Literary Analysis

This guide discusses the prerequisites to writing an analysis, its structure, and common mistakes that are to be avoided.

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The ability to write a literary analysis is crucial to developing critical thinking. To some students, such an assignment is a welcome opportunity to expand their learning horizons, be creative, and express their opinion. To others, however, putting together a critical piece may appear rather challenging and the lack of understanding as to what an excellent analysis includes may be confusing. What is essential to understand is that there are two integral elements to writing a literary analysis: freedom of thought and clear logic.

How to Start a Literary Analysis

Putting together a literary analysis is a complex process where every single step matters. Writing starts with reading, and this is the reason why employing reading strategies adequately may be of great help when approaching such an assignment. When considering useful reading strategies, one can point out the following:

  • Read a text twice. The first reading is great for becoming familiar with the given text and tracking one’s initial ideas, thoughts, and reactions. First impressions are rather personal and have the potential to help lay a good foundation for an in-depth analysis. The second reading is an opportunity to then view the piece through a more critical lens and start organizing thoughts for the analysis.
  • Make notes. One may find making notes and comments while reading reasonably helpful. If a text is rather long, writing brief summaries for each chapter or parts may also facilitate the writing process.
  • Learn about the context. Each literary piece exists in the context of its time and environment. The historical context is embedded within the social and cultural backgrounds, and they should be examined before beginning the writing process. Social norms have changed significantly, and what today is part of our reality would have been found immoral or outrageous in the past. For example, authors such the Bronte sisters were at the forefront of feminism in the 19th century. The actions of their characters in fighting for their liberties might appear insignificant in this day and age. Yet, this fight for freedom was a major advancement and should be understood as such.
  • Draw parallels. There might be similar literary works, and one should be aware of their existence to be able to write a complex analysis. While doing research, one might discover that other authors have also addressed the same issue. In this case, it may be useful to analyze whether they were more successful in their response, or the author of the given text had a more innovative approach.

Outlining the Structure

If one wishes to write a good literary analysis, it is essential to find a balance between creativity and structure. Even though the contents of each analysis may vary according to each assignment, the general structure will remain largely the same. As with other academic essays, a literary analysis involves the following elements:

  1. Introduction
    Even though an introduction does not contain the main critical points, it is of great value in capturing a reader’s attention. It is true that one cannot make a first impression twice. Thus, an introduction should be captivating, outline the contents of the rest of the essay, and reflect a writer’s unique voice. Some writers prefer to start an analysis with an anecdote or a quote. However, it is important to assess how relevant such an introductory line is to the overall contents. The closing line in an introduction is usually the thesis statement, for instance, “This essay will discuss the main ideas of…”
  2. Body.

The contents of this section may vary depending on the ideas that one deems most necessary to discuss. A good approach would be to memorize the following formula:

TS / PC / Q / CM / CS.

A more detailed explanation of this is provided in Table 1 below:

TSTopic Sentence. An opening that sets the context for the entire paragraph and tells a reader what to expect.“She Walks in Beauty” leaves no doubt that the heroine has made a definite impression on the poet.
PCProvide Context. Akin to the preceding element, PC sets the context, but adds more details.As he describes it, the lady is as stunning and mesmerizing as the “night.”
QQuote. Direct evidence from the text that can be used to support a case.Byron provides further details and specifies that the woman’s beauty is akin to that of “cloudless climes and starry skies.”
CMCommentary. Commentary may take various forms: analysis, explanation, elaboration. Regardless of the form, it should relate to the quote provided.One may assume that such a night is not fully dark since it is illuminated by starlight. However, such light is soft and subdued: it does not drive the poet blind, and yet, it guides his path in the dark of the night.
CSConcluding Sentence. This summarizes the contents of the entire paragraph; it does not provide any new information.Hence, the beauty of the woman is in contrast between light and dark, and at that, she finds a perfect balance.
  1. Conclusion.
    Just like in any other essay, a conclusion is a brief summary of the entire written piece which highlights its main points. Even though no new information is given in a conclusion, it is recommended to make the ending as strong and clear as possible to leave a lasting impression on the reader.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

One can enhance the quality of a paper significantly if one learns about the common mistakes that writers tend to make when approaching a literary analysis. Below are some examples:

  • Considering that there is only one right answer. Assignments that relate to fine arts, literature, or humanities, in general, tend to appear somewhat confusing to many students. Whereas mathematics and natural sciences require a high degree of precision, such assignments as a literature analysis may be perplexing as to what result one is supposed to attain. It is important to remember that views and the ways people perceive the same piece of literature vary greatly. What the majority of professors expect from a student is independent thought and critical evaluation. Through this, students can foster and encourage self-expression as opposed to merely using an “essay formula.”
  • Produce a summary rather than critical writing. As much as reading comprehension is a useful skill, an essay that only consists of a synopsis or a brief summary lacks depth and complexity. A summary might be one valid element; however, it is important not to provide too many details.
  • “Pointing” instead of analyzing. Once students become familiar with stylistic devices, they might have the temptation to merely list every device used in a prosaic text or a poem with examples. Often, the body of such a paper consists of paragraphs, each of which is dedicated to a stylistic device (metaphors, similes, and so on). As much as it is essential to be able to identify these devices, one should also be capable of explaining why the author decided to use them and what purpose they serve.

Final Recommendations

Being able to write in a clear and concise way is a valuable interdisciplinary skill. Even if a student’s future occupation has nothing to do with analyzing literature, the acquired writing skills are applicable in many other fields. If one seeks to become a better writer, he or she may consider introducing certain routines into their daily lives. For instance, reading more expands one’s scope of knowledge. After a while, it is going to be easier to assess literary works critically and compare them to others. Arguably, sporadic writing assignments will not enhance skills significantly. Thus, continuous practice will help bring finesse to one’s writing style. Among other strategies one may employ is creating a reading diary or journal to write down the most profound ideas, make notes, and track one’s progress. Another tip is constant editing; no single analysis is ever immaculate, and over time writers may consider rereading their works and point out fragments in need of revision.


Writing a literary analysis helps a student develop critical thinking, become familiar with the greatest literary works, and become an independent thinker. Even though such assignments may seem strenuous and confusing, a logical, rational approach may eliminate possible difficulties. It is recommended that a student employs a number of reading strategies that may help him or her be a more thoughtful reader. Learning about the social, cultural, and historical context of the literary piece under examination may shed light on hidden subtexts and meanings. When writing the body of analysis, a structure may be aligned with a simple formula that facilitates the thought process. All in all, it is essential to strike a balance between freedom of expression and logic and clarity.

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