Reading Logs/Helps For Literary Analysis Papers


Feelings: Give words that sum up your feelings about a piece of literature, (e.g., sad, boring, exciting, intriguing).

Questions: Ask about the things that puzzle you--be in dialogue with the author, ask questions that you might want my response to--though I can't promise I will always have "the" answer; I will try to give some response, (e.g., I wonder why the author . . . ? Or if you wish, use direct address, Why did you? Or question a character.).

Images: Take time to record what images you like or don't like--focus on the description writers use, (e.g., What pictures do you get in your mind as you read? Describe these with full sensory responses).

Favorite (or detested) words and phrases: Here you want to focus on the language writers use. Remember repeated words or phrases are often conventions used to help convey the theme or other aspect the writer wants us to grasp.

Echoes: (of other books, stories, poetry, movies, television programs, headlines, songs)

Reactions: To characters or events (e.g., Why was Aeneas so cruel to Dido that he'd leave without telling her?)

Memories: How does the reading cause you to remember people, events, places you've known?

Connections: How do you relate what you've read to other ideas, people, feelings, books, etc.?

Clustering: Put a key word--maybe the title of the reading--in the center of your page; circle the word and then branch off giving related words or ideas as they come to you.

Note Taking and Note Making: With Note Taking, you are generally recording facts--like the details of who a character is, or the direct quote that gives the exact words of the text. With Note Making, you are providing feelings and responses that engage you with the text.

Write a Letter: To a character, to someone else who has read the text, to your professor--all these are possibilities for response.

Time Lines: Do a Time Line of events putting the events you view as positive above the line, those you view as negative, below the line.

Venn Diagrams: When setting up comparisons or contrasts, use Venn Diagrams to see what overlaps from each.


It might be helpful to have some reminders (probably you did a literary analysis essay for ENGL 102) to assist you as you go about doing two more papers for 201.

Most often you will be doing one of three things (and these three tasks frequently overlap)--describe, evaluate, interpret a text. Here's a brief description of each approach.

The Descriptive Critical Essay: The main question you are trying to answer with this kind of essay is, how does this literary text work? How does it get its meaning across? You are working here with "poetics"--the study of the codes and conventions, the recurring patterns and familiar structures, that make it possible for the text to have meaning. The advantage of the descriptive essay is that it gives you an entry into the workings of the text. The conventions and anticonventions you describe are not difficult to uncover and are relatively easy to defend or "prove"--they are there, in black and white, between the covers of the book. The disadvantage of writing a descriptive essay is that it can be tricky to develop your topic into an argument or thesis, an answer to the question, "So what?" When you are accounting for the obvious, as many critics do, some creative thinking is necessary for placing your observations in an interesting, provocative context.

The Evaluative Critical Essay: This kind of essay asks about a literary text, "Is it any good?" It's a question that has no trouble addressing the "So what?" of criticism--if the poem, play or novel is "good," it is worth reading; if it's "bad," it's a waste of time; except what keeps this criticism alive is that readers' standards differ.

The common form of the evaluative essay is the book review. You will actually not be doing the kind of book review that professionals do. Your number one requirement for the evaluative essay is a clear standard or set of standards by which you are making a judgment. You need to make these standards explicit. You need to find textual reasons for whatever claim you are making, and it would be good to have a comparison of what is good or strong or whatever is the opposite of the critique you are making. The challenge of the evaluative essay is to write it persuasively, alluding to the possibilities for opposition to your argument, and answering potential objections with specific commentary on passages from the text.

The Interpretive Critical Essay: This is the most common type of essay students do; the main question you ask is "What does this text mean?" A critical essay always raises questions about meaning. To write a descriptive essay is to address the question: How does this work transmit meaning? To write an evaluative essay is to ask: Why is it worthwhile to think about this text's meaning? And to write an interpretive essay is to ask: What does this work mean? How you find and present a meaning will depend on the strategy of interpretation you choose to apply.

The best interpretive essays do three things:

  1. They establish the strategy by which you choose to find meaning;
  2. They "read" or "interpret" the work in question according to that strategy, giving lots of examples from the text; and
  3. They make a point or an argument.

Simply paraphrasing the work in your own words is not the same as interpreting it, because a paraphrase will not answer the question, "So what?" You need to place the work's ideas in some context, in order to write persuasively about it.

Steps to Help You Develop Your Essay:

  1. Take notes--underline, highlight, star, or in some way mark all the passages that interest you.
  2. Use your journal--this is an ideal source of inspiration.
  3. Ask questions--"watch yourself reading," mark the parts of the text which you find moving, persuasive, confusing, or difficult. Write out your questions as they occur--these can lead to a thesis.
  4. Look at the text's form--try to analyze the structure and see if it offers some significance.
  5. Look for familiar moves--Identify the literary conventions of the text. Ask yourself where you've seen these conventions before. If the work you are studying is either remarkably conventional or noticeably unconventional, this could lead to a thesis.
  6. Interpret figures of speech--think about the imagery or figurative language used in the text. What symbolic patterns emerge? What are the vehicle or the tenor of the metaphors you find? Is there any way to read the text as an allegory for ideas it doesn't mention directly?
  7. Look up unfamiliar words--Especially with poetry and especially if the work was written before the twentieth century, it's key for you to understand the meanings of the words or the sense in which the words are used.

Formulating the Essay:

  1. Make connections--look for patterns
  2. Create a thesis--identify a "So what?"
  3. Generate some ideas
  4. Formulate a thesis
  5. Organize the essay--shape your argument, build in transitions, don't suppress conflict