How to Write a Classification Essay in Literature: Everything You Need to Know

Writing guide
Posted on April 22, 2020

The purpose of a classification essay is rather straightforward: you have to classify, organize or divide a set of things into categories. The concept of a ‘thing’ is purely relative here – when dealing with literature, you can discuss theories, literary works, authors, schools of writing, genres, trends in literary thought and so on. Sometimes your instructor gives you a set of things to classify; sometimes he/she just assigns a general direction in which your research should move and leaves it at that.

Anyway, classification essay is a very popular type of assignment in literature studies, for a variety of reasons. It helps you organize what you already know on the subject of your course and create templates into which you will be able to fit the knowledge you acquire later. It improves your analytical ability and motivates you to look closer at what makes each work of literature, author and school of writing unique and distinctive. In other words, you can expect to deal with your fair share of classification essays in your time – and this guide will help you with it.

Preparatory Work

Choosing the Topic

Unless your instructor assigns a topic, you have to pick one yourself. The specific feature of choosing a topic for a classification essay is that you have to do most of the research before you do it. You cannot start with choosing a topic because (unless you are very familiar with the general area of research) it may turn out that the preliminary classification you had in mind falls apart as you start gathering information. Therefore, before you finalize your topic with your instructor, you have to gather enough info to be sure there are enough categories, and you can find enough examples for each category.

In the long run, the choice of topic for a classification essay boils down to selecting what you intend to classify and determining a single organizing principle. Here are some examples:

  • Classification of the Most Prominent 20th Century Writers Based on Their Affiliation to Literary Movements;
  • Classification of Literary Movements Based on Their Countries of Origin;
  • Classification of Science Fiction Based on the Role of Science in the Narrative;
  • 19th Century British Writers Classified by the Genres They Wrote In;
  • 20th Century American Writers Classified by the Primary Topics of Their Works.

Write a Thesis Statement

Just like in any other type of academic assignment, a thesis statement here is the primary idea of your essay expressed in short form (no more than a couple sentences). For a classification essay, it usually involves delineating the topic (what type or group of things you intend to classify or sort) and describing how you are going to classify it (your organizing principle) in a clear and straightforward language. If you like, you can also enumerate the categories as well.

Gather Information

Even if you think you know enough about the subject matter, you cannot build your entire classification essay on this knowledge. A deeper study of the topic can point out new information that will seriously influence the way your classification should work. Therefore, you should first do a bit of research, and for that, you will need sources of information.

  • Ask your instructor. He/she can point out a few publications that are likely to contain the data that can be useful in your research;
  • Go to your college library and consult a librarian. If the library has dedicated specialists on your general area of study, you can expect a good selection of recommendations to work with;
  • Go through a few online academic databases. Google Scholar and EBSCO are good places to start;
  • Go through the bibliography sections of the papers you have already found. Names that crop up in them more than a couple of times are likely to be important authorities on the subject that deserve special attention.

Evaluate the Quality of Your Sources

Even if your purpose is mere classification, you should not blindly trust everything you find in a printed source. Different publications have wildly different value, and you should take it into account when judging the reliability of information you find in them. The most commonly used approach to evaluating sources is called CRAAP and suggests that you pay attention to:

  • Currency – when was it published? Was the information in the source superseded by other, later publications? Is all the information up to date?
  • Relevance – does the publication contain information relevant to your classification?
  • Authority – who is the author? Is he/she an authority on the subject? Does he/she have the necessary credentials to pass judgments on the topic?
  • Accuracy – does it use precise information? Does it back up its statements with evidence? Is it a peer-reviewed paper? Can you verify this information?
  • Purpose – is the source objective? Does the author or an organization he/she is affiliated with have any obvious or hidden agenda? What is the purpose of the publication?

Obviously, you should look for information that is up to date, objective, precise and verifiable.

Working on Your Writing

Define Your Intention in the Introduction

The primary goal of the introduction is to pull the reader in and give him/her a reason to read on. It is not enough to state your topic, what you are going to classify and how you will do it, but to show that what you are doing is important and has value. Do not just say what you are going to do in your essay, explain why you are doing it. Why did you choose this particular organizing principle? Why do you believe it to be important? What you intend to achieve with your classification? Do not forget to include your thesis statement at the end of the introduction.

Stick to a Single Organizing Principle

One of the most common mistakes students make when writing classification essays is getting distracted halfway through and losing the sight of the original organizing principle they chose. For example, you may start classifying writers based on their connections to specific literary movements, then get distracted and start talking about their relations with political trends. This information may be perfectly correct and interesting in itself, but it is not related to the topic. In other words, make sure you retain a single classification principle throughout your essay.

Define the Criteria of Belonging to a Category

In your body paragraphs, you have to describe each category and its distinctions from the others. However, it should be more than just a description. E.g., if you classify literary movements of the 20th century, category descriptions should not be limited to pointing out the characteristic features of the movements you cover. You should focus on criteria that determine whether these movements fall into this or that category based on your organizing principle.

Provide Examples of Each Category

Your statements should be based on more than just your words. It is not enough to describe a category and explain where it falls within your classification. You have to also back your claims up with relevant examples of this category and point out its characteristic features as they are seen in these examples. Also, try to keep the number of examples more or less consistent throughout all categories (although, if some categories are more important/better represented than others, it is acceptable to give them more examples as well).

Finalize Your Thoughts in the Conclusion

Conclusion sums up your research and expresses the conclusions you reached after completing your classification. You may summarize what you found out about each category (but do not dedicate too much space to it and try to make your comments non-repetitive).

Editing and Proofreading

Be Ready to Rewrite

Now may seem like a good time to pat yourself on the back and leave things at that, and many students do exactly this. Do not make this mistake. What you have right now is not an essay, but its first draft. If you leave it unedited and unrevised, you are likely to miss flaws and potential for improvement. When you write the first iteration of your essay, you almost always forget to mention things, repeat things that you already wrote, express your thoughts in a suboptimal way and so on. Only by returning to the text afterwards you can hope to improve it. So, if at any stage of your revision you see that you can make your essay significantly better by dropping parts of it, rewriting other parts and, in general, doing a lot of extra work, do not try to salvage what you already have. If necessary, rewrite everything from scratch. Your purpose is to get an excellent mark, not to make things easy for yourself.

Check the General Flow

First, reread the essay in its entirety and see if anything needs changing on a logical or structural basis. Is your classification sound? Do you follow the same organizing principle throughout? Are there any gaps or leaps in your logic? Does your classification cover the entire set of things you study? Did you give enough examples for each category, and did these examples fit the criteria of these categories? Do you dedicate noticeably more attention to some categories over the others? If so, is it appropriate?

Check for Clarity

Do you successfully get your message across? Ask a friend or a fellow student to read the essay and say if any parts of it are unclear or inconsistent. If you find yourself in need of explaining what you wrote, it means that you are doing something wrong.

Some things that may influence the clarity of your work are:

  • Use of long and complex words, expressions and sentence structures. You may think that they make your writing look more serious and sophisticated, but it is not so – all they do is muddle the meaning. Go through the essay and replace them with simpler and shorter alternatives;
  • Use of passive voice. In some cases passive voice is appropriate – but if you can replace it with active voice without making your writing look forced and unnatural, do so;
  • Use of ambiguous language. Some of the most common offenders are pronouns. When we try to avoid repeating the same word over and over again, we often replace it with a pronoun, and this practice can easily go out of control. When we replace multiple nouns this way, it is easy to start mixing them up.

Remove the Unnecessary

Removing what your essay does not need is just as important, if not more so, than adding what it should have. After you finish writing and rearranging the general structure of the paper, go through it again and ask yourself, ‘Is it really necessary?’ about every single word, sentence and paragraph. If you can do without something, remove it without reservations. You should always try to express your thoughts in as few words as possible.


Finally, reread your essay paying attention to the spelling, grammar and syntax of your writing. If you are unsure you use the word correctly, look it up in the dictionary – word that look and sound similar may sometimes have different meanings and be used in different situations.

You may find grammar and spelling checkers like Grammarly and GrammarCheck useful during the initial examination of your paper, but do not rely on them too much – while they can notice the more obvious mistakes, they are much less accurate when it comes to more complex situations.

A classification essay can turn out to be a much more complicated assignment than it initially suggests. However, we believe that this guide will help you the next time you deal with work of this kind.

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