A literary analysis essay is a writing task that is commonly assigned to college and graduate students. Unlike an essay that merely requires a summary of an author’s work, a literary analysis paper takes it a step further by asking the student to argue for or against the effectiveness of the work. This involves developing a good thesis, using critical thinking skills and supporting the argument by citing sentences and passages from the work. It can be a challenge to write this type of essay, but if you follow this step-by-step guide, you will know how to write a literary analysis and be well on your way to success.

How to Critically Examine the Literature

  • As you are reading a literary work, it is important to identify the writer’s argument.

Unlike academic articles where the writer forms a hypothesis and explores an issue from a scientific point-of-view, literary work typically involves telling a story that introduces conflict and finds a resolution (although short stories also regularly employ a technique in which the matter is left unresolved). In the course of this, the narrative often offers social commentary or argues for a particular philosophy.

  • Focus on the main points and narrative structure

It is important to make a note of the main points and lessons that can be derived from the story. Beyond explaining what is being told, it is also necessary to explore how the author achieves this. For example, when reading The Lottery by Shirley Jackson for the first time, the reader might find it confusing. The author leaves out a great deal of context, and it isn’t until the shocking final moments of the story that the reader begins to understand that the story is making a point about how society often holds onto long-standing traditions no matter how irrational. In this case, when providing critical analysis, it would be useful to discuss whether the element of surprise is an effective way of expressing the author’s message.

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  • Make use of dictionaries and outside sources

When reading literary work written in a past era (think Edgar Allen Poe) or a narrative that focuses on cultural perspectives unfamiliar to the reader, it might become necessary to look up certain words in a dictionary or do some background research related to the topic of the narrative. For example, if you are reading a poem about the struggles of South Africans living under Apartheid but know very little about the topic, read up on some general history. In this way, you will be better prepared as you argue for or against the effectiveness of the writer’s story.

  • Take notes and discuss the narrative using your own words

This can be achieved through an outline, writing a one or two-paragraph summary or both. You will use these as critical thinking reference points once you begin to actually write the paper.

  • If applicable, identify the modes of persuasion

Whenever a writer is expressing a point in their story, they will commonly incorporate pathos, logos, and ethos. Pathos seeks to appeal to the reader’s emotions. This is especially common when the purpose of the narrative is to entertain the reader. Logos is the use of logic and reasoning in trying to sway the reader. Finally, ethos is intended to make the writer appear credible. This can be done by stressing the writer’s authority about the topic based on their personal or academic experiences. While common in research papers, this is less applicable to narrative writing.

How to Write a Literary Analysis Thesis

  • With all of your notes and necessary background information, you can begin to write a good literary analysis.

Having identified any modes of persuasion, you could discuss whether you believe the author was effective in applying them. If you would like to approach this from a different angle rather than through these modes, you could discuss how the structure of the story, the use of character and settings, and the plot devices used enhanced to detract from the message.

  • Separate your main points into paragraphs.

This is an absolute must. You would never want to discuss several important points within one paragraph. Breaking your arguments point-by-point keeps the paper focused. If you are        developing a particularly complex argument, you can use several paragraphs to discuss your points.

  • Balance the strengths and weaknesses.

While your paper can serve to criticize or lend support for the author’s work, it is important to play devil’s advocate. In other words, if your analysis is positive, you would still need to concede certain negative points. For example, you might agree with an overall message while arguing that certain parts of the plot are overly predictable. Just remember that if you believe the author’s position is strong, you would first want to discuss the weaknesses before countering with strengths, and vice versa if you are critical of the narrative.

  • Build arguments around any controversial issues

If the author is bringing up points of contention, bring up opposing views (especially if they are already discussed in the work) and provide reasons for why the author was effective or   ineffective in making their case.

  • Discuss the relevancy of the topic

Explain to the reader why the lessons and situations found in literature from the past is still applicable today. Along the same lines, if the story or poem was written by a well-known author or philosopher, that can serve to demonstrate its relevance.

  • Even though it’s an opinion piece, avoid using first-person

As a rule, academic writing should always refrain from using the first-person voice (i.e., “I believe…” “In my opinion…” unless the instructions specifically call for it (such as in the case of a personal reflection paper). Instead, write statements such as, “The author’s point is strong because…” and “The author fails to express her point clearly…”

  • Don’t make the summary the focal point of the paper

While a brief summary if the author’s story is necessary to provide your readers with context, remember that the key idea is to express your thoughts, not the author’s.

How to Organize a Good Literary Analysis Essay

  • Write an introduction paragraph for a literary analysis essay

As you are learning how to write a literary analysis, the introduction is critical for capturing the attention of the reader. It also provides a proper foundation. When you begin writing your essay, you will want to use the introduction to note the author’s work, the title of that work, provide information based on the context in which the work was written and the author’s purpose for writing it. Limit the intro to around 10% of the total paper length.

  • Write a thesis for the literary analysis

Make a compelling argument that you plan to defend in the paper. Although it can be strictly critical or supportive, it is not uncommon for the thesis to contain a mix of the two.

  • Write a brief summary of the work

Discuss the main points of the story so that the reader understands its purpose, but limit it to 1/3 of the paper or even less if possible. You can also use this as an opportunity to discuss the structure of the text.

  • Critique the work

As you discover how to write a literary analysis essay, you will note that the critique will be the core of the paper. As previously noted, you should bring up several main points based on the work and either argue in favor of it, discuss its weaknesses or both. Each point should be contained in its own paragraph.

  • Write a conclusion

As you conclude, restate your thesis or opinion. Keep in mind that the conclusion is not intended to be a rehash of what the paper has already stated. Instead, you will want to discuss the broader implications of the work and how it could be made better.