Writing a Literature Essay: A Complete Guide

Writing guide
Posted on January 22, 2019

Although upon entering college, most students are already familiar with essay writing in general and literature essay writing in particular, many of them don’t realize that what is understood under this term on this academic level is quite different from those informal, fairly freeform texts they wrote in high school. The requirements and practices commonly used here are quite different from what you might have been used to.

First of all, there isn’t such a thing as a clearly defined literary essay – it is subdivided into many different subtypes, the most important of them being:

  • Analysis essay, where you provide deep insights into a particular literary text, studying its structure, writer’s agenda, imagery, stylistic devices and so on. Its goal it to examine and sometimes evaluate the work in question;
  • Research essay, usually dealing with a broader scope than just a single work of literature;
  • Reaction essay, where you tell about your impressions from reading a text;
  • Persuasive essay, where you try to convince the reader of your point of view;
  • Narrative essay, where you try your hand at storytelling yourself.

However, all of them are similar enough for you to be able to learn how to write one of them and get a fairly good idea of how to deal with all the rest. In this literature essay writing guide, we will cover tactics and practices that will help you write literary essays of any types.

Selecting a Topic

Students are given varying degrees of freedom when writing literature essays. Sometimes you may be assigned a literary work to write about, but are otherwise free to do anything you like with it. Sometimes you are given a rigid topic you cannot alter at all. Sometimes you are given a completely free rein, and can choose whatever you want to write about. However, no matter what your situation is, you should remember two points:

  • Limitations aren’t always a bad thing – when some variants are cut off you don’t have to worry about choosing that much;
  • Even if the topic is assigned, you can often negotiate it with your tutor or instructor. If the changes you want to make aren’t drastic, he can usually be persuaded to meet you halfway.

So how does one approach the choice of a topic?

  • Choose a text that interests you or an underlying theme present in more than one text. Why is it important? In what ways understanding this theme in a particular text helps one understand other texts of the same author (or other authors) better?
  • Select a text you know well. Perhaps there is a book you’ve read many times already and always keep finding something new and fascinating about it? If you don’t have to study the text to start writing about it, you have a huge advantage over those who are unfamiliar with it;
  • Don’t be in a hurry to read other analytical works on the text. This will prevent your thinking from being contaminated by other people’s ideas too early on and give you a better opportunity of forming your own opinions and ideas on the text. Try to formulate your topic on your own, without trying to fashion it after typical topics used by other researchers;
  • After you’ve formed your working hypothesis, you may start looking through the literature on the topic to see what other researchers say about the subject. At that point, you may need to change your original intentions because it may turn out that the topic you’ve decided on has already been researched through and through. If the topic turns out to be unoriginal, try to change it for something more unusual – the less-trodden path you take, the better will be the attitude of your instructor. However, make sure to check if the topic you choose has enough information sources to work with, or you risk ending up with a topic you cannot properly work with because you don’t have a body of research to rely on.

In the end, you should get a topic that you are comfortable with, that is at least somewhat different from the majority of papers dealing with the text in question and that has enough information sources to build your thesis on. Here are some examples you may use:

  • The Theme of Duality in The Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens;
  • The Role of Fate in Romeo and Juliet;
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding and Tunnel in the Sky by Robert Heinlein: Two Takes on a Single Issue;
  • Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse as a Modern Quest Narrative;
  • Fight Club as an Epitome of Disillusionment Genre.

Working with Sources: Important Tips from Our Writers

When writing a literature essay of any type you are going to work with two general types of sources:

  • The primary source is the text you research. It is the primary literary work your research is based on. Even if you study entire creative work done by a particular author, one of his texts usually plays a more important role than the others – that would be your primary text for such a paper;
  • Secondary sources are all the other sources of information you use: critical articles, analytical works, blog posts, reviews, author’s comments and any other writings concerning the primary text;
  • If nobody has written about the exact combination of the topic and the text, what about books about the same topic in other works by the author or other authors connected to the one you write about (e.g., from the same time period or literary school)?
  • Your best bet at finding what you need is using specialized search engines and academic databases like JSTOR, Google Scholar or a discipline-specific one like ProQuest Literature Online. These contain not just academic articles and other kinds of publications, but information about how many times they have been referred to in other sources and other useful data.

Preparing an Outline

An outline is basically just a plan of your essay. It may be more or less detailed depending on your preferences and writing style, but the idea remains the same. You write down:

  • the main points and probably entire sentences from introduction and conclusion (because they are short and the success of your essay depends very much on how well you manage to present them);
  • the entirety of your thesis statement (again, because it is a short and very important part of your essay);
  • the main points of each supporting paragraph, along with sources to refer to in each of them.

Usually after writing an introduction and thesis statement, you use one reference to the primary text that supports your main point and then support it with a few references to the secondary sources.

Formulating a Thesis Statement

Your thesis statement is the gist of your paper reduced to one, possibly two sentences. In short, it is the main thought behind your essay – quite often, it is your interpretation of the text you work on. A thesis statement is usually located at the end of the introduction: after you’ve already grasped the attention of your reader but before you started discussing the text in earnest.

It is important to understand that a thesis statement and a topic are two different things. The topic is the general subject area you are discussing in your essay, e.g., “The Theme of Poverty in the Creative Work of Charles Dickens”. The thesis statement is exactly what it says on the tin – a statement you make concerning the topic, it is the result of your research or just your opinion. For example, “Charles Dickens’ descriptions of poverty in his creative work stem from his personal experiences as a young man” would be a thesis statement.

Writing the Body of the Essay

The body of your essay is reserved for the development of your central idea. A good rule of a thumb to follow is to have no less than three body paragraph for a 500-700 word essay, each covering a single point supporting your primary argument.

Each paragraph of the essay’s body should contain a topic sentence followed by explanations and textual evidence.

A topic sentence (normally the first sentence of a paragraph) states one of the topics connected with your thesis and how exactly this topic supports the central idea of your essay.
Evidence should come either from the primary text or secondary sources, with the former being the more important one. It comes in four types:

  • Summary – short retelling of the text;
  • Paraphrase – retelling of the text’s fragments in your own words;
  • Specific details – here you don’t retell a part of the text but rather draw the reader’s attention to a small part of it;
  • Direct quotations – fragments of the text repeated word for word in accordance with your formatting style.

Writing Introduction and Conclusion

Write a thesis statement first and leave the rest of the introduction for later. The most often advised approach is to write it last of all, even after the conclusion – this way you will already know what is present in your essay and won’t have to remake anything to meet the requirements that changed along with the contents of your paper. Start with a hook to catch the attention of the reader. It may be:

  • a quotation from the primary text or a secondary source;
  • a highly unusual or controversial idea about the primary text;
  • a fact from the life of the author relevant to your thesis statement;
  • or anything at all as long as you can make it work.

After that, provide some background information and smoothly go on to your thesis statement.

Complying with the Format

Traditionally, literature essays are written in MLA format; you may find the most important instructions for writing in it here. If you want a more in-depth guide, look for a paper copy of a style guide in a library. Unless stated otherwise, most literature essays are written in 12pt, Times New Roman font.


If you can afford it, there should be an interval between when you finish writing per se and start proofreading your essay. Trying to make corrections immediately after finishing writing is ineffective – the impression is still too fresh, and you are too much inclined to jump over the familiar sentences, missing mistakes and stylistic flaws.

When proofreading a literature essay you should pay attention not just to actual errors in grammar, spelling and syntax, but to style as well. Stylistic requirements here are less rigid than in, let’s say, psychology essays, but they are still present:

  • Don’t use personal pronouns. Words like “I”, “we”, “you” etc. make your writing too personal, while you have to maintain objective academic tone;
  • Use transitional words and expressions like “therefore”, “so”, “thus”, “so far” etc. to connect paragraphs with each other and make the flow of your essay smoother;
  • Make sure you stick to one idea throughout your essay. The main goal of any essay it to drive home a point made in thesis statement, and you should pursue this goal with every sentence and every word. If on rereading the essay you see that certain elements are superfluous for that purpose, eliminate them without remorse;
  • Get somebody else to read your essay, preferably somebody whom you can trust to do it attentively. Ask them if they find the flow of ideas logical, if there are any loose ends you have to deal with, if there is enough evidence backing up each point;
  • Use some tricks to change the way you perceive your essay and find more potential flaws. For example, read it out loud – if you stumble upon a fragment, there is a high chance of it needing revision. Or change the font and its size and print it out – when the words and sentences look differently from the way you are used to, you pay more attention to them.

We hope that these literature essay tips will turn writing your next literature essay into an enjoyable and easy experience – when you know what you are doing, no task ever appears to be too hard!

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