Monthly Archives: December 2011

Literary Analysis: How to analyze a book or poem for class and writing assignments

This section of the presentation focused on properly analyzing a literary work when writing a literary analysis.  It is separated into several sections that I will cover in this post.

Guidelines for writing a literary critical analysis

What is a literary critical analysis?

Basically, in a literary critical analysis you are explaining a work through interpretation.  You are not doing a plot summary, but you instead find passages of which you do a close reading.  These passages will help you deepen and expand your understanding of the work.

What is an interpretation?

According to the PowerPoint, “™An interpretation is an individual response that addresses meaning.”  You form an interpretation when you examine the text through close reading.  Your interpretation will usually lead to the thesis of your paper.

How do you conduct an “in-depth” examination of a text?

First you must consider the title to the work, for the title can usually give you a clue or starting point in your analysis.  Next you should identify character, setting, conflict, narrator, rhyme, meter etc.  Try to determine if the author is doing anything interesting, new, or different in the story.  For example, does the main character undergo a change in the novel?  Is the poem doing something interesting with meter?  Other things to consider are if you can identify the author’s intention, the theme of the work, or any symbols that may appear.

How do you prove your interpretation?

You need to find passages that support your viewpoint.  For example, if you are focusing on how the color white is symbolized in Moby Dick, you need to find passages in the novel where the color white is used to back up your interpretation.

Where do you find evidence to support your interpretation?

You first use the literary work you are discussing.  You also use secondary sources in the form of published critical essays in order to further cement your argument.

How much of the story should you retell in a critical analysis?

Remember, a literary analysis is not a plot summary.  Assume that the reader of your essay has already read the work you are discussing.  Sometimes a little summary is necessary to explain the specific passage you are highlighting, but the main focus of a literary analysis is supporting your thesis not retelling the plot.

What should be documented in a critical analysis?

If you are quoting secondary sources, or if you are directly quoting your literary work, you must include a citation in order to avoid plagiarism.  If you are summarizing a literary scene or event you do not have to include a citation.

For a literary analysis you must use MLA style.  If you have any questions about MLA style, the Owl Purdue Writing Lab is a good place to visit – I always have the page open when writing a paper:

Analyzing a passage.

In order to explain your interpretation of the text, you must use supporting evidence through passages from the work.  You cannot simply quote a passage, however.  After using a direct quote from a passage, you must explain the quote’s significance in regards to your interpretation.  Always remember that your goal in your literary analysis is to form a new understanding of the text.

How to analyze a text.

When reading or rereading the text, make sure you identify interesting passages that deal with character, symbolism, etc.  When rereading the text you will probably search for specific passages that highlight your interpretation and thesis.  Do a close reading of these passages in order to gain a new understanding of the text in regards to your interpretation.  The close reading will form the explanation for the passage’s significance in your paper.

Principles of analyzing a passage

The following principles will be directly quoted from the PowerPoint.

  1. ™Offer a thesisor topic sentence indicating a basic observation or assertion about the text or passage.
  2. ™Offer a context for the passage without offering too much summary.
  3. ™Cite the passage (using correct format).
  4. ™Then follow the passage with some combination of the following elements:
  5. –Discuss what happens in the passage and why it is significant to the work as a whole.
  6. –Consider what is said, particularly subtleties of the imagery and the ideas expressed.
  7. –Assess how it is said, considering how the word choice, the ordering of ideas, sentence structure, etc., contribute to the meaning of the passage.
  8. –Explain what it means, tying your analysis of the passage back to the significance of the text as a whole.
  9. ™Repeat the process of context, quotation and analysis with additional support for your thesis or topic sentence.

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Filed under 10 Things I Wish I Had Known as an English Major, Freshman year, Sophomore year, Upperclassman

Writing Papers: Tips on writing a literary analysis

The PowerPoint for the 10 Things presentation contains some basic tips to follow when writing a literary analysis.  I will provide them here with a little extra advice.

Keep yourself out of your analysis.

When writing a paper you need to use third person.  Third person means you use words such as he, she, one, etc.  You do not use first person (I) or second person (you).  The reason you use third person is it keeps your paper objective.  You are trying to prove a point using facts – not simply stating your personal opinion.

Sometimes, however, some professors actually want you to include your own thoughts in the paper.  Therefore, they may be alright with you using first person.  You have to check with your professor to see what his/her requirements and expectations are.

Avoid summarizing the plot (i.e., retelling the story literally).

To put it simply, your professor has already read the book (probably several times).  He/she does not need to have the plot thrown back at him/her.  The whole point of a literary analysis is you are actually analyzing the text.  Therefore, you need to create a thesis (argument about the text) and use examples from the text to back up your argument.

Include a clear thesis statement.

Back in high school my AP English teacher my junior year had us highlight our thesis statement for every paper we wrote for her.  The whole point of highlighting the thesis statement was to make sure we knew how to create a clear one.  Your thesis statement should be meaningful and bring up a topic that can be argued about.

In other words, you cannot state a fact.  For instance, you cannot say, “Iago’s lies lead to Othello’s murder of Desdemona.”  That is a fact in the play.  Instead you would say, “Part of the great tragedy of Othello is the fact that despite the lack of racial prejudice against Othello in Venice, Iago is able to create a situation that leads to Othello’s downfall.”  The thesis is stating that Othello’s downfall is not linked to his race but solely to Iago, which is a statement that can be argued with; many scholars link Othello’s treatment to race.

Use literary terms to discuss your points.

In other words, talk about character, point of view, alliteration, rhyme, etc.  I’m sure at some point in an English class you had to memorize literary terms.  If not, there are books available that you can reference.  For example, instead of saying that Moby Dick is a story about the hunt for a whale, you would say, “The white whale Moby Dick is a symbol for death, since the color white throughout the novel is linked to death.”

Do not confuse characters’ (in fiction or drama) or speakers’ (in poetry) viewpoints with authors’ viewpoints.

In other words, just because a character or narrator says something in a story, it does NOT mean that is the author’s viewpoint.  The author’s viewpoint can be completely different from his or her narrator.  Furthermore, the author is not the narrator (unless it’s an autobiography or you are told otherwise).  So be careful when writing your paper to specify between the narrator/character and the author.  For example, it is Hamlet who states, “To be or not to be,” not Shakespeare.

Write the paper in your own words and form your own opinion.

In other words, while you will be using quotations and paraphrasing passages from the novel and arguments by critics, you must make sure that the majority of the paper is your own argument.  If you use too many quotations and paraphrases you are heading into plagiarism territory.

Also, you must form your own thesis and arguments – don’t just use the opinion of a critic.  The whole point of a literary analysis is to draw your own opinion about the novel.  Now, you will need to see what other critics are saying to back up your argument, but you cannot rely on only their opinion (you may not even agree with everything they say anyway).


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University Resources: The Writing Center, the Library, Online Journals

This post is going to cover helpful resources at South Alabama for English majors (or anyone that needs to write a paper regardless of major).  More than likely most colleges and universities probably have these resources so anyone reading should find this information useful.  Again, I’m using the PowerPoint from the 10 Things seminar held in November.

The Writing Center

A writing center is there to help students (and professors!) with writing at any stage.  You can go in if you need to brainstorm a topic or you can go in to have a draft of your paper proofread or critiqued.  Your writing center should include people that know and reference material for a variety of paper styles such as MLA, APA, Chicago, etc., so no matter what class you are writing for, making an appointment with the writing center may be a good idea if you’re stuck or want a second pair of eyes to see your paper.

USA Library Online

Our library at South Alabama has an online catalog so you can search for reference material for papers from home.  Therefore, you can save yourself a trip if the library does not have what you are looking for.  South Alabama also has access to electronic books from different databases, so that is another option when doing research.

The tool that I use most often when doing research is the indexes and databases such as JSTOR that contains links to journal articles.  South Alabama pays for students to be able to access many different databases from a variety of subjects, and I’m sure most (if not all) colleges and universities have a way for students to access them.  Since there are a wide range of databases that cover a variety of subjects, more than likely you’ll be covered no matter what class you are taking.  Reviewing journal articles can be a good first step to take when trying to come up with a topic for a paper, since you can see what academics and researchers are already studying in your topic or area of study.

Another feature at South Alabama and other universities is interlibrary loan.  Sometimes your school’s library does not have a copy of a certain book or journal you want to use, and you cannot find an online article or digital copy of the text.  Therefore, another option is using the interlibrary loan to see if another university has it and can ship it to South for you to check out.  I did this once and received the book I needed a few days later.  One of my professors says he always gets his the next day or so, therefore it generally does not take a long time.

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The English Honors Program: And Why You Should Enroll

At South we have a specific honors program for English majors that requires you to write a thesis.  It is an option for students who want to write a longer paper since the English major does not require a thesis to graduate.  I’m going to use the PowerPoint from the seminar to lists reasons to try out the program and what is involved in the program.

Top 3 Reasons to Enroll

  1. It looks great on your resume and graduate school application.
  2. The Honors Thesis requires you to write a lengthy, advanced seminar paper that will come in handy once you begin applying to graduate schools.
  3. You will be required to work closely with at least one professor on your seminar paper, which will improve the quality of your references when you apply to graduate school.

What is Involved

  • Complete all the standard requirements for the major in English.
  • Maintain a 3.5 overall GPA (University requirement) and a 3.5 GPA in all course work in English.
  • Receive permission from the Department Chair and agreement from a Department member to serve as mentor.
  • Complete a Senior Honors Thesis (EH 499), with a grade of “A” or “B” in addition to the standard requirements for the English major.
  • EH 499, Senior Honors Thesis (six semester hours credit), may be counted toward three hours of the 36 hours required for the major and toward three hours of the nine 400-level hours required for the major. Thus, the student receiving honors in English will be required to take a total of 39 hours in English instead of 36.
  • In EH 499 the student will normally take three hours in the Fall semester for research and three in the Spring for writing. A final committee of three or more faculty members, including a representative of the University Honors Program, will conduct an oral defense. The thesis must be approved by the director of the University Honors Program.

I didn’t take part in the Honors Program, but if you’re planning to go to grad school it’s a good idea.  One reason is you have to send in papers when you are applying for grad school, so this would be a perfect opportunity to have something worthwhile prepared.  Another reason is you have to write a thesis in grad school, so this program can prepare you for that process.  It also looks good on a resume to show you took the extra step to get involved in the program.

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Required Courses: The Classes You Will Need to Graduate

In the original presentation, this post listed out specific classes English majors and English minors need to take to graduate at the University of South Alabama.  I know most readers probably are not going to college at South, so I am going to give a more general overview instead.

1. Survey Sequence

At South we are required to have a survey sequence of either American lit, British lit, or World lit.  Basically a survey sequence consists of  a course that covers earlier works in American/British/World lit and a second course that consists of later to contemporary works in American/British/World lit.  You should choose what sequence to study based upon what you are most interested in.  I wound up doing the American literature sequence and also had the first survey course of World lit.

TIP from the PowerPoint: The GRE English Subject Test poses questions on a wide range of literary works often covered in these survey courses.

2. Majors: One Literature Prior to 1660

Basically, South offers a lot of classes that fall into this category that range from classes on Shakespeare, to Middle English, to Milton.  I wound up taking a class on Shakespeare’s Histories and Tragedies and a class on Middle English.  I wound up enjoying the Shakespeare class more than I thought I would (I’m one of the rare English majors that is not in love with Shakespeare), and Middle English was cool because we were basically learning another language.  I also really enjoyed some of the works we covered in Middle English such as Havlok and La Morte D’arthur.

TIP from the PowerPoint: Shakespeare and Milton are both on the GRE English Subject Test.

3. Majors: One British or American Literature 1660-1900

These classes are generally focused on 18th century literature or the rise of the American and British novel.  I took a class on the American novel to 1900 and the 18th century British novel.  Both classes were very interesting because they focus on the creation of the novel as a form and what it means to be a novel.

TIP from the PowerPoint: The English Comp exam, which can replace the thesis option for graduate students, tests on one genre and one period (19th century novel, medieval poetry, etc).

4. Majors: One 20th Century Literature

These classes focus on modern and postmodern literature, poetry, and film.  I wound up taking a class that focused on the American novel after 1900 and contemporary black fiction.  The American novel course was interesting because I really enjoy modern and postmodern works – postmodern works can sometimes include contemporary material which is more relateable to current culture.  Contemporary black fiction was really cool; every novel I read was interesting and gave me a whole new perspective on different issues.  I had never heard of most of the authors before, so I really feel like I benefited from the course.

5. Majors: One of the following courses in Criticism, Theory, Rhetoric

Honestly, if you plan on going to grad school you should probably take all of them.  Since I didn’t want to go to grad school right away, I just took the literary criticism after 1900 course.  We focused on theory that ranged from formalism to deconstruction to post-colonialism.  The class was difficult yet very useful and provides insight for different ways to read texts.

TIP from the PowerPoint: Anyone planning to attend graduate school should consider taking both LitCrit classes.

6. Majors: Other Requirements.

We also have to have 6 elective courses (which are pulled from the categories listed previously) and 3 of our courses have to be 400 level.  We also need two writing intensive courses.

7. Requirements for a Minor in English

If you are going to use English as a minor, try to pick courses that complement your major.  For instance, if your major is education you will want to take classes that look at different approaches to grammar or look at theory and practice for composition.  If your major is business, nursing, etc. you may want to take a class that focuses on writing for different professions or one of the technical writing classes.  And if you are a communication major, the film classes or technical writing classes may be of interest.

8. A Minor in English: Professional Writing

Professional and technical writing courses teach you how to write documents for a workplace such as technical reports, memos, grants, etc.  There are jobs out there that pay pretty well for people able to write for technical reports and grants and sometimes you can use your writing skills to write about something of personal interest.  For example, if you know a lot about automobiles and enjoy tinkering with your car, you may be able to get a job writing technical reports for automobiles.

TIP from the PowerPoint: A great minor for anyone going into a technical or business-related profession, such as business, criminal justice, nursing, higher education, education, and so on.

9. English Senior Portfolio

At South we have a portfolio to turn in our senior year that features two papers we wrote for an English class and a reflection letter that discusses the papers chosen and our experience with the English department.  The English department basically uses the information to assess whether or not they are doing a good job.  I think it’s great that the department has such a program in place, since it shows they are willing to respond to feedback and make positive changes if necessary.

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Tips for Success Part II

8. Choose electives wisely.

Make sure that when you choose your electives you tailor them for your plans after college.  If you want to go to graduate school, you may want to take more rhetoric and theory classes.  If you plan on going into the workforce, you may consider taking technical writing classes.  By taking the right undergraduate classes, you may be more prepared for your plans after graduation.

9. English majors: Choose a minor wisely.

A history minor can be useful in order to understand the historical and political context of a work.  If you plan on going to grad school you may want to consider a foreign language minor since you’ll have to pass a foreign language test to get your master’s.  A philosophy minor is great since it will focus on a lot of the theory and rhetoric you will be studying in English, and a communication minor is a great way to gain more practical writings skills for a future job.  I choose the communication route, and my first job after graduation will deal with writing and designing for public relations and marketing.

10. Read widely, and not just novels.

In order to understand references, allusions, and different contexts in literature you have to have a wide background of knowledge.  The great thing about an arts and science degree is you will automatically have to take a wide variety of classes and subjects, but you will have to supplement those classes with even more reading of a variety of texts to learn more about philosophy, culture, politics, etc.

11. Get to know your professors.

I have already included some reasons why you should get to know your professors, but they can be helpful in other ways too.  Professors have a wealth of knowledge (as they should – they spent a lot of time gaining their degree and have been in an academic setting for most of their lives) and can help you if you’re having problems with your papers.  A lot of professors can be fun just to talk to as well, and normally if I go to a professor for help on a paper we’ll wind up spending the last half hour of our meeting discussing literature, current events, or our interests and hobbies.

12. Don’t second guess your decision.

I have to admit…I’m guilty of this one.  But if English is really your passion then you should go for it.  Don’t be afraid that you won’t be able to find a job (or will just be able to teach) because that is simply not the case.  In a later post I will discuss in detail different jobs and ways you can use your English major so don’t let that hold you back.

In case you missed it, here’s Part I.

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Tips for Success Part I

The first section of the 10 Things series includes basic tips for freshmen and sophomores that are just beginning their journey as an English major or minor.  I am using the PowerPoint presentation from the seminar that was held this semester as a guideline to follow for each post.

1. Take classes in numerical order.

Basically, you should start taking 100 level and 200 level classes before moving on to 300 and 400 level classes.  It seems like it would be common sense, but trust me.  I’ve had too many upper level classes where some of my classmates did not seem to understand the material.  The reason why you take lower level classes first is these classes will help you build skills and knowledge you will need before taking upper level classes.

For example, when you’re writing a paper for a 400 level class, you want to know how to write a strong thesis and understand how to properly read and use critical theory.  If you try to jump straight into the class without knowing this information beforehand you will struggle.

2. Avoid taking more than two English classes in the same semester.

Honestly, I’ve taken three English courses in the same semester and have been fine, but you have to be able to handle the workload.  English classes entail a LOT of reading and will usually require two or more papers.  When you hit your 300 to 400 level classes, these papers can sometimes be longer than 10 pages and will no longer be those simple 3-5 papers that you’re used to.

Besides, when you have a nice mix of classes you engage your mind in different ways and sometimes learn new ideas you would not have otherwise.  Furthermore, you don’t want to burn out on English in a semester and then hate your major the rest of your undergraduate career.

3. Always read the assigned book.

Again, this seems like common sense.  However, many students have gotten through high school relying solely on Sparknotes, and honestly if you’re like that English is probably the wrong department for you.  When you get to your 200-400 level classes, you are  expected to engage in classroom discussion on the reading and usually have to take quizzes to make sure you’re keeping up with the reading.  Many times professors still have you take a mid-term and a final, and in order to write strong papers you have to have read the book first.

4. Get involved in class discussions.

Class discussion is a critical part of the English learning experience.  If the same people are always adding to class discussion, then their ideas are the only ones that will ever circulate.  Don’t be afraid to voice your ideas and add to class discussion; you may bring up an idea no one else had thought of and get people thinking in a different direction.

I have to admit, I’ve had some classes where it seems like the discussion only consisted of me and my professor because other students were either afraid to say anything or hadn’t done the reading like they should.  I’ve had professors ask me outside of class to try not to speak up since my classmates rely on me to say something so they don’t have to; they wanted to force the other students to say something for a change.  It was the most frustrating part of my college career, because I feel like I learn more about texts when others bring up new ideas.  If I’m the only one talking, then how am I gaining anything from the class?

5. Always, always, always go to class.

If you don’t go to class, you may miss out on new ideas/relevant information from the classroom discussion.  Those ideas could have made the difference in the grade of your next paper or could show up on the mid-term.  Besides, when you go to class everyday you build a relationship with your professor, especially if you regularly add to class discussion.  A good relationship with your professor could lead to a detailed recommendation letter when you’re applying for jobs or grad school or could even mean your B+ gets bumped up to an A at the end of the semester.

6. Brush up on grammar and style.

Keep a handbook or style guide around to reference for when you have questions.  You can have a well written paper that includes a strong thesis and innovative ideas, but if your grammar is poor that will bring down your grade.

7. Begin writing assignments as early as possible.

It is better to schedule some time to have someone else look at your paper and give you suggestions for improvement.  If anything, it is a good idea to give yourself a day or so to review your paper yourself, because you’re probably going to miss some mistakes if you proofread it right after it has been written.

To read the rest, head over to Part II.


Filed under 10 Things I Wish I Had Known as an English Major, Freshman year, Sophomore year