Principles for Writing a Literary Studies Essay
This section provides eight principles for writing a literary studies essay and also focuses on the most common errors students make, and questions they have about the principles of writing in Literary Studies.
Your lecturers may have mentioned the importance of critically analysing a text when you engage with it, rather than relying on description alone. Although it will often be necessary to refer to the events of a narrative, i.e. in a literary text, these descriptions should always be accompanied by critical analysis.
Simply describing what happens in a text by summarising its main events, the characters, and their actions does not demonstrate a deep understanding of the text.
Instead, you should aim to incorporate an analysis of the text into your discussion. This will show your understanding of the text, demonstrate your critical thinking skills, and provide the reader with additional insights.
Your analysis should strive to communicate the important ideas and meanings you find in the text, while relating them back to the overall argument of your essay.
Significant elements you could discuss include:
- the text’s use of literary devices or techniques (such as metaphor, symbolism, metafiction, fragmentary writing)
- the text’s key themes (such as social inequality or notions of good and evil)
- the historical context of the text and its author
- the text’s major influences or intertexts (how the text relates to other texts)
- how the text relates to literary and cultural theories (such as feminism, Marxism, structuralism, and so on).
When you need to address a particular scene, event or action in a narrative, make sure it clearly relates to the argument of your essay. To incorporate analysis into your discussion, you should consider the scene in its wider context, including its significance to the overall narrative, what it says about character development and motivations, and how it can be interpreted in different ways.
Consider the examples below. Try to differentiate the descriptive writing in the first example, from the analytical writing in the second example. Read both examples fully, then read the comments for explanations and tips.
Example 1: Descriptive
|Gene Wolfe’s The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories begins with a young boy walking along the beach before being called on to go home.||Needs improvement: This opening sentence launches straight into description, recounting the beginning of the story. The significance of this story is not indicated, so the reader could be left wondering why it is being discussed.|
|Later, in a drug store, his mother’s boyfriend steals a magazine for him.||Needs improvement: This is an example of a point-by-point plot summary|
|As he reads the magazine over the next couple of days, bits of the story he reads appear in the text. The story is about an island where a hero, Captain Ransom, saves a woman from an evil doctor named Doctor Death. But after the boy starts reading the story, characters begin appearing in the real world, and he interacts with them and talks to them often. The boy ends up having a greater rapport with Doctor Death than Captain Ransom, as Doctor Death is there for him at the end of the story when things go bad.||Comment: This is an interesting and important element of the story, so it would be worth offering some commentary on its overall significance and what it could mean, instead of simply recounting what happens|
Example 2: Analytical
|Gene Wolfe’s use of metafiction is demonstrated in his 1970 short story The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories.||Good practice: This opening sentence establishes why the story is being discussed. It provides an example of metafiction, a distinctive literary device or style. Providing the text’s date of publication helps the reader place it in its historical and literary context|
|In this second-person narrative, “you” are Tackman, a young boy reading a science fiction pulp magazine to escape the unpleasant realities of home life.||Comment: Although this describes the central premise of the plot, it also makes use of literary terms (“second-person narrative”) and offers interpretations of elements not explicit in the story (“a science fiction pulp magazine”). It only focuses on the most relevant aspects of the narrative.|
|Tackman’s narrative is regularly interrupted by embedded fragments of this pulp story, which echoes H. G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and deploys classic science fiction and fantasy tropes, including dangerous scientific experimentation and lost mythological islands.||Good practice: Indicating how the text you’re describing relates to other texts - that is, indicating its key intertexts - is one way of demonstrating deeper and more systematic thinking about what you’re reading. Drawing out the text’s key themes and tropes is another way of working analysis into your discussion|
|As Tackman starts to realise the inability of the good-versus-evil genre narrative to account for the complexities of the real world, the barriers between fiction and reality collapse around him. This ontological breakdown demonstrates a kind of metafictional writing that, as Patricia Waugh notes, “self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality” (2).||Good practice: Incorporating references to secondary sources and literary theory is a good way to demonstrate analytical thinking about a text.|
|As the characters from the pulp story begin to appear and interact with Tackman, he finds the story’s villain, Doctor Death, may not be as bad as he appeared in the black-and-white story world. This text, with its reflections on the nature and limitations of fiction, thus demonstrates Wolfe’s tendency toward self-reflective metafictional writing.||Good practice: This concluding sentence returns to the main point of the paragraph, emphasising the significance of the short story|
Value judgements and the use of emotive language should be avoided when writing in literary studies. As in other disciplines, the use of formal academic language is preferred, as this maintains a level of objectivity.
Value judgements are a subjective way to approach arguments, as they rely on personal opinions instead of reason and evidence. Your argument will be improved if you avoid judging actions and beliefs based on your own values. Instead, you need to be objective in your approach, even if you have strong feelings on a topic. Words such as “tragic”, “wicked”, and “unjust,” for example, are all heavily charged words that demonstrate judgement rather than objectivity.
Similarly, emotive language normally presents subjectivity, which should be avoided when writing in literary studies. Use of emotive language is a technique often seen in opinion pieces. It appeals to the emotions of the reader, rather than to reason. For example, emotive language often uses superlatives and exaggerations to incite a desired response.
Consider the annotated examples below. Try to differentiate the subjective judgements in the first example, from the objective statements in the second example. Read both examples fully, then read the comments for explanations and tips by clicking on the underlined phrases.
Example 1: Subjective
|It is a tragic example||Needs improvement: The word “tragic” is an example of emotive language; it invokes in the reader a feeling of sympathy. This argument could be improved by showing the reader why the example is “tragic” through the use of evidence to support your claim.|
|of the wickedness of misogyny||Needs improvement: Try to keep your language moderate and objective. Emotionally charged words that appeal to a sense of morality (here, “wickedness”) can detract from your overall argument.|
|that Mary Shelley’s excellent work||Needs improvement: This is an example of a value judgement as it is a subjective opinion (on the aesthetic quality of Shelley’s novel) rather than an objective, evidence-based statement.|
|is always attributed to||Needs improvement: Using absolutes like “always” is rarely necessary, and can be difficult to prove. Avoid broad generalisations in academic writing.|
|Percy Shelley when Mary obviously wrote Frankenstein.||Needs improvement: Rather than using the word “obviously”, show the reader why you think the conclusion is obvious through an analysis of the evidence.|
Example 2: Objective
|John Lauritson’s assertion that||Good practice: This is an objective way to present counter-evidence. It is important to indicate what you are arguing against specifically. This is also an appropriate way to attribute an idea or argument to its creator.|
|Mary Shelley’s husband, Percy Shelley, wrote Frankenstein has been challenged by recent critics.||Good practice: This statement, which is accompanied by a relevant example, establishes that experts in the field support your contention.|
|Through a close examination of the text, Charles Robinson concluded that Percy Shelley’s annotations influenced the final text,||Comment: This references the textual evidence supporting your contention.|
|however,||Good practice: This connecting word demonstrates the logical flow of the argument. Rather than using absolute statements, this more nuanced argument shows that the issue is not entirely straightforward.|
|the novel as a whole can be attributed to Mary Shelley.||Good practice: This is a moderate way to express a conclusion, and it acknowledges that other viewpoints are possible.|
Although discouraged in some disciplines, the use of first person pronouns is now generally accepted when writing in literary studies, including when writing essays.
Writing in the first person can be a useful way to situate a direct argument (“I argue”), or indicate future arguments (“in this essay, I will…”). However, you need to avoid value judgments and unsupported statements (“I think…” or “I believe…”) in your writing.
Note that the first person should only be used sparingly, to clearly articulate your position and line of argument.
When discussing a text, remember to use present tense wherever possible. Narrative events should be described in the present tense (“she meets Dmitri while walking her dog”), unless you are contrasting a past event in the text to a “present” one. This is because the experience of reading literary texts is always considered to be “present” – that is, the text is always “present” to us, whether or not its author is alive.
Also, remember to use present tense when talking about secondary sources (e.g: "Wilson (2018) argues…"). It is, however, acceptable to use past tense when you are talking about historical events, or whenever it is necessary for your meaning to be clear (e.g: "Over 30 years ago, Jones (1985) formulated his X theory, centred around …").
Texts are products of their unique historical and cultural circumstances, so it is important to keep their original contexts in mind while reading and offering an interpretation. In particular, you should be aware that attitudes and practices that may have been considered appropriate when the text was written, might today be recognised as deeply problematic.
When writing about literature, you need to consider how times have changed since the texts were written. Also you need to consider how the cultures and societies that produced the texts you’re writing about differ from your own.
Remember to examine the language and attitudes of the text critically, without emulating them yourself. If you must use an example, put it in quotation marks or make it clear that it is not your perspective, but rather an example from the text.
Example: Contextualising texts
Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) is often considered an American classic despite its problematic representation of the slavery of African Americans, and frequent use of racial slurs. The abolition of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement have allowed different perspectives on what was once common practice. Further, language that might have once been considered acceptable by certain audiences is now entirely inappropriate. It would be important to read this text in its context, without adopting its values or language in your own writing.
You should be wary of confusing a text’s author and its narrator or protagonist. One mistake often made in literary studies writing is the assumption that the values and opinions expressed by a story’s narrator or main character necessarily reflect those of the author.
Take, for example, a novel written in the first person and narrated by a violent and unlikeable male anti-hero. If this character narrator begins complaining about the women around him, drawing on negative gender stereotypes, one might be tempted to assume that the novel’s author endorses these sexist views. Yet this assumption is flawed – the author may despise such views and has chosen to associate them with an anti-hero as a way to critique those views.
Note that the same applies when reading poetry. If a poem, or rather the “speaker” or “narrator” of a poem, appears to maintain a particular position or express a particular feeling, don’t assume that this position or feeling was also that of the real-world author. This distinction between the narrator and the author is a useful one, as it allows for greater flexibility and sensitivity when interpreting the literary text.
Here are two examples and comments:
|Jonathan Swift in A Modest Proposal argues that impoverished Irish men and women should sell their children to the rich as food in order to ease their economic woes.||Here, the writer conflates the narrator, also known as the Proposer in this instance, with the author. Even though the piece is written in first person, the Proposer is not the same as Jonathan Swift himself, and thus the opinions of the Proposer should not be ascribed to Swift. By confusing the two, the writer misses the irony of the suggestion coming from an upper class gentleman, and thus misses the purpose of the piece.|
|In A Modest Proposal Jonathan Swift characterises the Proposer as an upper-class narrator, in an ironic manner in order to create sympathy for impoverished Irish men and women. The Proposer suggests these people should sell their children as food for profit. The absurdity of this suggestion allows Swift to highlight the inhumane policies of successive British governments concerning Irish men and women.||In this version, the writer recognises that the narrator, or Proposer is a construct of Swift, and is thus liable to interrogation as a character would be. This allows for a more meaningful interpretation of the piece.|
When interpreting a text, you shouldn’t presume to know what an author intended when they wrote it. Similarly, you should avoid making assumptions on how an author must have felt, or what they must have been thinking, when they composed their work.
Debates around the roles of the author and the reader in interpretation continue in literary studies, with different schools of thought approaching the issue in different ways. It is now broadly accepted, however, that attempting to ascribe intention (or beliefs, or feelings) to an author based on their text is problematic and usually unnecessary. There are exceptions to this, such as when an author’s work is historically important due to their political stance/participation in social movements, or when an author has stated the intention of the work and this would be useful in analysing the text more broadly.
Just as you should feel empowered to offer your own interpretation of a literary work (such as a novel or poem), you should also be comfortable questioning the interpretations offered by others. So long as your interpretation (or position) is well argued and supported by your research and reading of the text, it is acceptable to disagree with other critics.
So, when you’re reading a scholarly source (such as a journal article or academic book) don’t assume that the author is necessarily correct or is presenting the only valid interpretation. Instead, read the source critically and interrogate its arguments.
You might arrive at a very different interpretation of a text once you have evaluated the evidence and considered different perspectives. Indeed, essay marking criteria often evaluate the originality of your argument, so don’t feel constrained by what has been argued before.