in; greeted me mildly" (1-2). This is an interesting beginning to a difficult sonnet.

Please notice that the period (or comma if appropriate) comes after the parentheses, not inside of the quotation marks. If the quotation had been a question or exclamation, the question mark or exclamation point would be placed within the quotation marks, but a period would still be placed after the parentheses.

When quoting more than four lines of poetry within an essay you should separate your extract from the essay, as follows:

Berryman's sonnets are adequate, but the versification in Joseph Kennedy's book-length poem The Night Vision is exquisite, as the following lines demonstrate:

I thought I was a heathen child,
And lived in nature's forest wild,
With none to teach in wisdom's way,
With none to guide to endless day.
My tribe--a numerous band they were,
And I in all their sports did share.
Philosophers in times remote,
Among our tribe of wisdom wrote. (Canto II, 1-8)

Lines six and seven are especially affecting.

Notice the lack of quotation marks: indentation serves the same purpose. Also note the punctuation now before the parentheses.

Apostrophes. Do not forget to use apostrophes to show possession. (There seems to be some disease going around: large numbers of writers are forgetting apostrophes.)

Body of the Essay. The body of your paper should logically and fully develop the aspect of literature that was introduced in your introduction (your thesis). Using quotations from the literary text (or texts) to support your logic will normally help to keep your discussion focused (a good thing).

A Few Remarks on Punctuation. Notice the punctuation of this sentence.

I would like to stop here; however, the paper needs to be four pages longer.

Because the modifying conjunction, "however," joins two independent clauses, it is sandwiched by a semi-colon and a comma. Notice the following sentence:

The reason for this, however, seems to be that my mind has drawn a blank.

Here "however" joins a phrase with a dependent clause (not two independent clauses), so it is sandwiched between two commas. This rule applies to "on the other hand," "for example," "in fact," and other similar conjunctions.

Consider the following sentences. Each is correctly punctuated.

I would like to explain the metaphor. The explanation, however, is beyond my understanding.

I would like to explain the metaphor; the explanation, however, is beyond my understanding.

I would like to explain the metaphor: the explanation, however, is beyond my understanding.

In the first example the two ideas are closely related and therefore presented one after another. Use of the period suggests that each carries its own compete meaning.

The second example also presents two closely related ideas; use of the semi-colon suggests that they are more intimately linked than in the previous example.

The last example is, admittedly, unusual but defensible. We were all taught that colons introduce lists, but that example is simply the most common use of a more general rule that reads as follows: the words that follow a colon, in some clear way, explain the words that precede the colon. Thus "Tom has four cars: a ford, a honda, a saab, and a mercedes." The list explains the clause "Tom has four cars." Thus, in the third example above, the wording following the colon expands upon and explains the wording that comes before.

Conclusion. A sophisticated conclusion does not simply restate the thesis of the introduction or summarize the logic presented in the body of the essay. You are not writing a book-length study. If your prose and logic has been clear, the reader will remember the important points; repetition is unnecessary.

Your introduction should open discussion of some interesting literary thesis, and the body of the essay should fully and clearly developed this thesis. Your conclusion, most often, will try to suggest the broader significance of your discussion. If appropriate, suggest why the author (or authors) created and used the literary aspect that you have discussed.

In other words, suggest in your introduction that some literary phenomenon is occurring. In the body of your essay, use examples and fully developed logic to prove that the literary phenomenon takes place. Finally, in your conclusion suggest why such a phenomenon is significant.

Works Cited Page. A works cited page comes at the end of your paper. Below is an example of MLA style. Notice that all pertinent bibliographical material is included.

Works Cited

Berryman, John. Berryman's Sonnets. New York: Farrar, Straus

and Giroux, 1967.

Kennedy, Joseph. The Night Vision. Philadelphia: Published by the author,


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Random Suggestions for better writing:

* To describe someone as a "chauvinist" is to describe that person imprecisely. A chauvinist is one who is zealously loyal to a particular cause or group. But a particular cause or group must be specified. Someone may be a "male chauvinist" or a "female chauvinist" or an "American chauvinist."

Be exceedingly careful about word choice. Very sound advice, which I frequently give to all who will listen, is to buy a good dictionary and to fall in love with using it.

* If you are simply writing your ideas onto paper and then typing a lightly reviewed manuscript as final copy, you are not spending enough time at the craft of writing. Writing involves thinking before pen is put to paper (or fingers to keyboard); it involves thoughtful choices as you draft; most significantly, writing involves revision of multiple drafts. If ninety percent of the time spent writing a paper is spent hammering out the first draft, you probably need to spend more time revising. Perhaps a more suitable division of labor is 50 percent spent on the initial draft and 50 percent on revisions. Personally, I come closer to 25 percent and 75 percent. Revision is a beautiful thing.

Copyright, Tom Kinsella, 1991, 1999.