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Writing About Literature

When writing a literature paper, there are many subjects to choose from. Often, professors will encourage you to choose your own topic. Here is a list of possible topics to help you get started.

Topics:

Characters

Are they of historic, social or symbolic significance? Are the choices they make similar or different to the choices made by other characters within a text or between texts?

Images

Does a text make interesting use of images? One repeated image? Is one image repeated in different texts? How would you analyze the image(s)?

Context

What is the historical, social, political or economic context in which the work was written? How has such a context produced or influenced the work?

Literary Theory/Philosophy

Can a literary theory or philosophical perspective be applied to the work? What does such an application yield?

Form/Language

How does the presentation of the text, its form, tone, perspective and use of language influence the work and affect the reader? Why were such choices made?

The Literary Thesis

A literature paper should reveal your own thoughts and your analytical abilities. Once you have chosen a topic, you will need to develop a thesis. Using the following guidelines for crafting a good thesis will help insure that your thesis and paper prove your perceptiveness and intelligence to your instructor.

A good thesis...

Argues a point- Your thesis should not be a summary of the work or literary review of critical scholarship. A good thesis will show analysis of the text and answers the question "so what?" about the subject on which you are writing.

Can be debated- As long as you are arguing a meaningful point, it should be conceivable that someone could disagree with you. If everyone accepts your argument as common knowledge, then what is the point of your paper?

Can be proven- You should be able to substantiate your argument using the text. The literature paper may be based mainly on your thoughts about the text, but without support from the actual work itself, your argument falls apart.

Research

Many teachers will ask you to conduct research for your papers on literature; others will not. When you are asked to research remember that your argument should be your own. Your teachers are looking to read your thoughts and analysis. These elements should consume most of the essay. Your research should be used as support. Use scholars and their work to add weight to your argument and back up what you've already concluded.

To begin research it might help to look on the internet for general background information. Your next step should be to visit the St. Mary's College library, where you can find online indexes of journal articles. The Modern Language Association (MLA) index will direct you to scholarly articles on your topic.

General Suggestions for Writing

When writing a literature paper, there are certain conventions it helps to be aware of. First, the events of the work should be discussed in the present tense, unless some extenuating circumstance makes this method unwise. Though the book may have been written in the past, "literature is timeless." Second, the use of first person is permissible and can be encouraged when used wisely. Try to refrain from qualifying your argument with too many "I thinks" or "I feels," and be certain to support your claims with evidence from the text and not only your feelings. Third, the narrator of the work, when left unidentified, is referred to as the narrator or the speaker of the work and is not confused with the author.

Citations

Literature papers always use MLA format when documenting sources. MLA dictates that the titles of novels, plays, journals, newspapers and magazines are italicized or underlined. The titles of short stories, poems and articles are put in quotation marks. In-text citations are cited parenthetically with the author's name and the page number, for example (Faulkner 87), and works cited and works consulted lists are arranged alphabetically by author's last name. To learn how to format citations, check out the MLA site.

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