Conventions for Writing Literature Analysis Essays

Literary Analysis Writing Conventions

Every branch of writing has its own set of stylistic preferences and rules. Literary analysis is no different.

Here is a brief guide to the conventions of literary analysis composition.

Use Present Tense

For literary analysis – use present tense.

  • When writing about literature treat the action of a story as if it is happening right now.
  • Use past tense only to refer to what the story itself also refers to as the past (as in the case of flashbacks or discussions of a character’s history).

Dealing with Author Names

When referring to an author, use the complete name the first time you mention someone and after that use the last name.

The guideline here is two-fold.

  • First, clarity is the top priority. Your reader should know who you are referring to. (This means that there will be times where you use the full name more than once in an essay.)
  • Second, efficiency and fluidity are also important. Repeatedly using a writer’s whole name can be clunky while also doing little to contribute to clarity.

Evidence in Literary Analysis

When writing a literary analysis essay, every paragraph should focus on making a point relating to the thesis.

This means…each paragraph should provide evidence supporting the thesis argument. (The thesis will usually be an interpretive argument.)

There are two other main types of evidence you will be presenting in a text analysis essay:

  • Direct Citations from the Text
  • Citations from Critical Sources

The emphasis for literary analysis composition in high school and undergraduate college will almost always be on using direct citations from the text as evidence in the essay.

Do’s and Don’ts of Using Critical Sources as Support

Do – pull quotes from critical sources that support your own thesis interpretation

Do – pull quotes that clarify the idea that multiple/diverse interpretations of a text exist. (This shows that you are aware of the conversations around the text you are writing about).

Do – use critical sources to develop your own insights and mention those sources in your writing whenever you borrow ideas from them.

Do – use the material cited from a critical source just as you would use a detail from the text, explaining the connections between your thesis argument and the material you have quoted from the critical source

Do – feel free to use only portions of the argument or text presented in a critical source. (Sometimes a particular phrase will be very helpful to your paper and that is all you will need.)

Do not – misrepresent the ideas found in the critical source or take the original argument out of context in ways that betray its original intentions or applications

Do not – use critical sources to help you summarize the plot or content of a text. (Do the summarizing on your own and use the critical sources to bolster your analysis.) 

Do not – alter the content of a quotation in any way. (Although you can quote partial sentences or single phrases, you cannot change the wording of those sentences or phrases unless you indicate that change with [brackets] inside the quote.)

Always incorporate quotations and citations into original sentences that include a signal phrase indicating the source (origination/authorship) of the cited material.

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