Writing About Literature (Pt. 3: Support)

Throughout the body of your paper, you will support or explore your main point or thesis. To do this, you will alternate between providing summary and analysis. In other words, you will spend some of your time pointing out relevant passages from the texts you are discussing, and you will spend more of your time explaining why those passages matter and how they relate to the main point of your paper.

Summarizing Texts

If you suspect that your reader may not be familiar with the work of literature you are discussing, you may wish to summarize the entire text before moving forward with your discussion. Summarizing a text usually involves describing key elements of the work (e.g., plot, characters, setting, themes, tone, and style) and focusing on details that are relevant to your thesis. Keep such summaries brief, as the majority of your paper should be devoted to analysis of the text in question.

If your reader is familiar with the text you are discussing, there’s still a good chance that you’ll need to provide some degree of summary. The difference, however, is that instead of sketching out the entire work, you might want to draw your reader’s attention to a specific passage in the work in order to analyze its significance in relation to your thesis. If the passage you’re examining includes a particularly moving or well-written line, your summary might also include a direct quotation. When you summarize a text or include a direct quotation, be sure to provide a citation so your reader knows where to find the passage you are discussing.

In addition to summarizing passages from the main text you are discussing (a.k.a. the “primary text”), you will also need to summarize material from any outside sources you are using to support or explore your argument (the “secondary texts”). To summarize a secondary text, provide your reader with some context by explaining the main point of the secondary text (in other words, its thesis), and then draw your reader’s attention to specific elements of the secondary text that are most relevant to your thesis.

As with your use of primary texts, you may wish to include direct quotations from the secondary text, particularly if the critic or scholar has stated a point in a particularly effective way. Be sure to cite any ideas or direct quotations you take from secondary texts.

Analyzing Texts

Each time you provide the reader with summary, you should follow it immediately with analysis. That is, you should explain how the passage you just described or quoted relates either to the main point of your paper or to a supporting point that you are making in a specific part of your paper. If you get stuck, you can ask yourself some basic questions like, “What attracted me to this particular passage?” or “How is this passage related to the point I’m making?”

Your analysis can take several forms. In the early stages of your academic career, it will likely involve explaining how a detail from an outside source supports your main point. As your writing advances, you will probably start to bring in opposing voices—scholars and critics who argue points contrary to yours. In such cases, your analysis will involve constructing counter-arguments or using such opposing voices to complicate your position and thus to bring greater depth to your argument.

One other form of analysis you can perform with primary and secondary texts is called synthesis. In its most basic form, synthesis means taking two differing ideas or terms and creating something new from them. As far as writing a paper is concerned, it’s usually a matter of placing two ideas or texts next to each other and explaining what happens when we consider them together. For example, if you read Moby Dick alongside Hindu mythology, you’re bound to come up with an interpretation of the novel that’s different from one you’d get if you read Moby Dick alone. Just what that interpretation is would be up to you as a scholar—and explaining that interpretation is a form of analysis.

Remember that for every instance of summary you provide, you also need to provide analysis. In fact, your paper should consist of more analysis than summary. As a rule, every time you provide details about a primary or secondary source, you should then explain why those details matter in relation to your thesis. To put it another way, the body of your paper will consist largely of alternating between saying (in effect): here’s a detail, here’s why it matters, here are some more details, here’s why they matter, here’s some information from an outside sources, here’s how it relates to my primary text, and here’s why it matters to my main argument. (And so on, and so on.)

Throughout your paper, be sure to stay focused on the text in question. In other words, if your paper is on Moby Dick and you start explaining something about Hindu mythology somewhere on page three, you better draw a clear connection between both topics right away, or your reader will be lost.

Recap

The main thing to remember when you’re writing a paper for a literature course is that you’re not just letting your professor know that you did the reading. Rather, you’re making a point about the text. To do this, you will need to alternate between summarizing portions of the text and analyzing them, as well as summarizing ideas from outside sources and explaining how they relate to your main point or thesis. In other words, you’re constantly alternating between saying here’s what happened and here’s why it matters.

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