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Literary Analysis Writing Guide


-The definition of analyzing is to answer the “Why?” and often the “How?” questions. If you have not done that, you have not written an analytical essay. 

-  Although you should avoid plot summary in your essay, you should use specific details from the stories to support your main points, and you will also want to quote words, phrases, or possibly whole sections.

- Outline your paper before you start; collect points and examples.  You seldom need to move chronologically through the work.

- Do not overlook the obvious; writers like to reveal truth, not conceal it.  So look for surface meaning too, not only hidden meaning.  

- In literature, there is often more than one “right answer ” as literature is open to interpretation, by its very nature. The only wrong interpretations are those that contradict or ignore what the work actually says.

-Use appropriate literary terminology within the essay. Instead of writing, “and the next thing that happened was,” write “the next episode

-Remember that the narrator in prose and the speaker in a poem are often not the writer or poet. For example, In “Rose for Emily,” Faulkner did not say that “the Griersons held themselves too high.” Faulkner wrote the line; a narrator speaks the line. And in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Frost does not say he has “miles to go before he sleeps.” Frost wrote the line; a speaker delivers the line.

-Use present tense for plot description.  A literary work is not history; the writer still speaks to us in the poem or story.

- Do not us 2nd person pronoun “you.”

-  Do not preface statements with “I think...”, “I believe…” or “I know…” Instead, simply make the statement you intended. This does not add content to the analysis, and often, the use of first person pronouns is too informal for literary analysis.

-Do not use contractions in any form of formal writing, including literary analysis.

-Do not refer to writers by first names alone. Unless you know an individual personally, when using only one name to identify the person in writing, always use the last name.

-Follow directions re. whether you are required or allowed to use research to support your analysis. Whenever you do use research, YOU MUST CITE THE SOURCE OF YOUR IDEAS, whether you quote the source or paraphrase it. The citations must be use parenthetically at the end of the section where you used the material within the essay as well as included on the works cited list at the end of the paper. Failure to use appropriate citation is a form of plagiarism, intentional or not, so it is an extremely serious issue.



1.         Titles

Italicize titles of books, magazines, movies, and long poems (book length).  But, use quotation marks around titles of poems, articles, short stores, and chapters.

            Sometimes a short title can be used, especially if the full title has appeared earlier in the paper. For example: Shelley’s “West Wind” illustrates the inspiration that may be drawn from nature.  Not:  Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” illustrates the inspiration that may be drawn from nature.


2.         Punctuation and Citation

a.         Commas and periods always come inside closing quotation marks, no matter how short the quoted matter is—even a single word.


                        The duke said, “I have commands, and all smiles stopped together.”

          The line “the two hearts beating each to each,” indicates the lovers are happy.          

b.         Use a comma before a quotation that makes a complete sentence.

Example:  The rider says, “He will not see me stopping here.” 

Even though that sentence in the poem goes further, the quoted section here still makes a complete statement. You should not quote more than you need of a sentence to prove your point.

c.         Use a colon before a quoted passage that is more than one sentence or a quotation that is set off or centered:


            The psalmist says:  “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me.  Thy rod and thy staff, they

            comfort me."


            The poet begins emphatically:

                        Let me knot to the marriage of true minds

                        Admit impediments.  Love is not love

                        Which alters when it alteration finds,

                        Or bends with the remover to remove.

You may introduce a quotation without such a word as “says” or “begins” if you use a colon and if the wording to the left of the colon makes a complete statement.

 Example:  In the two last lines the poet leaves room for no doubt about the truth he has been expressing:  “If this be error and upon me proved,/I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”

d.         If, however, you are quoting only a phrase or clause, which does not make a complete statement, do not use any punctuation before or after the quotation marks—unless some other feature of the sentence structure calls for punctuation. 

             Example: The little flower is “at its play” when the frost beheads it.

e.         After all direct quotes in short stories or novels, put the page number locating the quote at the end of the sentence in parenthesis.

             Example: Armand had grown cold to Desiree when he said, “Yes, go” (33).

After direct quotes of poetry, put use the line number in parenthesis.

Example: In her poem “This is a Poet,” Dickinson says a poet is that which “distills amazing sense from ordinary meaning” (3). 

If quoting more than one line of poetry or plays, use forward slash to separate the lines.

Example: “To be, or not to be / That is the question” (II.iii.6-7).

After direct quotes of plays, put the scene, act, line numbers in parenthesis.

Example: “To be, or not to be” (II.iii.6).

If the quote is over four lines long, indent the section ten spaces and remove quotation marks, unless the quoted dialogue already has quotation marks in it. In this case only, the period at the end is in front of the parenthetical citation of the page number.

Page last updated: April 2, 2014