A literary analysis essay is a piece of writing on a specific text or group of texts. In the context of most high school English classes, this type of essay asks you, the student writer, to develop an argument about a text and support that argument using evidence from the text. A well-written essay demonstrates your skill as a writer, as well as the understanding you have of the text. Excellent essays convey something about both the book and the human experience.
Essays can be tough to write, and many students find them overwhelming. Some students try to write them straight through in one sitting, from introduction to conclusion, which is nearly impossible! How can you write an introduction if you don’t yet know what it is you’re introducing? Other students get frustrated with essay writing because it is recursive. You might think you’re done writing your thesis statement, only to end up needing to revise it three or four times over.
Whether you’re working on your first-ever essay or your senior thesis, follow this 10-step method to successfully write a literary analysis essay.
How to Write an Essay in 10 Steps
- Read Actively
- Select a Topic
- Gather Evidence
- Draft a Thesis Statement
- Draft Body Paragraphs
- Write an Introduction
- Write a Conclusion
- Turn It In
1. Read Actively
No surprise here, but the first step to writing an essay is to read the text. If your teacher has assigned a text already, great, and if not, be sure to select a text or texts that you find interesting. Asking a teacher, librarian, or well-read friend for a recommendation can be a great place to start. Your subject also needs to be complex enough to give you something to write about.
As you read, pay attention to how the plot, characters, and themes develop. If a literary device, such as a symbol or metaphor, grabs your attention, flag it so you can refer back to it later. This is not the time to take extensive notes; rather, you want to read actively and engage with the materials that jump out at you first. Deeper reading and research is for later.
2. Select a Topic
This is the easiest part of the essay—if your teacher has simply given you a prompt. If not, then you get to define your own topic, which can be challenging. Make sure your topic is of interest to you and has enough material for analysis. Remember: essays aren’t summaries. Your essay should tell its readers something about its subject that they couldn’t get from just reading a summary.
As the writer, you need to use your perspective to explain the story you’re analyzing. One place to start is to consider the story’s characters:
- How does the protagonist—or any character that interests you—develop in the story? Perhaps a character’s worldview changes, or they transition from being a child to being an adult.
Another approach is to consider themes in the story:
- For example, if you’re working with Of Mice and Men, you might consider what the story reveals about the value of friendship or how poverty impacts the choices different characters make. If you can answer the question, “What does Of Mice and Men say about the value of friendship?” then you’re on your way to a good topic for your essay.
3. Gather Evidence
Review and reread the text, making note of the passages that pertain to the topic you’ve selected. They could be a character’s dialogue, actions, or internal reflections. They could also be instances of a literary device that develops the theme you’re working with. Evidence doesn’t need to be long, but it should be complex enough to provide you with material to discuss in your essay.
- For example, if you’re writing an essay on Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in Rye, a general description of his physical appearance is not very good evidence. However, a specific description of the funny red hat he wears would give you a good place from which to analyze the red hat as a symbol in the story.
Take the time to explore the evidence you’ve selected. For each piece of evidence, ask yourself the following:
- How does this passage function within the story?
- What does the language mean literally, and what does it suggest?
- What does this passage reveal about the characters or themes in the story?
- What does this passage mean to you, a modern-day reader in the real world?
Instead of writing your essay from beginning to end, start by fleshing out the ideas you want to develop in your body paragraphs. Some writers brainstorm by writing an outline, while others prefer to brainstorm a web of ideas on scratch paper. You’ll know you’re done when you’ve developed the claims, or arguments, you want to support using evidence in your body paragraphs.
5. Draft a Thesis Statement
Your thesis is the primary argument you are developing over the course of your essay. If you had to respond to a prompt in one or two sentences, your answer would be your thesis statement. Thesis statements range in style and complexity. Let’s look at two examples for To Kill a Mockingbird:
- If you’re writing an essay on character development, a simple thesis might be “Scout develops from an innocent child to a mature young adult over the course of the novel.”
- If you’re analyzing how literary devices develop themes, a simple thesis might be “Symbolism conveys Scout’s attitude toward others in her community.”
Review the claims you developed while brainstorming and distill them into a concise statement that responds to the prompt or topic you’ve selected. Remember, thesis statements are tricky and take a lot of revision. They are often both the first sentences to be drafted and the final sentences to be revised in the essays you will write.
6. Draft Body Paragraphs
At this stage, transform the ideas from your brainstorm into polished, clear analytical paragraphs and prepare to structure your essay. For some, this is the most challenging step, but applying a standard structure for body paragraphs can help: claim, evidence, analysis, and conclusion.
- The claim is the argument you make in the paragraph.
- The evidence is the portion of the text you use to support your claim. It can be helpful to provide context for that evidence so your reader understands where in the text the evidence comes from.
- The analysis can be the most difficult part of the paragraph. Explicitly state how your evidence supports your claim. (Use the notes from your brainstorm to help!)
- Finally, the conclusion explains how the ideas in this paragraph relate to the thesis statement.
7. Write an Introduction
There are three key ingredients to a quality introduction: a hook, a description of the text being analyzed, and a thesis statement.
- The hook captures your audience’s attention. There are many ways to do this: try using a quote, a surprising fact, a rhetorical question, or a personal anecdote that connects to your essay’s topic.
- The description of the book should be brief; include the title, author, setting, and any characters or conflicts that the reader needs to know about to understand your essay.
- The thesis statement is essential to the introduction. It tells your readers what argument you are making and what to expect when reading your essay.
Your introduction is the first thing your readers will see, so make sure it conveys this essential information.
8. Write a Conclusion
The conclusion is the final paragraph of the essay. It has similar components to your introduction, but in the reverse order.
- Start your conclusion by reviewing your thesis statement. Then, explain what the ideas in your thesis reveal about the text. What would you like the reader to learn about the text from your essay?
- Consider connecting back to the hook you used to the introduction. If you asked a rhetorical question, answer it in the conclusion. If you used a personal anecdote, reflect on it to end your essay.
- End by explaining why your essay and the text it analyzes are relevant today. Look for universality. What can readers learn about human behavior or the human experience after reading the text?
Your conclusion is the final opportunity you have to leave your reader with an impression of your work, so make sure you review your thesis statement and convey the relevance of your argument.
All essays require revision. If you can, write your essay well in advance of the due date. This way, you can take a break and then reread it with fresh eyes before you turn it in. You can also ask a friend, classmate, or writing-center tutor to read it and let you know if any parts are confusing. Here are some particular things to look for while you’re revising:
- Do the claims in your body paragraphs support your thesis statement?
- Is your analysis thorough? Do you explain how your evidence supports your claims?
- Is your writing clear and easy to understand? Reading the essay out loud can help you spot typos and grammatical errors.
- Is it clear how the different paragraphs relate to each other? Read just the first and last sentences of your body paragraphs. Add transitions as necessary.
- Are your quotations formatted and cited appropriately?
10. Turn It In
Congratulations! You’ve written an essay you can be proud of. Submit it to your teacher according to their guidelines.