Writing About Literature (Pt. 1: Reading)

When you write a paper for a literature course, you will use many of the skills that you learned in College Composition. Specifically, you will engage with texts by reading actively, you will perform research to complement your reading of primary texts, you will advance and support a thesis or main point regarding a text, you will employ a combination of summary and analysis to support your main point, and you will document any outside sources that you use in your writing.

Active Reading

Before you start writing a paper for a literature course, it goes without saying that you should be reading the texts assigned for the course. One thing worth noting, however, is that the kind of reading you do in a literature course is most likely different from reading that you do for pleasure. In a literature course, you’re not simply reading a story to see what happens next. Instead, you’re mining the text for layers of meaning, examining the text from different perspectives, and engaging with the text in order to discover what it reveals about our world and the human condition.

One way to think about active reading is to borrow an image from Ernest Hemingway and imagine the text as an iceberg. The tip of the metaphorical iceberg—the part that everyone can see—consists of everything that a cursory reading of the text reveals: plot, setting, and characters. The majority of our iceberg, however, is submerged beneath the surface, and your job as a student in a literature course is to read for more than the bare facts of the story. Your job is to plunge beneath the surface, to explore the massive, submerged portion of the iceberg, and to come up with interesting things to say about the text.

There are a few things you can do to ensure that you are reading actively. First, don’t be afraid to write in your book (unless, of course, it’s a library book). If a passage jumps out at you for any reason, place brackets around it and draw an asterisk in the margin. If it reminds you of something else you’ve read or an issue that you’ve been thinking about, write a note in the margin. If it makes you scratch your head in wonder, draw a question mark next to the passage. Or if it raises a more specific question, write that question down. It may lead you to an interesting thesis when you eventually start to work on your paper.

Another way to make sure that you’re reading actively is to keep a reading journal or simply to make notes whenever you read. In addition to transcribing your comments from the margins of the text into a notebook, you can also reflect upon the work that you’ve just read. What was your reaction to it? What issues did it raise in your mind? How might you connect the text to others you’ve read for this class? Better yet, how might you connect the text you’ve just read to texts and issues from other classes or even the outside world? As soon as you finish reading something, set a timer for five minutes and write down everything that comes to mind. Don’t stop writing until the timer goes off.

 To supplement your active reading, you can (and probably should) also do some outside reading. This outside reading can take many forms: looking up words that you don’t know, researching the historical context of a particular work, reading other works by the same author, looking into the issues and themes that you’ve noticed in the text, and examining what scholars and critics have said about the text in question. As you do your outside reading, continue to take notes and ask questions—and do your best to draw connections between the text you started with (a.k.a. the “primary text”) and the outside readings (the “secondary texts”).

Remember: Reading a text in a literature course is different from reading for pleasure. It’s a lot more rigorous, but if you’re the kind of person who likes to draw connections between literature and the world at large, it can also be a lot more rewarding. The key to this endeavor is to read actively—that is, to read for more than just the superficial details of a story and, instead, to explore what’s lurking beneath the surface. Active reading is the first step in writing about literature.

(Continued tomorrow.)

Writing About Literature

This week, I return to the classroom for another semester of teaching literature and composition at Montgomery County Community College. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that some of the students in my literature courses have trouble making the transition from writing about more “general” topics in composition courses to writing about literature in my American and Contemporary Literature courses. To help with that transition, I’ve put together the following notes on writing about literature. These notes will appear on my blog over the next few days and will outline one approach to writing a paper for an English class. I welcome any feedback from teachers or students of literature — or from anyone who’s interested in writing about literature for that matter!