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.

How to teach students to overcome run-ons

One of the most common writing mistakes students make is run-on sentences.

There are several types of run-on sentences.

  • A run-on can be two independent clauses connected by a comma (sometimes called a comma splice) such as “I ate an ice cream cone, it tasted good.”
  • A run-on can be two independent clauses with no punctuation separating them such as “I ate an ice cream cone it tasted good.”
  • A run-on can be one independent clause and one fragment usually connected without punctuation such as “I ate an ice cream cone was good.”

The problem is not how to correct run-ons.  When I point out run-ons in students’ writing, almost always students can identify where the error is and insert the correct punctuation or needed words.

The problem is that students don’t recognize run-ons within their own writing until someone points them out.  How can students be trained to recognize run-ons?

When I work with a student who tends to write  run-ons, I write “R-O” in the margins of papers we are revising.  At the end of our lesson, when we go over what needs improvement, again I write “R-O” in that list. On later dates, before we revise any student writing, I ask the student what kinds of errors he often makes.  Almost always he will say, “run-ons.”  I direct him to check each sentence for run-ons and to correct them before we revise together.

My hope is that when a student knows he makes a particular writing mistake, such as run-ons, he will look for those mistakes before submitting his writing to a teacher or to me.  This takes practice.

I have found certain kinds of run-ons are common.  One is an independent thought followed by a second independent thought which begins with a pronoun.  For example, “John ate the pie it was delicious.”  Or “Mary fell off the swing she hurt her elbow.”  Sometimes this type run-on uses a comma between the two clauses and sometimes not.

If I know a particular student tends to make these mistakes, I remind him to circle pronouns in the middle of sentences and to see if those pronouns start independent thoughts.  If so, a period, semicolon or comma-conjunction pair is needed to correct the error.

When I give students worksheets on run-ons, they spot and correct them with ease.  But when they write, they are unaware they have written run-ons until someone points this out or until they have become so accustomed to searching for them after-the-fact that they question themselves about a run-on while they are composing.

The key to solving run-ons is practice in recognizing them.  This can take years.

How to write “for example” properly

Many students don’t know how to incorporate the phrases “for example,” “for instance,” and “such as” into their writing.

“For example” and “for instance” are prepositional phrases, so they cannot start a “sentence” unless what follows is truly a sentence with a subject and a predicate.

Good:  I love to eat in August.  For example, corn-on-the-cob is sweet and berries are juicy.

Bad:  I love to eat fresh produce in August.  For instance, corn-on-the-cob and juicy berries.

Good:  In August, I love to eat fresh produce, for example, corn-on-the-cob and juicy berries.

“For example” and “for instance” are synonyms.  They are always followed by a comma (unless they come at the end of a sentence), and if they appear within a sentence, they are always preceded by a comma, much like appositives.

“Such as” has a similar meaning, but is not followed by a comma.

Good:  In August, I love to eat fruit such as juicy berries.

Bad:  In August, I love to eat fruit, such as juicy berries.

Many students are surprised to see “e.g.,” used to replace the words “for example.”  They think the correct abbreviation is “ex.”  But “e.g.,” is the proper way to write “for example.”  The comma is needed after the abbreviation just as it is needed after the words.  Unlike “for example” and “for instance,” “e.g., cannot start a sentence.

Good:  The restaurant offers many seafood meals, e.g., scallops, crab and lobster.

Bad:  E.g., scallops, crab and lobsters are seafood offered by the restaurant.

Want to try your hand?  From the following ten sentences, find the mistakes and fix them.  Not every sentence has a mistake.

  1. Mike prefers mystery writers from the mid-20th century, for example, Raymond Chandler.
  2. Winnie has visited many European countries such as Italy, France, and the UK.
  3. Grandpa collects old silver coins for example, Kennedy half dollars.
  4. We have two school holidays this semester e.g., Labor Day and Thanksgiving week.
  5. The next time I visit Boston, I want to see some historical sites, for instance the Old North Church and Paul Revere’s home.
  6. She writes two blogs. For example, and
  7. Mom uses colored paper clips such as pink, purple and blue, for example.
  8. I love portrait stamps. For instance, the JFK stamp, the Sinatra stamp, and of course, the Elvis stamp.
  9. Evelyn wants a small, stylish car, such as a Mini-Cooper.
  10. Malia can’t decide which necklace to bring, for instance, her pearls or her turquoise choker.



How to encourage students to write more details

Among the most common writing mistakes students make is the failure to use enough details.  Here is one way to coax more details from students.

First, make sure students know what we mean by details.  Details include

  • Proper nouns
  • Numbers
  • Dates, days, months, years, seasons
  • Direct quotes
  • The thoughts of a person or character
  • Figures of speech
  • Sensory information—sights, sounds, and tastes
  • Facts
  • Examples—maybe the most important detail

Next, rewrite a sentence the student has already written, such as, “I was late for the bus.”  You can use any sentence, but if you use one of the student’s own sentences, the changes you make have more impact.

Now, you add a detail to the sentence, such as, “Yesterday, I was late for the bus.”

Now it is the student’s turn to add a detail to the same sentence.  She writes, “Yesterday, I was late for the school bus.”

Now it is your turn again.  “Yesterday, the first day of school, I was late for the school bus.”

Student’s turn.  “Yesterday, the first day of school, I was five minutes late tardy for the school bus.”

At this point, you might like to choose another sentence and repeat the exercise.

This kind of work can increase vocabulary too.  “My docile cat became aggressive when a stealthy bat flew out from the lofty peak of the municipal building.”

Using current events to provoke writing assignments and learning new vocabulary

Too bad school’s not in session.  Retorts by Congressmen to President Trump’s remarks about President Putin would make a great vocabulary lesson, tying current events (of interest to students) to vocabulary (of lesser interest).

Using direct quotes could happen any time a current event brings forth a slew of comments.  Even events from history and the responses of the people of the time could be used.  What could the writing lessons be?

  • Define ten of the words as used in the sentences and then use them in your own unrelated sentences.
  • Select ten of the words and write a narrative / editorial / news story /poem using those words properly.
  • Create a multiple choice test. Use the quoted sentence as the prompt and then underline one word per sentence and offer four choices identifying the correct meaning.
  • Write a persuasive essay saying which remark is the most persuasive or the most polarizing or the most noncommittal.

Here are some of the comments from a week ago.  (The underlines are my own.)

Senator Susan Collins of Maine:  [The president’s] position is untenable.

Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska:  When the president plays these moral equivalence games, he gives Putin a propaganda win he desperately needs.

Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas:  The problem is. . .Russia’s duplicitous behavior.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington:  The president must hold Russia accountable for their adversarial actions and their continued efforts to undermine our democratic institutions.

Senator Richard M. Burr of North Carolina:  the United States will not tolerate hostile Russian activities against us or our allies.

Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri:  [Putin] is a calculating adversary who is trying to exert all the influence he can anywhere he can.

Senator John Cornyn of Texas:  I think [Trump is] conflating different things — the meddling and the collusion allegations for which there does not appear to be any evidence.

Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma:  We must unequivocally denounce Russia’s election interference attempts.

Senator John McCain of Arizona:  No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.

To hand write notes or to use technology?

As you or your kids prepare to return to school (here in Georgia some schools open the first week of August) , you might be considering the purchase of technology for note taking.  Should you?

Years ago when I was a newspaper reporter, there were two kinds of technology to choose from:  a pen and reporter’s notebook or a tape recorder.  No laptops, tablets and smart phones then.  I opted for the old fashioned pen and paper for several reasons.

  • It was more reliable.  No machinery to malfunction, no tapes that could run out, no batteries that could die.  And my newspaper provided pens and reporters’ notebooks.
  • I thought more during interviews. With no tape recorder, I couldn’t tune out and let the machine do the work.  I needed to pay attention, to understand what the speaker was saying and to prepare follow-up questions.
  • Since I couldn’t write down everything, I needed to prioritize what was important either by summarizing or by quoting well-said ideas—of which there usually weren’t many. I became more of a paraphraser than a direct-quoter.
  • I could locate an idea from an interview quickly by paging through my notes. No need to hunt through long sections of tape for just one idea.
  • I wrote my final copy quickly. I could turn in a story and move on to the next one, while someone else was still transcribing from a machine, making me a valuable employee.

What has this to do with note taking in school today?  Research shows that college students who take notes by hand, paraphrasing and summarizing, do better understanding a lecture than do students who key in every word.  They do so for the same reason I wrote good interviews.  They listen.  They attempt to put ideas into a useful order and into their own words.  They question concepts as they listen even if they don’t raise their hands.  They focus.

On the other hand, technology has improved since my reporting days.  Today it’s possible to word search faster than I could page through my reporter notes.  If you remember to back up, your notes don’t get lost.  In fact, they exist in a cloud somewhere indefinitely, ready for you to access long after you’ve thrown out your composition notebook.

So should you buy note taking devices?  They rang from $200 to $600.  Many are in their infancy.

Here’s a compromise.  What if you hand write legibly, and when class is done or at the end of the day, take photos of your notes using your cell phone?  You always have your phone with you—right?—and so you’ll always have your notes as nearby as a clock on your phone.  If you have a reliable classmate, you can offer to photograph each other’s notes, and compare what you each thought important.

But can you hand write fast enough to keep up with your teacher?  For students no longer learning cursive, this can be a problem.  Maybe instead of investing hundreds in technology, invest $5 in a cursive handwriting notebook, and practice. Usually some combination of printing and cursive suffices for fast and readable handwriting.

For information about  note taking technology available, see an article by David Pierce in the July 16, 2018, edition of The Wall Street Journal, “Handwriting Finds Ways To Fit Into Digital Life.”

Is artificial intelligence–AI–learning how to write?

Yes, according to Ali Hale of Daily Writing Tips*.  Hale lists six ways AI is learning to write.

1.  Google Translate can not only translate words but phrases and sentences from one language to another.

2.  Microsoft Word is able to edit spelling errors, subject-verb agreement errors, singular-plural errors and capitalization errors. Grammerly can detect wordiness, ideas stated too vaguely and passive voice verbs.

3.  Plagiarism can be detected by using Turnitin.

4.  Online search engines can search for textual information, and they are in the process of searching for audio or visual information.  Computers are beginning to learn how to search by decoding sound.

5.  Computers can “write” breaking news stories. Heliograf, a web robot, reported on election results last November for the Washington Post.

6.  Using algorithms, computers can suggest future purchases—such as books—based on your past purchases or searches. Amazon uses this capability as do many retailers.

But can AI write, really write?  Is Gone with the Wind about to be replaced as the great American novel by an AI-authored novel?  Not anytime soon.  But since so much has happened in developing AI since the turn of the 21st century, can we even imagine who will author what Miss Scarlett will be reading by GWTW’s 100th anniversary in twenty years?

*For more information, go to Hale’s posting at (