Explicate a poem

Writing a Literary Analysis


Rationale: Welcome to “Writing the Literary Analysis.” This 14-slide presentation is designed to help teachers introduce writing literary analyses to their students.

Directions: Each slide is activated by a single mouse click, unless otherwise noted in bold at the bottom of each notes page.

Writer and Designer: Brian Yothers

Developed with resources courtesy of the Purdue University Writing Lab

Grant funding courtesy of the Multimedia Instructional Development Center at Purdue University

© Copyright Purdue University, 2007.

What is Literary Analysis?

It’s literary

It’s an analysis


An Argument!

It may also involve research on and analysis of secondary sources


This screen is designed to provide a brief overview of the entire presentation. The most significant point to be emphasized here is that literary analysis is an argument about a literary work, and that whatever recommendations are made throughout the presentation stem from the need to write persuasively about a clear, debatable thesis.

Click mouse for each paragraph.

How is It “Literary”?

Usually, a literary analysis will involve a discussion of a text as writing, thus the term literary, which means “having to do with letters”

This will involve the use of certain concepts that are very specifically associated with literature


This might be a good moment at which to asked students what it means to look at a novel, poem, play, essay, etc. as writing—what kinds of emphases that does and does not imply. I particularly stress the fact that words, figures of speech, and patterns of organization matter when we are talking and writing about literature.

Important Literary Concepts

Other key concepts

Historical context

Social, political, economic contexts


Multiple voices

Various critical orientations

Literary theory

The Basics



Narration/point of view







These concepts can be described in as much detail or as cursorily as time permits. It can be helpful to give an explanation of some of the terms, but also to direct students to glossaries of literary terms that can help them learn about these concepts for themselves.

How Can I Learn More?

There are various handbooks of literary terms available in most libraries.

There are numerous introductions to literary criticism and theory that are widely available.

Example: A Handbook to Literature. Harmon/Holman


Students (and teachers) can find information on the Purdue OWL for researching literature.

However, it’s important to emphasize the importance of using sources other than/in addition to Internet sources to students.

What is an Analysis?

An analysis of a literary work may discuss

How the various components of an individual work relate to each other

How two separate literary works deal with similar concepts or forms

How concepts and forms in literary works relate to larger aesthetic, political, social, economic, or religious contexts


Here the facilitator may wish to give examples of how these categories can play out in essays on specific literary works discussed in class and/or ask students to suggest examples.

How is Literary Analysis an Argument?

When writing a literary analysis, you will focus on specific attribute(s) of the text(s).

When discussing these attributes, you will want to make sure that you are making a specific, arguable point (thesis) about these attributes.

You will defend this point with reasons and evidence drawn from the text. (Much like a lawyer!)


Here the facilitator may wish to define precisely what a thesis statement is give some examples of thesis statements for literary essays. The comparison to law can be useful in order to demonstrate to students that when they write a literary analysis they are advocating a specific understanding of the text in relation to other understandings of the text, some of which their argument may coincide with, and some of which their argument may directly oppose.

Moby-Dick is about the problem of evil.

Moby-Dick is boring and pointless.

Moby-Dick is about a big, white whale.

The use of “whiteness” in Moby-Dick illustrates the uncertainty about the meaning of life that Ishmael expresses throughout the novel.

Which is the Best Thesis Statement?


The fourth option, while not scintillating, is the one thesis statement on the list that could be developed and supported throughout an essay. A good strategy here is to ask students to talk about why each of the first three options is problematic. (Examples: Option 1 is too broad and abstract, Option 2 is appropriate if they are asked to recommend or not recommend a book to those who haven’t read it but doesn’t offer an interpretation of the book, Option 3 is excessively obvious)

The Purdue OWL hosts a number of resources of building strong thesis statements and developing arguments.

How Do I Support a Thesis Statement?

Examples from the text:

Direct quotations

Summaries of scenes


Other critics’ opinions

Historical and social context

Always remember to read carefully and highlight useful passages and quotes


Many students need to have the importance of direct quotations emphasized strongly. It may be useful here as well to direct students to the handout on Summarizing, Paraphrasing, and Quoting on OWL. The facilitator might also ask students to suggest ways of finding out about historical and social context in preparation for the next two slides.

What is a Secondary Source?

A book or article that discusses the text you are discussing

A book or article that discusses a theory related to the argument you are making

A book or article that discusses the social and historical context of the text you are discussing


Many students are simply not familiar with the term “secondary sources,” so it’s worthwhile to take the time to define the concept.

How Do I Find Secondary Sources?

MLA International Bibliography

Dictionary of Literary Biography

Discipline-specific sources

Example: America: History and Life for American literature

Other search engines

A bibliography that is part of your text

Ask your instructor


The facilitator may wish to ask students what resources they have found helpful in the past. For help in searching the library, students can refer to the “Research and Citation” and “Internet Literacy” resources on the Purdue OWL..

Integrating Secondary Sources

When you use secondary sources, be sure to show how they relate to your thesis

Don’t overuse any one secondary source, or for that matter, secondary sources in general

Remember that this is your paper, your argument—the secondary sources are just helping you out

Never, never, never plagiarize. See the OWL handout on plagiarism for more information.


The OWL handout on plagiarism can be a useful supplement for this slide. See http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/589/01/.

Overview of Literary Analysis

When writing a literary analysis:

Be familiar with literary terms

Analyze specific items

Make an a argument

Make appropriate use of secondary sources

Consult instructors and tutors for help when needed


This screen gives the facilitator a chance to sum up the content of the presentation.

Where Can I Go for More Help?

The Purdue University Writing Lab

226 Heavilon Hall


And visit http://owl.english.purdue.edu

Or email [email protected]


Encourage Purdue University students at the West Lafayette campus to visit the Writing Lab if they want more help and information -- they can even ask to make an appointment with a tutor who specializes in helping with literary analysis.

The End