8 Steps to Write a Great Literary Analysis Essay
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A literary analysis is not merely a book report or a summary of events. To craft a good literary analysis, the writer should develop a clear thesis regarding the work they’re analyzing. Instead of a simple recounting of what happened in the novel, poem, or short story, this type of essay requires you to consider the choices the author made, why they made those choices, and how those choices worked together (or didn’t work) to some effect. 

How to Write a Literary Analysis Essay

Writing a good literary analysis comes with challenges. It’s easy to fall into the habit of offering your own personal opinion, rather than a critical analysis of the work you’ve studied. And it’s not uncommon for students to offer a mere summary of the piece, rather than their own interpretation of it. In this article, we’ll go over the eight critical steps you need to take in order to write a great literary analysis essay. 

Literary Analysis - stack of books

1. Read the text carefully. 

Before you even begin crafting your essay, you need to read the poem, short story, novel, play, or other piece of writing you’re studying carefully. If the piece is short (like a poem), you’ll want to read it several times until you have a clear understanding of the message and purpose. For longer works, highlight passages as you read along that stand out to you. This will make it easier for you to pinpoint a clear direction for your essay later on.

Skipping this step can have catastrophic results. Give yourself ample time to read and re-read the text to lay the foundation for an excellent literary analysis paper.

Literary Analysis - stack of books

2. Brainstorm a topic. 

Once you’ve done your reading, the next step is to brainstorm a potential topic. This is often the hardest part for students, as it requires a critical eye and some creativity. It’s possible that your teacher provided you with some response questions to work with. If not, here are some questions you can ask to help nail down a topic for your literary analysis: 

  • What connections can you draw between this literature and society?
  • What stood out to you as interesting or confusing? Dive deeper into why you were struck by something. 
  • Consider the characters. What were their motivations? Can any characters be compared or contrasted? Was there any symbolism represented in the characters? 
  • Think about the setting. If the work was set in an alternate time or place, how would it be different? What conclusions can you draw about why the author chose this setting for the piece?
  • Was there any imagery that stuck out to you? 
  • What about themes? Which themes were recurring, and what did those themes help you to infer about the message of the piece overall?
  • What do you think the author was trying to say in this piece? Were they successful or unsuccessful, and why?
Literary Analysis - student creating outline

3. Collect and interpret the evidence. 

While brainstorming your idea, consider what kind of evidence there is to support each potential topic. Creativity is important, and you should strive to choose an idea that isn’t totally obvious. Still, be careful with choosing something so obscure that you’ll have a hard time supporting your argument. 

Start collecting evidence to support your thesis. This is where early highlighting and close, attentive reading will be helpful. If you feel that there is enough evidence to support your argument, move on to the thesis stage. Don’t ignore contradictory evidence, either. You may be able to find a way to interpret points that immediately appear contradictory in a way that actually supports your thesis. 

Literary Analysis - research and reading

4. Write a thesis.

The thesis is the central argument you’re presenting in your paper. It’s arguably the most important aspect of your paper. Successfully defending your thesis is probably even more important than choosing a unique topic. 

When writing your thesis, make sure it’s a point that is debatable. Your thesis shouldn’t be a statement of fact. Here’s an example of a poor thesis: 

The Great Gatsby is a novel about the 1920s and the idea of the American Dream.

This is a bad thesis because it’s obvious and it’s not up for debate. Remember, a literary analysis isn’t a book report. Here’s an example of a better thesis: 

The Great Gatsby redefines the American Dream, and despite leading the reader to believe that the American Dream is dead, on closer reading, F. Scott Fitzgerald actually portrays that the American Dream is alive and well in ways we didn’t expect.

Of course, the student presenting this thesis would need to find sufficient evidence to support their claim. As long as they can, this thesis is better because it is debatable, specific, not immediately obvious in the text, and surprising. 

Literary Analysis - student writing on notebook

5. Develop and organize your arguments. 

You’ve collected the evidence and formulated a thesis statement. Now it’s time to dig in and start organizing it all in a cohesive paper. Create an outline and decide where each piece of evidence fits within your overarching argument. You may find that you need more supporting points at this stage. 

As you review the text more closely and start to pull out passages that support your thesis, you may find that your original thesis needs to be refined or altered. It’s okay to change your thesis to fit the evidence as you go. Just remember the elements a good thesis statement needs, and ensure your new one has those.

Literary Analysis - researched outline

6. Write a rough draft.

Finally, it’s time for the culmination of all your hard prep work. Start writing your literary analysis with a rough draft. Remember, this version of your essay doesn’t have to be perfect. Don’t get too caught up in making sure you’re using the right grammar or that your sentences are interesting and sound smart. The cosmetic work of writing comes later. 

For now, focus on making your argument and clearly laying out all the points you’ve found. Identify spots where you could use a little more explanation and find points in the text that provide that. Organize your essay in a way that makes sense to you. Perfection comes later.

Literary Analysis - student typing

7. Refine your arguments and review. 

Once your thoughts are on the page, it’s time to refine and review. Are any of the passages you’ve written repetitive? Is there a more concise way to make your point? Are you realizing after closer inspection that some of the evidence you gathered doesn’t fit into your paper like you thought it would?

Be ruthless as you edit your rough draft. This is the stage where you should start paying closer attention to grammar, sentence structure, and the specific argument you’re making. Keep checking back to your thesis to ensure that your essay isn’t veering off track. Does each paragraph bring you closer to proving the point you made in your thesis?

Literary Analysis - person typing

8. Get another opinion and finalize. 

Before you turn in your paper, ask someone you trust to review it. Fresh eyes can catch small mistakes in spelling and grammar, or larger errors in structure or content. Make sure your reviewer knows that you’re looking for honest feedback and won’t take offense to their constructive criticism. 

If you feel like you need more hands-on help with your literary analysis essay, consider taking a course like Knovva Academy’s ‘How to Conduct Literary Analysis Like a Scholar.’ Working with a professor and your peers can prove invaluable when it comes to constructing a solid thesis, backing it up with rich, textual evidence, and expressing your argument like a pro.

Literary Analysis - students working together

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