How Do I Write a Good Literary Analysis Paper for English Class?

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Answered by: Bri, An Expert in the Writing Quality Essays Category
No college degree or high school diploma can be obtained without passing a few English classes. The requirements will vary widely by class and teacher, but most students, at some time, have to write a literary analysis paper. This may be hard even if you love literature, but if you aren't much of a reader or writer, it can sometimes be hard to wrap your head around the requirements of the assignment. You may not even know what literary analysis is -- often the teacher doesn't thoroughly explain it, and many students are lost. Here's what you need to know to get through it.

I should first mention what will NOT get you an "A" on your paper. It is not supposed to be a book review; saying that you liked or disliked the book, even if explaining why, is not sufficient at the college or high school level; neither is summarizing what happened in the book, although a brief summary is often a good way to introduce the paper, and you will usually have to paraphrase (restate) parts of the book to illustrate your point.

In order to write a true analysis, instead of a book report, you must understand the book and be able to say in your own words what you believe the book is about, what the author's reasons might have been for writing it, and what ideas are described or implied in it. You may be asked to point out literary devices ("tricks" that the author uses to make the writing more powerful), themes (the idea or topic that the book is about), metaphors and symbols (things that mean other things), and historical context (how the work relates to the time and place in which it was written).

The assignment will usually instruct you to make an argument -- to take an opinion about some aspect of the book, and state reasons (give evidence) to support that opinion. You will typically get your evidence from within the book itself. Even if you are not being asked to quote and cite sources, it is still useful to point out what parts of the book lead you to think whatever you think about it. Take note of page numbers and underline or copy down important parts.

If you have trouble understanding the book you are instructed to write about, you will not be able to analyze it. To help with this, try talking to other students about what they think the meaning is. Look for articles on the internet about what other people think the book is about, but don't use their words -- take it as an example and make your own point in your own words. Don't be afraid to ask the teacher for another explanation, or for a class discussion. It's their job to make sure you know how to get to the answers.

And remember, literature is not math -- there is not exactly a right and a wrong, just understanding and not understanding. If you try to write the analysis without ever really having read the book, you won't understand, and it won't really be analysis at all. Copying the Cliffs Notes explanation of a Shakespeare play might get you a good grade on that paper, if it's well-written, but you will probably not learn the skills you need to pass future classes or participate in a discussion of the work. Worse, your teacher might realize that you faked the whole thing and give you a lower grade than you would have gotten with an honest attempt.

Of course, even the best argument you can construct in a paper will get you a low grade if your language skills suffer. Remember that spelling, grammar, punctuation and formatting require a lot of rule memorization, and have nothing to do with your level of intelligence. Formal essay writing has its own rules that aren't the same as the way we speak. (Some writing can reflect speech, like creative fiction and free-verse poetry.)

People with regional accents, or people who learned to read and write later in life, will find some of these differences hard to cope with. If you have trouble with these parts of the writing process, take advantage of spellcheck and school tutors. Read lots of examples of college-level essays in textbooks and on the internet to get a feel for the way school writing is done. Edit your work carefully. Have other people read it, and read it aloud yourself, before you print the final version. Sometimes rushing through without proofreading can make differences of whole letter grades.

One last piece of advice: make sure you understand what the teacher is asking you to do. Read over the instructions carefully and ask about anything that isn't clear to you. A well-written paper that is off-topic or ignores instructions can sometimes receive an "F". If you follow through all these steps, and put your full effort into your writing and reading, you will be able to write a literary analysis paper that satisfies your class requirements and teaches you something as well. Anyone who can read can do it!

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