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ENG 263: Writing about Literature

Writing resources; images and links for studying British literature before 1700


Academic writing about literature shares standard features.

  • It presents a thesis that advances an interpretation and systematically works through a supporting argument using textual evidence in order to reach a valid conclusion.
  • It is normally written in the present tense and carefully structured.
  • Standard grammar and punctuation are important—as is integrity, a readable style, some consideration of audience, and the correct use of disciplinary terminology.
  • If completed outside of class (like a paper), it provides line or page numbers for quotations and concludes with a list of texts (works) that were cited or quoted from.

What follows are guidelines that build on what you learned in first-year composition so you can show your critical-thinking skills about literature to advantage.

Beginning (Introduction)

Purpose. To introduce your topic or research question, outline the works you will examine, and, most important, present your thesis. In researched papers, the intro may also outline methodology, describe the paper’s organization, and/or position the thesis in a larger context or critical conversation.

Length. About 10% of your total word count. One paragraph is the minimum.

What’s typical for ENG 263?

  • In a paper: one paragraph of 100–150 words that includes a clear articulation of the writer’s thesis: a thesis statement.
  • In an essay exam: a thesis statement as the entire introduction.

What tends to go wrong. Writers start too big (with the history of time or space, for example). Writers waffle around (not making clear which text or prompt they are writing on). Writers forget to state a thesis.

The Thesis Statement

Purpose. To lay out succinctly to the reader what you are arguing or what the answer is to the question. The best ones make a claim (what) and offer a reason (why), often using a word like because to introduce the latter. Complexity of thesis depends on the level of the course, type of assignment, and the length/weight of the assignment.

Length. One sentence is typical; a long paper may need two or three. Do not be coy—give the answer directly. Make the reader want to reach for the highlighter pen.

What’s typical for ENG 263?

  • In a paper: one sentence of 20–30 words. The statement need not be the final sentence of the introductory paragraph, but that position tends to work well.
  • In an essay exam: the same.  The statement should incorporate some of the language of the question and also provide a complete answer.

What tends to go wrong. Writers think restating the prompt or question is sufficient.

Example: Thesis Statements

Prompt: Compare Hrothgar and Beowulf as rulers. 

This paper is about Beowulf and Hrothgar as rulers. 

[Um, what about them?]

Although Beowulf and Hrothgar are very different, they are also similar. 

[Well, I see this is a compare & contrast paper. But there is no claim. How are the rulers different? How are they similar?]

Although Beowulf and Hrothgar differ greatly in age, strength, and experience, both men possess wisdom and can judge character accurately. 

[Good: there is a specific claim, and I see how the paper’s argument will be structured. But . . . so what? Why do the similarities matter?]

Although Beowulf and Hrothgar differ greatly in age, strength, and experience, both men possess wisdom and can judge character accurately because the poet wishes the audience to understand that “soft” skills are the most important things for a great leader to possess. 

[Really good: long sentence includes both a claim and a reason: I see why the similarities matter.]

General Grading Standards

The D or F paper/essay exam inclines toward incorrectness or incompleteness (problems in focus, organization, integrity, body content).

The C paper/essay exam inclines toward generalization (light on body content; vague statements; generic conclusion).

The B paper/essay exam inclines toward description (representative points, evidence, analysis; summative conclusion).

The A paper/essay exam inclines toward analysis (complex points, plentiful evidence, deep analysis; consideration, as relevant, of opposing evidence or alternate interpretations; meaty conclusion).

See class rubrics for greater detail.

Middle (Body)

Purpose. To convince the reader of the validity of the thesis by presenting points (or “topics”), supporting them with evidence from the text, and providing analysis of it. You need both breadth (number of points made) and depth (number of examples presented + analysis of them). Your interpretation of the literary work shapes the points you chose to support your thesis.

Length. About 75% of the word count. There will be many paragraphs in the body since each point and subpoint gets its own. Each paragraph starts with a topic sentence, presents examples, analyzes the examples, and draws a conclusion or sums up the results. The expected complexity and number of points depend on the level of the course and the parameters of the assignment.

What’s typical for ENG 263?

  • In a paper: at least 3, more often 4–5 points; for a comparison-contrast, 2–4 similarities and 2–4 differences (very rough guideline). Points rarely need equal space to develop; complex points will need a paragraph for each subpoint.
  • In an essay exam: balance breadth with depth, but unless instructed otherwise, favor breadth (for example, four points, each with one example, instead of two points, each with two examples). Do not, however, shortchange analysis.

What tends to go wrong. Writers do not arrange (outline) points strategically before starting to write. Writers do not pull valid evidence from the text for each point. Writers omit analysis, wrongly assuming evidence speaks for itself.

Topic Sentences

Purpose. To lay out the point (topic) to be developed in the paragraph. Usually, it includes a transition word or phrase to show how the point follows from the previous point (first, also, furthermore, finally; in contrast, on the other hand).

What tends to go wrong. Writers go straight to an example, omitting the topic sentence. Hint: read just the first sentence of each paragraph in the body: do they read like an outline of your paper? If so, good; if not, revise.

Evidence and Analysis

Purpose. To prove the validity of the topic proposed for the paragraph.

Amount. Every point gets some evidence and analysis. The level of the course and the nature of the assignment will guide the kind of evidence used and expectations about analysis.

What’s typical for ENG 263?

  • In a paper: every point gets some evidence and analysis. Identify a few pieces of evidence per topic, but use them selectively: a few quoted phrases or words is often sufficient. For plot details, a sentence or phrase of paraphrase in the present tense will do nicely.
  • In an essay exam: the same, only on a smaller scale if time is pressing.

What tends to go wrong. Writers: do not have the text open beside them as they write; omit evidence or analysis; overlook major, obvious examples and focus on peripheral examples; offer evidence that does not support the topic of the paragraph; suppress contrary evidence; twist evidence out of context; or draw conclusions that the evidence does not warrant. 

Example: Topic Sentences

“When he lent that blade to the better swordsman, / Unferth, the strong-built son of Ecglaf, / could hardly have remembered the ranting speech / he had made in his cups” (Beowulf lines 1465-68). 

[Oops—this is a freestanding quotation, therefore evidence. What point it is supporting? I have no idea. This is not a topic sentence.]

The author writes many things about Beowulf. 

[Well, yes, but what is this paragraph going to prove? I have no idea what the point is. Vague.]

Also, Beowulf is portrayed as a wise ruler. 

[Good. We have transition—this paragraph continues discussing B’s qualities. And I know exactly what this paragraph intends to prove.]

Unlike Hrothgar, Beowulf is unnaturally powerful. 

[Good. We have transition—this paragraph does a U-turn from the previous paragraph on Hrothgar. And I know exactly what this paragraph intends to prove.]

Example: Body Paragraph

This example quotes verse (also called "poetry"), and it is customary to indicate line breaks with a slash (/). Also note the use of line numbers for the quotations and the use of present tense for analysis. 

 Unferth is fair-minded but also self-deceptive. He realizes that he has misjudged Beowulf and, as a result, tries to make amends by offering Beowulf his sword for use against Grendel’s mother. Unferth realizes he is “not man enough” (line 1468)* compared to Beowulf, but he can acknowledge valor when he comes face to face with it. His coping strategy, however, combines generosity with denial: the narrator notes that Unferth must have forgotten his drunken sneer from the previous day: “When he lent that blade to the better swordsman, / Unferth, the strong-built son of Ecglaf, / could hardly have remembered the ranting speech / he had made in his cups” (1465-68).* This convenient act of forgetting allows Unferth to retain his personal pride. His act of generosity allies him—or at least his weapon—with the “better swordsman” (1465), and at the same time, he manages to spare himself humiliation.

* If you are quoting only lines of verse (poetry) in your paper, you need not use "line" or "lines"; just give the number. If you are using both page numbers (for a novel, for instance) and line numbers, make sure your reader knows which is which.

End (Conclusion)

Purpose. To sum up, outline larger implications, or propose a course of thought or action, as relevant. Again, the level of the course will guide expectations.

Length. About 15% of your word count.

What’s typical for ENG 263?

  • In a paper: one or two paragraphs.
  • In an essay exam: one paragraph; more if the question requires it.

What tends to go wrong. The writer omits a conclusion so the essay just stops. The writer merely restates the introduction. The writer changes direction in the course of writing so the conclusion contradicts the introduction.

Suggestions for writing conclusions. Sum up what you said in the paper (a summative conclusion). Address the because part of your thesis (a meatier conclusion). Answer one of these typical reader questions:

  • So, what does this tell us? So, why is your thesis significant? (In short: “So?”)
  • How does what you demonstrated enhance our understanding of how its author viewed his or her world/art/culture/faith?
  • How do we readers need to change the way we interpret literature or think about this work?
  • How might these methods or findings be applied to other works?

Sample Citations for Works in our Anthology

The MLA site has many examples of citation forms. For this course, "Poem Republished in a Book" is the model to follow.

Beowulf. Translated by Seamus Heaney. Norton Anthology of English Literature, Stephen Greenblatt, general editor, 10th ed., vol. A, W. W. Norton, 2018, pp. 42-109.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Nun's Priest's TaleNorton Anthology of English Literature, Stephen Greenblatt, general editor, 10th ed., vol. A, W. W. Norton, 2018, pp. 344-58.

Donne, John. "The Relic." Norton Anthology of English Literature, Stephen Greenblatt, general editor, 10th ed., vol. B, W. W. Norton, 2018, pp. 440-41.

Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. Norton Anthology of English Literature, Stephen Greenblatt, general editor, 10th ed., vol. B, W. W. Norton, 2018, pp. 741-802.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Translated by Simon Armitage. Norton Anthology of English Literature, Stephen Greenblatt, general editor, 10th ed., vol. A, W. W. Norton, 2018, pp. 204-56.

Spenser, Edmund. Book 1 of The Faerie QueeneNorton Anthology of English Literature, Stephen Greenblatt, general editor, 10th ed., vol. B, W. W. Norton, 2018, pp. 253-406.

Not sure how to do the "hanging indent style for your entries? Watch this video or read the next section of this LibGuide.

Also see "MLA Style," a section under the LibGuide tab "General Resources."

Formatting Works-Cited Entries

You need to format your entries as “hanging indent” so the author's name or the anonymous work's title is easy to locate (it should match your parenthetical citation, too). Do not just use a lot of Enters and Tabs or put the entries into their own document (and then forget to submit it with your paper).

First, type the entries at the end of your paper putting each into a paragraph. If you have a long list, do a Page Break before; if it all fits on the last page of your essay, leave the entries there.

Sort them alphabetically.

  • In Word (Office), use the AZ↓ tool to sort by Paragraphs, Text, Ascending (the default).
  • In Google Docs, arrange them alphabetically using cut and paste. 

To format as "hanging indent," select the entire list of entries. 

  • In Word (Office). Choose Paragraph—Indents and Spacing—Special. Pull down the menu and select Hanging. Set the indent to 0.5. 
  • In Google Docs. Choose Format—Align & Indent—Indentation Options. Set both Left and Right to 0 (zero). Change Special Indentation to Hanging and set at 0.5.

Formatting: Spacing Issues

Do you have extra spacing between your paragraphs or a paper in single spacing? Here is how to fix that.

  • In Word (Office): select text. Choose Paragraph—Indents and Spacing—Spacing. Set both Before and After to 0 (zero). Set Line Spacing to Double.
  • In Google Docs: select text. Choose Format—Line & Paragraph Spacing. Check Double and see that Space Before and Space After are both toggled to read Add. Clicking on them toggles between Add and Remove.

The MLA Style Center (online) has basic information on formatting papers for submission and documenting sources in MLA style. The MLA Handbook has more extensive advice (available for purchase in inexpensive print and electronic versions).

Proofreading and Final Edits

Print out a copy of your paper and proofread it. You will be amazed at what you find. (If you do not have a printer, save the file as a PDF and study that.) In particular, look for and fix the following issues:

  • Inadvertent paragraph breaks and extra spacing
  • Missing italics, especially in parenthetical citations and the Works Cited
  • Missing page numbers for your own paper
  • Missing page or line numbers after quotations
  • Missing slashes between lines of poetry (not used when quoting prose)
  • Missing works-cited page or entry
  • Single-spaced text (it’s all—even works cited—double-spaced)

Are you unsure about where periods and commas go in relation to quotation marks? You can consult a handbook for more information, but this will help:

  • For a quotation: After both the quotation and the parenthetical reference: “quote” (line 3).
  • For the title of a short work: Before the closing quotation mark: “Adam Lay Ybounden.” If you have a date or author in parenthesis, put the period after that: “Adam Lay Ybounden” (c. 1400).