How do I write a literary essay?

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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A literary essay involves choosing a piece of literature that has merit and interests the writer.  The literary work should have at least three qualities: "The first significant thing is the essentially artistic quality of the literature."  It expresses some aspect of truth or beauty. Secondly, the literature should appeal to the emotions.  Finally, the work has to have a permanence quality that will or has lasted the test of time. These  are the works from which to choose.

After selecting the literary work, the next step is to read and reread.   Comprehension of the work is a requirement to adequately analyzing any literature. Include in the  reading the background of the author.

Then, decide what will be the thesis of the essay.  In other words, what argument will you make concerning the work.  For example, this thesis might be selected:  "In 'The Story of an Hour,' there is a rich mixture of situational and dramatic irony." 

The writer's job now is to find quotations and secondary information which will support this thesis. This should include research of the literary criticism that has already been written  on the work.  The library (librarian) and the internet provide the best sources for this aspect of the preparation to write. Be careful to choose reliable authorities to incorporate because there are many "blogs" which have no value at all. 

After this,  you should be ready to put together a rough draft about the topic and thesis.  Depending on the length required for the assignment, the essay might be seven or eight paragraphs: Introduction (1-2 paragraphs); the body (4-5 paragraphs) which supports the thesis with your ideas, direct quotations, and secondary information; and the conclusion (one paragraph). 

Always revise and rewrite.  Look for spelling and grammatical errors to correct. Never trust the computer's spell check. Use it but look for yourself.  Use third person in your academic writing, not 1st or 2nd person. Review the paper for mechanical errors, i.e., punctuation and capitalization. Have someone reread your work.  Take the criticism to heart. 

If a writer follows this procedure, he should be able to put together an essay that will get the grade desired.  Remember, attitude toward the assignment and the literature must be positive to do the best work.

[Paragraph one quotation and paraphrase: (Long, William J., Ph.D. English Literature: Its History and Its Significance for the Life of the English-Speaking World. Chapter 1)]

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