Writing about Literature


If literary works had exactly the same meaning for all of us, reading would be a fairly boring affair. If you’ve ever gone to a movie with a friend and each come away with a different understanding or response, you already have ample evidence that a story never has just one meaning. Nevertheless, you may have been willing to accept the first meaning to occur to you, or to take a piece of literature at face value, failing to question or puzzle over it. The following guidelines aim to help you exercise your interpretive powers, to build your strength as a reader of literature:

1. Read the work for an overall impression.

Read it straight through and jot down your first impressions. How did the work make you feel? What about it is most remarkable or memorable? Are you confused about anything?

2. Reread the work, annotating in the margins.

In other words, “talk back,” asking questions, pointing out anything that seems out of place or ineffective. You can also engage with the text through making comments on sticky notes.

3. Identify the genre.

Is it a gothic fiction? Tragic drama? Hypertext fiction? Lyric poetry? Creative nonfiction? What is noteworthy about the form of the work?

4. Ask yourself: What is the point of view, and who is (are) the narrator(s)?

How reliable and convincing does the narrator seem? What in the work makes the narrator seem reliable or unreliable? How does the narrator’s point of view affect your response to the work?

5. What do you identify as being the major themes of the work?

What point(s) does the author seem to want to make? What evidence in the text supports these themes? Consider plot, setting, character, point of view, imagery, and sound.

6. What do you think may have influenced the author to address these themes?

Consider the time and place represented in the work as well as when and where the writer lived. Also consider social, political, or even personal forces that may have affected the writer.

7. What is the author’s target audience?

Does it include you? Do you sympathize with a particular character? Why do you think that is?

8. Review your notes, highlighting the ideas that most interest you.

Look over your observations, then freewrite (or journal) for fifteen minutes or so about your overall response to this work. What key point would you like to make about the work?

Source: Lunsford, Andrea and Robert Connors. The St. Martin’s Handbook. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 1999.