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.)

14 thoughts on “Writing About Literature (Pt. 1: Reading)

    • From a writer’s perspective, it definitely helps with technique. Frequently, I’ll ask questions about why an author made certain decisions in terms of style and content, particularly when it’s something that’s done especially well or is unexpected.

  1. Such a great post. I don’t think many people truly understand what it means to actively read. The world of meaning and depth of a book is waiting there and most don’t ever see it. But then someone comes along and explains this very simple concept and their eyes are slammed wide open. Thank you for posting this. I was lucky enough to take a literature critique class that explained this to me. I hope your posts on this will help show a whole new world of reading to people.

    • Along similar lines, I worry sometimes that our culture’s focus on quantity makes some readers (myself included, at times) want to rack up the books they’ve read as if they’re scoring points for each one. It’s good to be able to slow down sometimes and really dwell on a well-wrought passage and its significance to the world at large.

      • Totally agree. I think that it isn’t the number of books that you have read but the books and stories and words that have had an impact on you. I will admit that I have read plenty of books that I wish I had never bothered to pick up. But there are some that I often feel like no one has read that made such a huge impact on me that I was a different person for reading afterward.

  2. Very useful! I do not write on books, though… I feel a dread towards even scribbling a smiley or something equally small. I did write down a phone number once, I will concede that 🙂

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