How to write literary criticism

Many high school students will start off the school year needing to write literary criticism of a book they read over the summer.  And many of those students don’t know what is expected of them.  Here is a quick explanation.

Literary criticism is a written analysis, evaluation or interpretation of a piece of literature.  Usually students focus on one small aspect of the book, play, poem or speech, such as the use of metaphor in a particular dialog or how repetition of phrases strengthens an argument.

Usually literary criticism is presented in persuasive essays.

What must the writer do?

  • Break the subject down into smaller elements.
  • Choose one element to analyze.
  • Focus on that single idea, and from it, develop a thesis.
  • Break that idea into several subtopics all of which support the thesis. Back up those subtopics with evidence.
  • Organize before writing sentences. Eliminate any subtopic or any evidence which does not support the thesis.
  • Explain to readers why your evidence—and therefore your thesis—is convincing.

Where do you begin?

  • Write your thesis first. Every other word in the essay depends on the thesis.  If you start with your introduction, you are wasting time.  It might have nothing to do with the thesis you decide on.
  • Find supporting evidence for your thesis in the literature you are analyzing. Explicitly explain why each bit of evidence supports your thesis.  Write subtopic sentences which group various examples of evidence.
  • Write the body of your essay. Make sure every subtopic sentence supports the thesis and every bit of evidence supports its subtopic sentence.  Make sure everything taken from the original source is cited, using one of the standard citation methods.
  • Now think of a hook or opening for your essay which leads to your thesis. The hook might be part of the introduction or it might precede it, but there must be a connection between the hook and the thesis topic.  Good hooks might include quotations, anecdotes, a riddle, questions requiring a thoughtful response, or humor.
  • If your hook is separate from your introduction, write your introduction next. If you have a separate hook, make sure you transition to your introduction.  Many introductions start with general information about a topic and then funnel toward the thesis.  Usually the thesis is the last sentence of the introductory paragraph.
  • Lastly, write a conclusion. You can repeat your thesis or not, but you must show that your essay is ending.  Good conclusions might look to the future of your topic or pick up an idea from the hook.  Humorous endings are good.  Make sure you do not introduce a new topic in your conclusion.

By the way, if this kind of essay sounds like the kind students need to write for the SAT, you are right.  And it’s a lot like the kind of essay students will need to write in college, too.

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