Academic writing about literature, like all forms of writing, has its own set of rules, conventions, and expectations. These are rules that you audience will expect you to follow, and as you can imagine, being aware of your audience’s expectations is an important part of any writing situation.  Most of these rules will apply across the board in all academic contexts, so becoming familiar with them will help you in your other classes as well.

Here, then, are the 14 rules that I want you to follow for all assignments you write in this class.  

1. Have and defend a THESIS statement

This one is pretty self-explanatory, but it is also the rule most often ignored by students who are used to writing high school book reports. When writing a literary analysis, you must make some sort of claim about the text under discussion. In this class, you must make some claim about the literature or your paper will not pass.  A claim is an assertion that you will have to prove, not a statement of fact that no one would disagree with. Trying to write a literary analysis based upon the thesis statement “This novel is about a boy who runs away from home and has lots of adventures” is simply not going to work. That is not a claim; it is a statement of fact about the plot of Huckleberry Finn (and any number of other novels about young boys who run away from home).  It will lead to nothing more than a plot summary, which will either be accurate or inaccurate, depending upon how carefully the student read the novel.

A thesis is a defensible claim about the novel that goes beyond mere plot summary. It gives you something to talk about, to develop, to explain, and to convince other people to believe about the work. For example, you could write a paper based upon the following claim: “Huckleberry Finn uses Huck’s experiences on the Mississippi River to critique the hypocrisy of modern, civilized society.” Now you have something to talk about, a conclusion about the novel that you extracted based upon the plot, but which goes beyond simply retelling the plot.

Once you have a good thesis statement, the next step is to prove it. It is not enough to make a claim and then summarize the play, novel, or collection of facts. Summary only proves that you have read the novel, play, or poem. It does not prove that your claim about it is reasonable and logical. Simply providing a list of facts or evidence also does not prove anything – you have to actually explain HOW the evidence supports your claim.  When you do a literary analysis paper, you must use the novel, play, or poem only to support larger assertions that you make. For example, you might write:

In her refusal to allow the magistrates to take Pearl from her, Hester shows the deep inner strength necessary to a feminist. Even as a sinner and a cast out woman, Hester “felt that she possessed indefeasible rights to Pearl against the world and was ready to defend them to the death” (103).   Hester challenges the state’s authority to say whether she is a fit mother and demonstrates a determination, even an outrage, that society should see fit to question her ability as a mother.

In the above example, the author has made an assertion, then followed it with evidence from the book to prove the claim.

Remember, you must have a thesis, and you must support that thesis with evidence that you explain clearly to your reader. Simply making a claim and following it with a bunch of evidence or details is not going to do the job.

Writing about literature is really just a special kind of researched argument, except that the only research you necessarily need to do is read the text, mine it for relevant data, and present that relevant data in support of your claim.  And like any research paper, you need to not just find relevant information, or even just present the evidence, but also explain how the evidence leads logically to your conclusion.  This will be more difficult than you probably expect, and will take more explaining, because your reader is not in your head.  What seems obvious to you will not be obvious to your reader.

When deciding how much explaining to do in order to prove a thesis about literature, it is usually a good idea to consider an audience who has read the book, play, story, or poem under discussion, but only casually. That means that they are familiar with the plot, main characters and primary storyline, but they have not thought about it very carefully or critically. They are familiar with the major events of the story, essay, or poem but have probably forgotten minor details – details that a critical reader might think were important to a literary analysis. As with all things, your audience can only read your paper, not your mind. When in doubt, give more detail than you think you need.

Imagine leading someone through a dark, treacherous, forest path on a cloudy night. Just because that person may have walked that very same path last summer, in the middle of the day, does not mean he or she could negotiate the same pathway in the dark the following year. You will need to hold that person’s hand, point out where the ground is soft, where there is a fallen stump to step over, and when to duck low to avoid getting hit in the face with a branch. Obstacles that a person would naturally avoid and then forget about during a daylight walk (such as a loose stone in the pathway), will suddenly become vitally important for you to point out before someone steps on it in the dark.

The same is true of details in a work of fiction. What is merely noted in passing when someone is reading just for pleasure can become very important when you are doing literary analysis. It’s the act of finding those details, pointing them out to your reader, and then explaining what they prove, mean, or illustrate that is at the heart of literary analysis. It’s what you have to do to prove your claim.

2. Talk about the SUBJECT

This seems easy enough at first glance. Your thesis statement in an essay will make a claim about a subject, and the body of the essay will be devoted to supporting that thesis. In supporting that claim, you need to stay focused on the issue or text under discussion. One of the most common mistakes I see students make is to talk about the reader, or the audience, rather than the text or issue under discussion. This is most often a problem when the subject of the essay is a work of literature.

Literary analysis is about the text, not about the reader of that text. For example, don’t say, “The reader gets the image of a calm, beautiful day.” More often than not, when a student writes something like this, what they really mean is, “I got the image of a beautiful day,” but they are trying to avoid the forbidden first person pronoun “I.” (See below.) One problem with this kind of statement is that it moves the attention of the reader away from the poem and onto the reader of the paper, at which point you are no longer talking about your subject (whatever it might be). Remember: your job is to write about and analyze a text, not a particular person. Second, what if the reader of your paper did not get an image of a beautiful day from the text? In that case, you have created a problem for yourself by making assumptions about what your reader saw, noticed, felt, or enjoyed about the literature in question. As I mentioned above, making assumptions of this kind about your reader is not a good idea.

You can avoid these potential problems if you say, “This language creates the image of a calm, beautiful day.” The difference is subtle, but important. When you talk about the reader, you run the risk of making assumptions about their experiences that are not true. By staying focused on the text, you are simply telling the reader what is there. If they didn’t see it before, they will now; if they did see it before, they will feel good about themselves for having noticed something an expert thought worth mentioning. It’s a win-win situation.

Another trap that students often fall into is getting side-tracked by a discussion of the life and history of the author. Except in very specialized circumstances, those things are not relevant to a literary analysis, so don’t mention them.  Don’t tell me, for example, that Shakespeare’s Macbeth was first performed at the court of King James I in 1605, and first printed in 1623 unless those facts are directly relevant to whatever point you are making. If your paper is about the extent to which Macbeth does or does not follow the definition of tragedy, then those facts are irrelevant. They are also irrelevant if you are writing about the play’s theme, or about whether or not the character of Othello should be pitied or condemned. The same goes for details such as the author’s date of birth, or where she went to school, or who published her first novel. Those details don’t help you analyze the literature, and if you are including them it is probably because you don’t have anything meaningful to say about the text and are hoping you can distract your reader from your lack of content with a bunch of biographical factoids.

It’s also important to remember that literature is fiction, not autobiography.  That means you can’t necessarily make a connection between what certain characters say or do and what the author personally believes or has experienced. Unless you have some concrete evidence to suggest that the events in a work of fiction (including poetry) are autobiographical, do not assume that they are anything other than made up events and characters. While it is possible to make a connection between a work of fiction and an author’s personal life, it usually requires a lot of research and it is not the sort of thing most literary analysis is interested in. More often, the most you can say is that the characters in the novel behave in ways that reflect the social norms of the time in which it was written.  Remember – stay focused on the subject. In the case of literature, that means talking about the text – what it suggests, implies, or illustrates – not the person who wrote it.

Another thing to keep in mind is that writing about the text or subject means you are NOT writing about your own personal experience with the text or assignment. The reader of a literary analysis does not want to hear that you found the text difficult, for example, or that you had a hard time deciding on a topic to write about. They do not want to know about the various possible analyses that you considered but then discarded.  Not only are such things irrelevant to the assignment at hand, but they do little to instill confidence in the reader regarding your ability to actually analyze the work or discuss the issue. Remember, your papers are supposed to reveal something about the text or subject to the readers. They are not supposed to be trips down memory lane about the process (and difficulties) you went through in coming to the final product of the essay.

3. Write in THIRD person

This one is easy:  avoid all first and second person pronouns unless you have been explicitly told otherwise.  The forbidden pronouns are:  I, me, my, mine, myself, we, us, our, ours, ourselves, you, your, and yourself.  The only time any of those pronouns should appear in your papers is if you are quoting a bit of dialog from a work of literature.  The characters you quote might use first or second person pronouns, but you can’t.

Why is this a rule?

First of all, if you are writing in first or second person, you are breaking Rule #2, which is to write about the subject of the essay. If you write “I think this is a good poem,” you are writing about yourself, not the thing you believe is a good poem. If you write “As you can clearly see,” you are writing about your reader, not the subject. Neither of those things are relevant to the assignment.

Secondly, you don’t need to qualify your ideas with such phrases as “In my opinion” or “I think.” Your name is at the top of the paper, so I know that the ideas presented are yours. (If they aren’t yours, then why are you bothering to put them on paper?) Moreover, by prefacing your ideas with phrases such as “I think” or “In my opinion,” you blunt the force of your claims. Rather than sounding confident and sure of your conclusions, you sound tentative and unsure. You give the impression that you are merely expressing a personal opinion rather than preparing to defend a viable academic argument with logical reasons and evidence. Phrasing your claims as third person statements just sounds much stronger, which has the effect of making you seem like a much more credible source. If you sound confident, your readers are much more likely to have confidence in you. Plus, making your claims in third person establishes the expectation that you will follow the claim with evidence and explanations, which you will need to do anyway if the paper is going to succeed.

The reason you avoid second person pronouns was covered in Rule #2 above: you do not want to make any assumptions about what the reader may think or have seen in the text. Just because you see something in a situation, or something in a text under discussion, does not mean that your reader saw it.

Staying in third person avoids all of those problems. You can therefore write the following: “Line 6 of the poem, with its sustained use of assonance, evokes the sound and feel of a summer breeze.” If the reader did “feel the breeze,” they will nod and think to themselves, “Yep, I felt that.” If they didn’t “feel the breeze,” they will at least look at the line and think, “Yep, I can see how those words are trying to convey that feeling.” Either way, you make yourself seem competent and knowledgeable, but not in a bossy or obnoxious way.

All the same reasons for writing in third person already covered still apply. In the case of literature, it is especially important to make claims in third person because not everyone reads literature the same way. Just because you saw something in a text, or responded a certain way to it, does not mean that every reader had the same response. As with other forms of argument, staying in third person will help you stay focused on the task at hand.

4. Every paper should be SELF-CONTAINED

I should be able to give your paper to a random person at the college (student or professor), and that person should be able to follow the paper from beginning to end, whether it is a single paragraph or a ten-page research paper, without any outside help from me.  You have to provide everything they need to understand your topic, claim, and reasons within the body of the essay itself.  

One of the most common mistakes I see students making when writing about literature is that they write as if their reader were a member of our class. Specifically, they assume that the reader knows about the conversations we have had about the novel when they write their papers. This doesn’t usually take the form of explicitly writing things like “as we talked about in class,” but often it isn’t far off.  You can assume the person has read the literature under discussion, but they did so last summer, and they did so purely for pleasure.  They know the plot and main characters, but they haven’t thought about anything in-depth.

Part of keeping your paper self-contained also means making sure to identify the text under discussion.  Remember, your reader only has your paper, not the assignment sheet I gave you. That means you need to lead your reader into the topic in a way that makes sense to someone who is not part of our class.

In addition to writing an introduction that clearly identifies what you are writing about, you also need to tell them why you are bothering. The reader, after all, does not know that you have an assignment to write about this particular text, and even if they did, that would not be a very compelling reason for them to read your paper. You need to give the reader some other reason to think your paper is worth their time.  You need to give your reader a reason to care about your subject even when your initial impulse for writing it was that I gave you an assignment.

5. Use ACTIVE voice

Passive voice is wordy, weak, and often confusing because it hides the person or thing doing the action.  Saying, “The window was broken” tells me the result, but not the actor.  Writing “The window was broken by Jane” provides all the necessary information but delays the most important part (the actor) until the end and uses more words than are necessary.  Instead you want to write “Jane broke the window.”  It’s direct, active voice, and clear.  It makes it easy for your reader to follow what you are saying, which is a good thing.

If you are not sure what the difference between active and passive voice is, start by studying page 267 in your Little Seagull Handbook.  If you want more review, check out the following links:


Just as with papers about other topics, papers about literature should primarily be in your own words, expressing ideas about the text, and that means you only quote when you really need to. Over-quoting in a literary analysis is just as bad as over-quoting in a non-literary argument. It gives the impression that you either don’t really know what the story is about (and thus must rely on lots of unnecessary quotations), or you have nothing interesting to say about the literature.

Another risk of over-quoting is that you might give your reader the impression that you don’t know what parts of the story are worth the time and effort to quote in the first place, and that can damage your credibility as much as getting the facts of the story wrong. Remember, people who are reading essays about literature expect the author of such papers to know what is worth their time, and if you quote willy-nilly throughout your essays, you give the impression that you don’t know the important bits from the unimportant ones.

Another thing to keep in mind when quoting from literature is that you want to quote only the most quotable portion of whatever sentence you think is important. Sometimes an entire sentence is worth the effort, but not always.  Usually only a small piece of a longer sentence is worth quoting, which will require you to integrate the quote into your own sentence. See “Selecting and Integrating Quotations” for guidelines on deciding what to quote, as well as examples of how to integrate those quotations into your own essays. 

7. EXPLAIN every idea, every quote, and every example

Every idea, quotation, and example must be followed by an explanation that tells the reader either why or how it proves or illustrates what you say it does.  It is not sufficient to just give a quotation and hope your reader comes to the same conclusion that you did about it.  You must explain to your reader what it proves or illustrates.  Remember, your reader hasn’t thought about this work of literature as much as you have, and even if they had, they might not have thought about the same things.  If all you do is give quotations and facts without explanation or analysis, it is the equivalent of dumping all the pieces of a jig-saw puzzle onto the table and saying “Ta-da!  it’s a picture of a barn!”  You may be right, but you have not proven to your reader that you are right.  It might be a picture of a duck.  Your job, as the writer of critical analysis, is to show your reader exactly how all of those pieces fit together to create a picture of a barn.  Never assume that your reader saw what you say in the text or came to the same conclusions about what they did see.  Show them what you mean and why you came to the conclusions you did.

How do you do this?

Start by making some claim about the text. Incorporate the quotation or detail that you think helps illustrate the claim. Then explain what the quotation or detail proves or demonstrates.  In doing so, keep in mind that your reader can only read your paper, not your mind. Just because it is obvious to you what the quote illustrates or suggests does not mean it is obvious to your reader. You have to spell it out for them, sometimes in more detail than you think is necessary. Remember that by the time you write a paper on a novel or play, you will have spent lots of time thinking and talking about it. Some conclusions will therefore seem painfully obvious to you, but they won’t be obvious to your reader. Make sure, therefore, that you don’t just drop quotations into the paper and move on. Follow every quote with some sort of analysis of what it illustrates or explanation of how it proves what you think it proves.

8. Assume a SEMI-FORMAL tone

Academic writing is, by its very nature, relatively formal, but that does not mean you should over-compensate and end up sounding like someone you are not. Think of it in terms of clothing. If you are going to a job interview, you don’t want to wear shorts and a ripped tee shirt. That would give the impression that you are not serious about the job. However, you also don’t want to show up wearing a prom dress or a tuxedo. That would be too formal for the occasion. Instead you want to adopt a style of dress that is somewhere in between: formal enough to indicate that you are serious about the interview, but not so formal that you are over-dressed and out of place.

In terms of language, the same thing applies. You want your tone to be formal enough to demonstrate to your reader that you are taking the subject and your argument seriously, but not so formal that you sound like you are talking down to the reader or trying to be deliberately complicated for no good reason.

Write in such a way that you sound like you are taking the task seriously, and that you are confident and knowledgeable about the topic. Don’t treat the assignment like a joke or write so informally that you come across as if you are chatting with your buddy over pizza and beers. Don’t employ sarcasm or irony.  

9. NEVER use contractions

This is another easy rule to follow as long as you remember it. Simply put, do not use contractions in your papers because contractions are informal language. When writing in an academic setting, such informal language is not appropriate. Rather than saying “doesn’t” or “won’t,” say “does not,” “will not,” etcetera.

10. NEVER use parenthetical statements

Putting comments in parentheses is a way of indicating to your reader that the information being given is not really necessary to your argument or your explanation. They are used in informal writing to provide parenthetical comments that might be interesting, but which are not really on-topic, but such off-topic side comments are not appropriate in academic essay writing. If the comment you are making is not really relevant or necessary to your paper, then why are you including it in the first place? And if it is important and meaningful to your argument, why are you putting it inside parentheses?

So if you find yourself tempted to include parenthetical comments in your papers, don’t. Decide if the information you have just written is necessary or if it is just a random tangent. If it is necessary and meaningful, take it out of the parentheses and incorporate it fully into your paper. If it is not necessary, delete it.

Citations and acronyms are a special case. They are references, not evidence. As such, they DO belong in parentheses.

11. NEVER pseudo-quote

The only time you should use quotation marks in academic writing is when you are actually quoting another text, which will also require you to include an in-text citation.  Do not use quotation marks to try to indicate sarcasm, irony, or disagreement with a term. Do not put quotation marks around aphorisms or clichés.  Do not create fake dialog.  

12. NEVER yell at your audience

In practice, this means you should never use exclamation marks, all capitals, or bold font in your essays.  In less formal contexts – such as text messaging – those things just indicate excitement, but in academic writing, they represent yelling, and yelling at your audience suggests that you have lost your composure.  Academic writing is supposed to be reasoned and calm, even when you are writing about intellectually exciting topics. 

13. IDENTIFY authors and authority figures correctly

When writing a literary analysis, you should clearly identify what text you are writing about in the introduction. As part of that, you need to include the author’s name, which you need to make sure to spell correctly. In most cases, you will be expected to provide the author’s first and last names the first time you mention them. There are, however, some special cases in which it is both acceptable and expected that you will only identify the author by last name. Those cases are as follows: Shakespeare, Milton, and Chaucer. Those three authors are so famous, and so iconic, that you need not provide their full names in order to clearly identify who you are talking about. If you say, “In Shakespeare’s last comedy,” it will be obvious to anyone who would be reading your paper that the Shakespeare in question is William Shakespeare. The same goes for Milton and Chaucer. In all other cases, however, you should provide the author’s full name, as it appears on the title page of their work, the first time you mention them. Subsequent mentions of the author will be by last name only.


There is not much I say about this one except to assure you that they really do matter. A paper that expresses a brilliant idea, but which is so filled with grammar errors that the reader can’t make heads or tails of it, simply will not communicate with anyone, much less convince them.

But it’s not just about communicating with your reader, although that is the most important thing. The ability to write in clear, grammatically correct sentences not only conveys to your reader that you are educated enough to be taken seriously, it demonstrates that you cared enough about the topic to take your work seriously. The same goes for spelling. If you can’t be bothered to spell the author of a book’s name correctly, what does that suggest about your attention to the details of the text itself?

I’ll also remind you to be careful of how you spell characters’ names. Lots of proper names that are correct will be marked as spelling errors by most modern computers. This is especially likely to happen if you are reading and writing about literature set in a time other than modern America – which is clearly the case in this class. Don’t be so eager to fix your spelling errors that you accidentally misspell a character’s name throughout your paper.  And make sure you are using the spelling preferred by whichever book you are writing about.  For example, Malory spells the queen’s name “Gwynerere” and Tennyson spells it “Guinevere.”  Other authors might spell it other ways.  

Additionally, be aware of how you should be formatting titles of literary works. Novel and play titles should be underlined or italicized. (Pick one option and use it consistently throughout your paper and Works Cited page.) Short stories, poems, or chapter titles should be put in quotation marks.

15. Write in PRESENT tense

When you are writing most arguments, you move back and forth between past, present, and future tenses as necessary for what you are saying. You might start by talking about what has come before, which you will put in past tense because it happened in the past. You might contemplate about what might happen in the future if something is (or is not) done about whatever issue you are discussing, and that will all be cast in future tense because it hasn’t actually happened. You will certainly spend a lot of time in present tense, talking about what is going on now, what the current research in the subject says at the moment, and what your readers should do about it right now. While the bulk of such a paper would be in present tense, you’ll also use those other tenses from time to time in order to make sense to your reader.

When writing about literature, however, your dominant tense will be the present. The reason for this is simple: Every time you pick up a work of fiction, the events portrayed in it happen all over again for the reader. It’s not like historical events, which will never happen exactly the same way again. When you read Hamlet, the same things happen every time, even if you read it today, tomorrow, and again a year from now. Every time you read it, Hamlet struggles with his father’s death, he travels to England, he jumps into Ophelia’s grave, he stabs Polonius behind the arras, et ceteraet cetera. The pages do not turn blank once you have read them. They remain for you to read again, or for someone else to read. Literary characters are eternal in a way real, historical people are not. Shakespeare lived, wrote plays, made his fortune, and died. Hamlet lives, struggles, and dies eternally, sometimes from the pages of a play, sometimes from the floorboards of a stage, and sometimes just in our imaginations when we talk about him. And that is why you use present tense when talking about literature, no matter what point of the story you are talking about.

This rule applies whether you are referring to events early or late in a story, novel, or poem. For example, in Cold Mountain Ada’s father dies before the novel even begins, and readers learn about it in flashback. She later learns how to run the farm left to her by her father with the help of Ruby, a young woman she meets fairly early in the story. While all this is going on, Inman leaves the hospital where he has been recovering from a gunshot wound to the neck. He then travels back to his home. Along the way he meets many interesting characters.

It’s a pretty easy thing to do once you get in the habit of it, but it might take you a little bit. Most of the time, when we tell stories, we tell them in the past tense, so giving plot summary of literature (which is just stories written down) can therefore feel a little weird at first.

That’s about it. As you can see, applying these rules to literature isn’t really all that different from applying them in other writing situations. You just have to think about it a little bit to realize how each rule would work itself out if you are writing about a novel or a play. Even the present tense rule, which mostly applies only to literature, makes sense once you realize the logic behind it. Armed with these rules, and some thoughts on the reasons for them and how you will apply them, you should be ready to start writing about literature.

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