A literary essay analyzes literature

  • A literary essay must be primarily analytical
  • It doesn’t just say what happened (this is simply plot summary and belongs in a book report, not an essay)
  • It doesn’t just say what the theme is but explains how the writer conveys the theme
  • It doesn’t just give examples of something but sets the examples in the context of an argument
  • A literary essay must have an argument at its heart (like a thesis in an expository essay)

A literary essay analyzes literature

  • Example 1
  • “The Forsaken” is a poem about a woman who baits her hook with her own flesh in order to feed her baby.  Years later, she is abandoned by her own children.
  • This statement is not a good basis for an essay.  There is no analysis here; the writer is merely retelling the story.

A literary essay analyzes literature

  • Example 2
  • Roughing it in the Bush demonstrates the narrator’s bitterness, which was the result of her difficult family life and her constant battle with depression.
  • There seems at first sight to be an argument here.  However, it is an impossible one to maintain.

A literary essay analyzes literature

  • Example 3
  • In Samuel Hearne’s “A Journey from Prince of Wale’s Fort in Hudson’s Bay to the Northern Ocean”, Hearne must survive the weather, the lack of food, and battles with hostile natives”.
  • This statement is better than the previous ones, but it isn’t analytical enough.  These are simply three examples of survival.  Even if you competently show how each of these examples figures in the text, the reader is left wondering “so what”?

A literary essay analyzes literature

  • Example 4
  • Hearne’s “A Journey from Prince of Wales Fort in Hudson’s Bay to the Northwest Ocean” vividly describes what it takes to survive physically, yet Hearne must also ensure the survival of his value system.
  • This is a strong, analytical statement.

A literary essay analyzes literature

  • Example 5
  • The Confederation poets frequently use images of change.  The tides, the seasons, the sunrise and sunset: all these are signs of nature running its course.  Lampman’s “The City of the End of Things” switches the focus and depicts a nightmare view, showing what happens in a world without natural change.
  • This is a strong, analytical statement.

A literary essay analyzes literature

  • Example 6
  • Roughing it in the Bush continually emphasizes Moodie’s view that those best fitted for physical survival are not those best fitted for moral survival.
  • This is an excellent, sophisticated statement.

A literary essay analyzes literature

  • Example 7
  • Martel’s Life of Pi shows us how a character’s life is saved by faith.  This redemptive faith is faith in the abstract; the details of what you believe in; the story shows us, do not matter, it is faith itself that is important.
  • This is an excellent, sophisticated statement.

A literary essay analyzes literature

  • Which to use?
  • Examples 4-7 are statements that could lead to a strong essay
  • To do so, the body of the essay must present points that clearly support the argument, along with carefully chosen evidence from the text

Avoid Biography!

  • Avoid arguments based on biology or psychology (real or speculative)
  • You rarely need to include any biographical details in an essay (beyond, perhaps, the date the work was written)

Avoid Evaluation

  • Avoid arguments that attempt to say whether a word is good or bad
  • Essays based on evaluation are a lost cause
  • For the most part, avoid any kind of evaluative statement.  Such statements usually detract from, rather than enhance, your essay.
  • Ex. “In this brilliantly written [highly original/great/incredible] novel…

Avoid making claims you cannot substantiate

  • The reader will question any claim you make that implies:
  • You’ve read all the works by this writer (The Wars is Findlay’s most ironic novel…”
  • You’ve read most of the works in this genre (“Munro is one of the few short story writers to link her characters in a collection of short stories”.
  • You’ve read all of Canadian literature (“The theme of pride dominates Canadian literature”
  • Often claims like these with cause your essay to be rejected for lack of sources

Avoid Far-out interpretations

  • Avoid extreme or far-out arguments (“Father Laurence was secretly in love with Romeo”)
  • Having original ideas about literature is hard, and you aren’t expected to at this level; stick to solid, well thought-out ideas
  • Make sure any argument you make can be supported fully by the text
  • For example, if you argue that a poem is “about loss of faith in God” you must be able to give many examples from the poem itself to support this claim; the poet’s own loss of faith is not sufficient

Use proper literary terms

  • Use the vocabulary of literature accurately
  • Don’t confuse the author with the narrator (of fiction) or the speaker (of a poem)
  • Use literary terms accurately (ex. Novel, short story, sonnet, play, protagonist, satire, etc.)
  • Use a reliable glossary of literary terms to clarify your understanding if necessary

Follow proper literary conventions

  • Write about literature using the present tense
  • Refer to writers by their last name or their first and last name (not just their first, please!)

Keep the focus on what is in the text

  • Keep every point focused on the text itself
  • Include short and highly appropriate quotations from the text


  • Keep quotations short
  • Always ensure the reader knows why you are quoting (what is the quotation showing?)
  • Quote only when the wording is particularly important
  • Quote scrupulously accurately
  • Introduce your quotations so they flow seamlessly into your sentences (while keeping the quotations accurate)
  • Short quotations will become part of the grammar of your sentence; you will not need a colon to introduce them
  • Examples
  • The poem ends with the disturbing image of the “grim idiot at the gate” (87)
  • The hostility of Hearne’s environment frequently manifests itself as extremes.  For example, he is frequently caught between “feasting” and “famine” (31), neither of which is easy to survive.
  • NOTE: for poems, give line numbers; for other works, give page numbers.


  • Ensure your essay has a clear structure
  • Your introduction should tell the reader how your essay will be organized
  • Usually, you can do this subtly; however, it’s better to have a heavy-handed statement about your structure than none at all
  • Paragraphs
  • Write your essay in paragraphs
  • One paragraph, one point
  • Avoid very short sentences (anything less than 4 sentences is probably underdeveloped; develop the point more or scrap it)
  • Avoid very long paragraphs (anything londer than half a page is probably too long; split into sub-points)
  • Introductions
  • Don’t waste time on a long general introduction
  • State your topic and the work you are writing about within the first two or three sentences
  • At all costs, avoid giving dictionary definitions (ex. Avoid “the dictionary defines isolation as…”)

Write Clearly!

  • Write in complete, grammatically correct sentences
  • Structure sentences carefull; don’t allow long sentences to veer off track
  • Punctuate accurately; avoid run-on sentences!
  • Be careful with the pronouns it, this, that and which: these pronouns must stand in for specific nouns, not general ideas (ex. “This/It/Which shows that the …”)
  • Avoid vague phrasing and sweeping generalizations (ex.  “All human begins at one time or another struggle with issues stemming from pride.”)

Edit out deadwood

  • Edit your essay specifically to get rid of words that don’t need to be there
  • Simply delete expressions such as “I believe” “I fell” and “in my opinion”; the essay itself is your opinion, se these expressions are redundant and weaken your tone
  • Watch for redundancies such as “red in colour”, “completely surround”, “large in size” (these are just examples of common redundancies)
  • Make every word count

Summary: An essay should show…

  • You have read the work closely and understand it thoroughly
  • You have not confused the writer with the narrator  and you have paid attention to subtleties
  • You have explored how the work creates the effect it does (ex. You’ve looked at the type of narrator and the tone, the structure, the form, the type of characterization, the recurring imagery)
  • You have thought about the work and attempted to find meaning in it
  • You have structured your essay around a central idea
  • You’ve written good paragraphs
  • You’ve made your points using concrete, accurate details based on the text
  • You’ve avoided vague statements
  • You have written your essay and re-worked it to ensure you have a strong structure
  • You are comfortable with the basic vocabulary of literary analysis
  • You know how to quote effectively
  • You write in complete and properly structured sentences
  • You write with attention to grammar and punctuation
  • You’ve proofread to eliminate careless mistakes
  • You’ve used the correct mechanical conventions


  • Ensure you have the basic mechanical conventions correct
  • Double-space
  • Follow MLA conventions for citing (you must include a Works Cited list, even if you’ve used only the primary source); give page/line numbers for every quotation; use proper quoting conventions
author avatar
William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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