What kind of diction should you use in an ess.ay? ? 2. Why is your spellchecker sometimes wrong? ? 3. How should you use a semicolon? ? 4. What is a comma splice? ? 5


For this Guided Reading Questions assignment, please read pp. 127-145 in our Writing Ess.ays about Literature text. The following review questions tie directly to the assigned readings.

For each question, please answer with a strong paragraph, drawing examples (meaning quotes) from the assigned reading where appropriate. I’m interested in seeing that you have read the chapters and absorbed the information so that you can now put the ideas in the reading into your own words.



1. What kind of diction should you use in an ess.ay?  

2. Why is your spellchecker sometimes wrong?  

3. How should you use a semicolon?  

4. What is a comma splice?  

5. What use can the dictionary be in polishing your ess.ay and producing the final version? 

Good rules of thumb for guided reading questions:

  • Do your best.
  • Show me you’re trying.
  • Make a sincere effort.

If you do this, you’ll get full points.


2nd edition



Katherine O. Acheson

“I’ve been using Writing Essays About Literature in my courses for years now because it is by far the clearest, most direct, and most engaging explanation

of the processes of literary analysis. It explains through demonstration, taking readers through each step with the genuine curiosity we want to encourage

in our students. The revisions to the second edition clarify the steps students struggle with most: developing the thesis statement as part of the introduction

and then revising the thesis after writing the body of the essay.” —KYLEE-ANNE HINGSTON, St. Thomas More College

“I was especially impressed by the lively and approachable authorial voice in Writing Essays About Literature. Where students might be accustomed to start with a thesis and write an essay straight through from beginning to end, the book demonstrates a more nuanced writing process that is both inductive and recursive. It gives students the tools to do higher-level research and

thinking, and it concludes with sample essays that model those outcomes.” —SUNNY STALTER-PACE, Auburn University

“I am a student studying English and American Studies, and this may be a bit unorthodox, but [ wanted to say that Writing Essays About Literature was one of the best textbooks I have ever read … You have done a brilliant job

making essay-writing easy, structured, and actually enjoyable!” —LAUREN GAYLOR, University of Kansas

This book gives students an answer to the question, “What does my professor want from this essay?” Using a single poem by William Carlos Williams as the basis for the process of writing a paper, it walks students through the processes of reading, brainstorming, researching secondary sources, gathering evidence, and composing and editing the paper.

Writing Essays About Literature is designed to strengthen argumentation skills and deepen understanding of the relationships between the reader, the author, the text, and critical interpretations. Its lessons about clarity, preci- sion, and the importance of providing evidence will have wide relevance for student writers. The second edition has been updated throughout and pro- vides three new complete sample essays showing varying approaches to the final essay.

KATHERINE O. ACHESON is Professor of English at the University of Waterloo and the editor of the Broadview Edition of Lady Anne Clifford’s Memoir of 1603 and Diary of 1616-19.

broadview press www.broadviewpress.com









A Brief Guide for University

and College Students


Katherine O. Acheson


BROADVIEW PRESS – www.broadviewpress.com

Peterborough, Ontario, Canada

Founded in 1985, Broadview Press remains a wholly independent publishing house.

Broadview’s focus is on academic publishing; our titles are accessible to university

and college students as well as scholars and general readers. With 800 titles in print,

Broadview has become a leading international publisher in the humanities, with world-

wide distribution. Broadview is committed to environmentally responsible publishing and

fair business practices.

© 2021 Katherine O. Acheson

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, kept in an information

storage and retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic

or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or otherwise, except as expressly

permitted by the applicable copyright laws or through written permission from the



Title: Writing essays about literature : a brief guide for university and college students /

Katherine O. Acheson.

Names: Acheson, Katherine O., 1963- author.

Description: Second edition. | Includes bibliographical references and index.

Identifiers: Canadiana (print) 20200393804 | Canadiana (ebook) 2020039391X | ISBN

9781554815517 (softcover) | ISBN 9781770487987 (PDF) | ISBN 9781460407479 (EPUB)

Subjects: LCSH: Academic writing—Textbooks. | LCSH: Report writing—Textbooks.

| LCSH: Essay— Authorship—Textbooks. | LCSH: English language—Rhetoric—


Classification: LCC LB2369 .A24 2021 | DDC 808.02—dc23

Broadview Press handles its own distribution in North America:

PO Box 1243, Peterborough, Ontario K9J 7H5, Canada

555 Riverwalk Parkway, Tonawanda, NY 14150, USA

Tel: (705) 743-8990; Fax: (705) 743-8353 email: [email protected]

For all territories outside of North America, distribution is handled by Eurospan Group.

Canada Broadview Press acknowledges the financial support of the Government of Canada for our

publishing activities.

Edited by Martin R. Boyne

Book design by Michel Vrana


For Mary Osler, Katherine Stevens, and Gladys Guest,

who taught me most of what I know about words.


Section One: Introduction 1


Literature: Instruction, Delight, Imitation 5

The Literary Essay 7 Evidence 7

Communication 9

Subjectivity 11 How to Use This Book 15

Review Questions 15

Section Two: Research and Analysis 17


Taking Notes about Literature 20 Recording Your Responses to the Text 21

Do I Like the Work? 21 What Words Stand Our? 22

What Feelings Does It Give Me? 24

Do I Identify with Any of the People Represented? 26 Is There Anything about How It’s Written That Stands Out? 28 What Is the Work about? 31

Conclusion 33

Review Questions 34


CHAPTER THREE: USING REFERENCE WORKS 35 The Oxford English Dictionary 36

Etymology 37 Definitions 39

Examples of Usage 42 Scholarly Editions 45

Encyclopedias 50 Conclusion 52

Review Questions 53


Topics for Research: Social Phenomena and Literary Movements Useful Resources 59

Using Your Findings 60 Conclusion 66 Review Questions 67



Finding Critical Works 71

Assessing Publications 71

Using Bibliographies 72 Reading Critical Works 76

Taking Notes from Critical Readings 79 Conclusion 82

Review Questions 83


Reviewing Your Labeled Evidence 86 Categorizing Your Evidence 87

Charting Your Evidence 90 Conclusion 96

Review Questions 97




Section Three: Composition 99

CHAPTER SEVEN: COMPOSING YOUR ARGUMENT 101 Inductive Reasoning 102 Composing the Thesis Statement 103

Writing the Subtopic Sentences 103 Composing the Body of the Introduction 105 Concluding the Introduction 107

A Variation: An Essay without Secondary Sources 109

Conclusion 113

Review Questions 113


The Body Paragraphs 115 Features of Strong Paragraphs 119 Writing the Conclusion and Revising the Introduction

The Conclusion 120

Revising the Introduction 122 Conclusion 122

Review Questions 123



Section Four: Polish and Presentation 125


Conventions of Essay-Writing Style 128

Diction 128

Vocabulary 129 Connecting Words 130

Common Grammatical Errors 131

Apostrophes 132 Demonstrative Pronouns 133

Pronoun Agreement 134

Verb Tense 135

Common Errors in Punctuation and Sentence Structure 136

Semicolons 136

Comma Splices 138 Sentence Fragments 139

Subordinating Conjunctions 140


Conjunctive Adverbs 143

Conclusion 144

Review Questions 145



Reasons for Documenting Sources 147

Documentation Practices 149

Presenting Your Work 151 Layout and Order 151

Illustrations 152

Multimedia and the Literary Essay 153

Exemplary Hlustrations 154 Complementary Illustrations 155

Supplementary Illustrations 156 Last-Minute Checks 157

Conclusion 158

Review Questions 159

Section Five: Conclusion and Review 161



Collecting Evidence (Chapters 2-5) 163

Categorizing Evidence (Chapter 6) 164 Writing Your Thesis Statement (Chapter 7) 165

Troubleshooting the Thesis Statement (Chapter 7) 165

Writing the Body Paragraphs (Chapter 8) 166 Concluding Your Essay (Chapter 8) 166 Proofreading (Chapter 9) 166

Documentation and Presentation (Chapter 10) 167

Conclusion 168








The Purpose

of an Essay about Literature


studies dread hearing from students. The first is “did we do any-

thing important in the class that I missed?” This is what we call a

loaded question: I have to agree to premises that put me in a pos-

ition I don’t want to be in. An example of a loaded question is “Do

you always burn the toast?” To answer this, I need to agree that I

have been burning the toast. To answer the question about what

was missed in class, I have to accept the possibility that nothing

important happened (or that something did but I’m too cranky to

repeat it for the student). The instructor perceives this question as

a challenge to their talent or to the inherent interest of the course’s

subject matter. But I understand, when I get this question, that the

student is asking if the missed class presented something that they

need to know to do well on the graded components of the course, so

I usually mention those and then ask the student to find a classmate

who is willing to share their notes.


The other question is “what do you want in this essay?” This

question is more complicated. It’s loaded too, though: it implies that

there is an ideal essay tucked away in my head, and a clever student

can get a glimpse of it if I let down my guard or if I like the student

personally enough to give special attention to them. There’s a whole

bunch that’s whacky about that set of implications. One, there is no

ideal essay. Two, if there were, I wouldn’t have it hidden away in the

darker recesses of my brain; I’d have it out on the table for every-

one to see. Three, my desires, whims, or even ideas, and the extent

to which your essay reflects them, are not what the assignment is

about. So the answers I give to this question are always a bit kooky:

I say, “I want to be enlightened and moved” or “I want to make no

corrections to pronoun agreement” or “I want to discover the secret

of eternal life” or “I want to finish grading before the end of the

holidays, or at least soon thereafter.” Or I can be more helpful and

say that I want a clearly written argument, based on evidence, about

the meaning, power, or structure of the work or works the essay

discusses. Yes, let’s repeat that—a clearly written argument, based on

evidence, about the meaning, power, or structure of the work or works.

That’s what teachers really want.

In my courses, I’m quite careful about letting students know

what I want and how to accomplish it. Grading is one of the most

valuable things I do for students, and I would hate for them to think

that I don’t have objective and measurable reasons for evaluating

their work in the way that I do, that there is no rational process to

assessing an essay. I give them a breakdown of what’s important

for written assignments and what the weighting of each category

is. And I’ll go over in class how to get from beginning to end in

the essay-writing process and how to write the best possible essay.

There is a method to writing a good essay, and there are clear and

manageable steps to take from start to finish. That’s what this book

is about. For those of you who already know how to write great

essays, I’m sorry to have to take the mystery out of the process; you

know the secrets, and I’m going to blurt them out here. It’s about

sharing, and that’s good. And we can all learn something new, how-

ever proficient we already are. We all want to have AHA! moments,

and writing a great essay will give you more than one.




Literature is as complex as an ecosystem, as ineffable as the sub-

atomic world, as rich and beautiful and interesting as the many

cultures around us. It is shaped by the world, and it shapes our

understanding of the world. It is made from language, an infin-

itely malleable and sinuous medium. It can be found in the simplest,

most naive forms and the most carefully crafted; its authors can be

children with few skills or geniuses who have worked for years to

hone their art. Literature in English is read all around the world

and has been central to advanced education for hundreds of years.

Literature is powerfully ideological; it can be subversive, oppressive,

or any combination of the two. Literature comforts us, frightens

us, brings us to tears, creates bonds, and opens up possibilities for

our imaginations. The reasons we study literature—the reasons we

write essays about literature—are to try to understand better what

it gives us, how it reflects, enlarges, and critiques what it is to be

human in this world, or these worlds, of ours.

Literature’s principal purposes are different from those of

other systems, and those differences shape how we approach it.

From classical times until the present, literary critics have been

in agreement about what literature does. The first thing that lit-

erature does, we believe, is to instruct its readers. Instruction can

come in many forms, and a huge range of information, values, and

ideas is conveyed in works of literature. The author may intend us

to learn certain things, but we can also learn things that the author

or authors didn’t plan on us knowing. Those things can be about the

society that the work depicts—that it is prejudiced toward women,

for example, or that its religious values permeate all of the things

that happen in it. They can be about the ideas that are represented

in the work: we might perceive that the scientific ideas of the pro-

tagonist are related to their ideas about art, related in a way that

the author didn’t consciously intend us to perceive. They can be

about the material world in which the story is set: we can make

connections, as readers, between certain objects and ideas, between

things and feelings, that also help us to understand more about the

world, the characters, and the action that is represented in the work.


It may be important to you to distinguish between intended and

unintended effects: it’s always interesting, for instance, to read what

an author says they were trying to do in a work and measure that

against what you think actually got done. But because the medium

of literature is language, because readers are individuals in particu-

lar cultural and social situations, and because works of literature

are read in different times and places, much of the effect of a work

of literature is out of the control of the author. These are reasons

we keep going back to the same texts: they are never quite the same.

And the enduring freshness of literary masterpieces also means we

have endlessly interesting questions about what complex works of

literature mean, which is why we keep on writing essays!

The second purpose of literature, we agree, is to delight its audi-

ence. Delight means to cause pleasure, so the effect is emotional.

But the emotions that give us pleasure are not just joyful ones: we

can take pleasure from sadness, for example, or from terror. Why

else would we pay to see tear-jerkers and horror movies? One of

the things we value most in art and entertainment is intensity of

emotion; as a species, we like a good cry, a rush of adrenalin, a belly

laugh, a shiver of fear. Psychologists and neuroscientists may be

able to tell us why; perhaps rehearsing emotions that help us take

action or communicate needs is just as important as staying in good

physical shape. Perhaps reading literature, watching plays and films,

and listening to music are as essential to our well-being as vitamins

and minerals. But what we as students of literature focus on is what

the emotions are, how they are produced by literary works, and how

they are related to other things in works of literature and in the

worlds in which they were produced and are read. As with their plan

to instruct readers, authors may intend us to have certain emotions,

but their works may produce emotions that are well in excess of

their plans, or opposite to their intentions. These are all fair game

for literary critics—of whom, I think I forgot to tell you, you are one.

The third purpose of literature is to imitate life, to produce for

the reader a believable version of a world that is or that could be.

This might be an internal world (the thoughts and feelings of one

being, usually a person, but sometimes an animal or even an object),

or it might be the world of a set of people in a culture or of a whole

society. It might be a real world that has existed or does exist, it


might be a fantastical world inhabited by outlandish creatures with

magical powers, or it might be an ideal and imaginary world in

which perfectly beautiful beings possessing the essence of being-

ness float effortlessly above the drossy world we inhabit. Literary

critics are interested in how authors build worlds and in how read-

ers experience these worlds. We are interested in the opportunities

and limitations that different kinds of worlds offer to the kinds of

ideas and feelings that can be produced within them. For instance,

science fiction can offer a different understanding of the human

body and a different experience of its capabilities than can an eight-

eenth-century realist novel set in a small village in England.

But we are also interested in how authors make worlds out of

language. If you think about this art, it’s like making a house out

of ice or a dress out of sand or a dessert out of cauliflower—there’s

magic involved in taking symbols, scribbles on a page, and turning

them into something colorful, believable, sensuous, vibrant, and

captivating. Much of what literary critics do involves examining the

craft of literary construction: Why does this word work better than

others? What is the effect of this way of representing thought or

conversation? Why does this point of view make the emotional con-

tent more powerful? Literary critics are experts in how literature is

made—in how the choices authors make and the experiences read-

ers bring to works produce the rich, beautiful, and varied worlds

that inhabit the pages of the books we read.



A couple of pages ago, I said that the task of a student assigned to

write an essay about literature is to present a clearly written argu-

ment, based on evidence, about the meaning, power, or structure of the

work or works. The previous section has given us a bit more detail

about literature and about why we are interested in the meaning

(the “instruction”), the power (the “delight”), and the construction

of the work or works (how it “imitates” the world it represents).

The rest of this book will be about the other terms in that sentence:

how to collect and use evidence and how to write a clear and cogent


argument from that evidence. But let me say a few things about

those two right now, by way of introduction.

Literary studies is an evidence-based discipline, just like sci-

ence, law, or medicine. If you are a doctor, your patients will list

their symptoms to you, and you will try to pull those together into

a plausible explanation that identifies a cause for the effects they

feel. If you were a police detective, called to the scene of a crime,

you would collect clues—a stray hair, a bloody knife, a used glass—

and then try to put those and other bits of information together in

order to produce a story that explains the body, the robbery, and the

mysterious symbols painted on the mirror. The symptoms and clues

you are analyzing, as a literary critic, are the ideas and feelings pro-

duced by the work of literature and the things that are used to make

it—the words. From this evidence, you will produce a narrative that

offers an explanation for the effects the work of literature has.

If you think of yourself as a detective or a doctor and you

examine the work of literature and its context for clues, you too

can diagnose the patient or solve the crime. I’ll repeat myself: the

study of literature is based on evidence, and its findings are argu-

ments built from that evidence. The arguments must account for

all the relevant evidence—there’s no extra gun floating around, no

additional ache or pain that’s not explained by the illness you’ve

decided on. That’s how we know it’s an adequate diagnosis of the

illness or solution to the crime. Equally, all the evidence used to

support the argument is necessary to the argument and is the best

possible evidence that can be brought to the argument.

A large part of the assessment of your essay will depend on

the quality of the evidence you collect, and another portion of the

assessment of your essay will depend on how well you construct the

explanation from it. These features are more important than the

actual topic that you go after. Sometimes, at least in my experience,

students think that I’m looking for them to find a certain mean-

ing in a work or experience a particular feeling—that doing these

things is key to unlocking the mysterious ideal essay I’m supposedly

keeping safe and secret in my brain. But that’s not what I value in

a student’s essay, or in an essay by a colleague or peer: I’m looking

for well-gathered evidence pulled together in a compelling and con-

vincing argument. Even if the essay topic is set for you, the value of


what you have to say about the topic will depend on the power of the

clues you gather and the persuasiveness of the argument you make

out of them. Because of the importance of evidence and argument

in literary studies, much of this book is devoted to how to conduct

research in and about the literary works that you read and how to


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