Writing an Essay (2)
Writing Literature Essays

There are some examples of good essays on the model essays page of this site. A literature essay has its own rules, which may be a little bit different from those of other types of essay. Also, there are different types of literature essay. What I want to explain here is one type of literature essay.

Don't forget to download my lecture in Japanese on how to write a paper, and check the videos!

1. Three possible approaches

When I ask students for a literature essay, I normally expect an essay which focuses on the author's works. After all, that is why authors are famous, not because of which school they went to, what they had for breakfast, or who they fell in love in love with, but because of what they wrote.. Normally, I am not looking for an essay on the author's life, or on the period in which they lived. Those would be papers on biography, or social history, not literature.

That doesn't mean you can't refer to the author's life or the period in which the author lived at all. Some mention of these things is fine if it helps to throw light on your main topic. But the main content of the paper should be an anlysis of the author's work, backed up by research into secondary sources (i.e., what other critics and commentators have said about the author's works).

2. Preparations

Since the essay should basically show your response to the text(s), the starting point has to be reading the text(s). Choose your author, and spend as much time as you can just reading. Read the text in Japanese, if you like, or in a simplified English version, but do this as well as (not instead of) looking at the original English text.

Then, if you are dealing with shorter texts (e.g., poetry or short stories), choose at least three for special study. On the whole, it is better to choose three of the most famous texts.

If you don't know which ones they are, go to the library and find out. Texts which appear in anthologies, or which critics choose to comment on, are likely to be suitable.

If you are dealing with a longer text (e.g., a play or a novel), choose at least three passages from the text for special study. It is usually a good idea to choose passages which are of special importance in the story - where someone dies, or goes on a journey, or has a fateful meeting with another person, etc.

One way to develop the essay is to take your passages and write a practical criticism on each of them. See my web pages on Poetry and Prose for help with this. If you follow this approach, be careful! You may feel that you have done a lot of work already, but these practical criticisms are only the basis of your essay, they are not the essay itself! The main difference is that your practical criticisms should look something like this:

Text/Passage A:

Comment \ Quotation \  Comment \ Reference \  Quotation \ Comment \ 

Reference \ Comment \


Text/Passage B: 

Comment \ Quotation \ 

Comment \ Reference \ 

Quotation \ Comment \ 

Reference \ Comment \ Quotation...

Text/Passage C:

Comment \ Quotation \

Comment \ Reference \ 

Quotation \ Comment \

Reference \ Comment \ 


    In other words, you analyse, quote and refer to each text in turn.  An essay, however, should look something like this:


Comment \ Quotation from texts/passages A and C \ Comment \ References to texts/passages A, C and X \ Comment \ Reference to published criticism \ Quotation from text/passage B \ Comment \ Reference to text/passage Y \ Reference to the author's life \ Comment...

In other words, you do not present your texts or passages in order A, B, C. You look at your practical criticisms and pick out a number of themes which seem to run through them. You look at a few more texts or passages (represented as 'X' and 'Y' above) and try to find some more examples to illustrate those themes. Then you go to the library and get some books on the author's works and life, and see what extra help they can give you. You may wish to add to, or modify, your themes at this stage. Then you arrange your themes in the order in which you plan to write about them. Then you begin to write your essay! (Please note: One thing you do not need to do is write a summary of the text; unless your teacher tells you otherwise, you can assume that your reader knows the story. Of course, if you feel it is helpful for you to write a summary, do so, but do not include it in your essay.)

See the pages on Writing an Essay for help with general essay-writing skills.


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