Writing About Literature

When writing a literary analysis, many students focus heavily on their chosen interpretation of the literary work(s), their unique thesis, and/or finding and using appropriate sources to support their arguments. And that is absolutely what they should be doing.

However, because those are big tasks and students are almost always taking at least one other course and working at the same time (some are even raising children, working full time, running businesses, or dealing with big family or personal health concerns), it’s very easy to overlook the tiny details that professors expect into a college-level literary essay. Here’s a quick list that will help you stay in the grade range your argument deserves rather than lose you points due to the “important small stuff.”

1. Write in Present Tense

This one feels weird if you’re new to it, but because English grammar expects you to write facts in present tense, and because the fact is that Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” (even if it were over a hundred years ago) you would do something like this (note how the last allows you to refer to timeline within the story):

  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman is asking readers to consider the truth of one’s own intuition.
  • Gilman’s main character ends the narrative in the midst of a psychotic break that haunts most readers, circling around our minds again and again just as the character creeps and creeps around her external (and internal?) prison.
  • Gilman writes, “direct quote” (355).
  • Before the main character is brought to the large house for her rest cure, she had not been allowed to see her baby for an unknown amount of time.

Here’s some more verb tense stuff if this entire “write in present tense” thing just freaked out you. In my experience, though, students get a little panicky when I bring it up, some question absolutely everything they have ever written in their entire lives, and near all of them are either already doing it or easily make the switch once they realize the expectation.

ELL students or those who always-have-and-always-will struggle with grammar can sometimes find it a bit more challenging, and if that’s you, come see me during office hours or be sure to make an appointment at the IVCC Writing Center and specifically ask for verb tense help during the appointment.

Disclaimer: if you have an instructor who specifically tells you to do otherwise, then do otherwise. Maybe that instructor is “wrong.” Maybe I’m “wrong.” But the point is that that person will grade you according to his/her standards.

That’s also a nice life lesson for the professional world: sometimes your boss is wrong, and as long as it’s not a moral issue, it’s probably best to “keep your mouth shut” and keep your job.

2. Use the Author’s Last Name

Sure, start out by calling Charlotte Perkins Gilman by her entire name, but after that she’s Gilman or Perkins Gilman and never ever ever Charlotte.


Respect, people. It’s like calling your instructor’s Professor So-and-So, or Dr. So-and-So, or President Obama. Plus your instructor will grade for it because it’s our discipline’s academic and professional expectation.

3. Format the Title Correctly

Believe it or not, most instructors really want their students to succeed. Even if that instructor is very into the idea of a bell curve or grades “on the curve,” it’s done because of an underlying belief that the challenge and competition will push each student to his/her personal best.

So (please please please) help us out and don’t make us mark a wonderfully argued A-level essay down to a B (or a C in higher-level courses) because you kept referring to a story story in italics, or bolded the title of the poem, or whatever else not MLA correct formatting choice…

“Title of a Story Story”

“Title of a Poem”

“Title of an Article Used to Support Your Argument”

“Title of Something Short like an Episode or Chapter of Something”

Title of a Book

Title of a Drama/Play

Title of a Journal/Magazine Use to Support Your Argument

Title of a Movie

Title of a Website

Better yet, bookmark this link to IVCC Stylebook page on title formatting.


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