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.”

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Primary versus Secondary Sources

First off, this description is specific to the Fiction Essay and Poetry Essay assignments in my ENG 1002 course, both face-to-face and online. Each of those essays asks students to use primary and secondary source citation to make a critical argument about a piece of short fiction or a poem/pair of poems.

Primary Source

The short story or poetry you are analyzing in  your essay. If your essay is about Disney’s Frozen, then Frozen is your primary source.

Here is an example way in which you can incorporate a primary source citation into your essay writing.

Secondary Source

The article(s) you use to support or make your critical/analytical claims about your short story or poetry. In most academic writing, the secondary source will fall into one of two categories (these categories will vary from instructor to instructor and assignment to assignment based on the assignment and course learning outcomes at hand):

  • academic secondary source: a scholarly journal article found via IVCC’s library databases, a reputable Internet article, streaming content from a TED talk or reputable podcast, and/or a personal interview. Many instructors will allow .org or .gov sites.
  • non-academic secondary source: Internet articles that may not have all of the WWWs, sites such as Wikipedia or Wikihow, documentaries from streaming sites such as Netflix (some instructors will consider documentaries as academic), social media posts, and most general .com sites.

You are expected to know what types of secondary sources are required for each writing assignment. And here is a link to the IVCC Stylebook ‘s “Using Sources” page with additional information about finding credible sources, representing sources fairly, where to use source information, and how to balance your writing voice with that of your sources.

Transitional Language

Transitions and students don’t often get along well. And that’s because transitioning from paragraph to paragraph, from signal phrase to source/citation, or from one concept to the next is a bit of an art form that takes practice and planning. You just heard “blah blah blah” in your head, right? I know…

Here are a few transitional language resources that could help:

  1. My favorite link to transitional words or phrases.
  2. Another more complex list of transitional words broken up by category such as additive, causal, sequential, or contrasting.
  3. A thesaurus list of commonly used verbs to reference sources that can be used to transition between a signal phrase and a direct or paraphrase/summary citation. The dark orange list is the best.
  4. A one page, printable PDF of verbs used in MLA or APA signal phrases.

Key to Common Grading Feedback

Here’s a list of my commonly used ENG 0900 grading phrases and what they mean; those in blue are grammar and writing related and those in pink are structure, organization, or thesis related. The few green underlined comments are about citation and only relate to the last essay of the semester.

Explain more / add more depth: isolates a location in the essay that could use one or two more sentences to describe your meaning or other specific example.

Italicize / no italics: the title or name you’re referencing is in the wrong format; the title of website names or sources names such as The Atlantic or The Guardian should be italicized.

Move Thesis: your thesis is in a location other than the last sentence of your introduction paragraph.

No “I”: points out a location where you used singular first-person pronoun (I, me, my, mine) in a third-person essay assignment.

No “you”: points out a location where you used second-person pronoun (you) in a third-person essay assignment.

Needs clarification: sentence doesn’t fully explain your point; sentence is too vague.

Phrasing: the sentence reads in a confusing way, or the sentence isn’t using common English word order.

Proofing: points out a typo, a missing word, a repeated word, or spelling error.

Punctuation: the circled or referenced punctuation is incorrect.

Singular / Plural: the underlined words are not using subject/verb or pronoun/antecedent agreements.

Correct example: When someone (singular) is faced with failure, he or she (singular) has the choice to keep going or stop trying.

Incorrect example: When someone (singular) is faced with failure, he or she (they) have the choice to keep going or stop trying.

Too Short / Paragraph too short: Your paragraph doesn’t include the minimum 6-8 sentences as required.

Use quotes / no quotes: the title you’re referencing is in the wrong format; the title of an online article such as “When Internet Memes Infiltrate Physical Life” from The Atlantic should be in quotation marks.

Weak conclusion / needs part ___: the conclusion paragraph doesn’t feel convincing enough; you are missing part 1 (remind) or part 2 (how your points prove your thesis).

Weak introduction: doesn’t provide enough grounding information to prepare readers for your thesis or body paragraph content; oftentimes, simply repeats the same idea over an over in different language.  

Weak paragraph / develop paragraph more: points out body paragraphs that feel weaker than the rest of your body paragraphs.

Word Choice / WC: the word circled/highlighted doesn’t fit the context of the sentence or is the incorrect preposition.

Word Form: most often points out the wrong verb or pronoun form/tense; incorrect use of plural versus possessive; use of dangling modifiers, or incorrect homonym/homophone.

However, if you choose to rewrite an essay or are replacing a failed essay, please do not rely solely on my comments and feedback; I don’t point out each and every grammatical or mechanical mistake but those that show up “the first time,” most often, and/or appear to be distracting from your sentence/argument meaning the most.

Replace a Failed Essay: ENG 0900

First off, please know that it’s not thrilling to fail an essay and I’m well aware that it’s even more upsetting to receive a failing grade. Because receiving a D or F on a formal essay makes passing IVCC’s ENG 0900 course impossible for that semester, I allow students to rework such essays. However, this is a one-time opportunity that can not be repeated by the same student.

Here are my expectations and guidelines for rewriting an essay that originally received a D or F grade:

STEP 1: You must contact me within a week of receiving your failing grade to let me know you plan to rewrite the essay. If you turn in a rewrite without contacting me ahead of time, I will not correct it. 

STEP 2: Visit the Writing Center with your assignment sheet and turn in the writing center slip with your rewritten essay.

STEP 3: Turn in both the original failed essay and your rewritten essay by the date we determine together during STEP 1.  

STEP 4: Upload the rewritten essay to the original essay’s assignment link.

Part of the reason I allow students to replace a failed essay grade because I understand and appreciate that it’s not often done just because students are trying to get away with something. Often, a failed essay results from a lack of time-management, life circumstances, or a concern about asking for help. I hope that the opportunity to experience what it takes to improve your writing process and see the difference between the first process and the second process will allow students to learn from the situation WITHOUT it putting them an entire semester behind.

Essay Rewrites: ENG 0900

Students in ENG 0900 are able to rewrite two essays each semester and must choose to do so within a week of the essay being returned with feedback. When an essay is rewritten, I will average the two grades together to determine the new, replacement grade.

I am willing to work with students who are willing to make the effort to rework essays that earned a lower grade than expected for whatever reason; however, should not only include grammar or spelling updates but also improved sentence phrasing, clearer transitions between thoughts/paragraphs, and better argument organization.

Here are my expectations and guidelines for turning in an essay rewrite:

STEP 1: You must contact me within a week of receiving your grade/feedback to let me know you plan to rewrite the essay. If you turn in a rewrite without contacting me ahead of time, I will not correct it. 

STEP 2: Visit the Writing Center with your assignment sheet and original essay; include the writing center slip with your rewritten essay.

STEP 3: Turn in both the original essay and your rewritten essay by the date we determine together during STEP 1.

STEP 4: Upload the rewritten essay to the original essay’s assignment link.

It’s not often in the professional world that you are given a second chance, but this is an educational setting so I hope a second chance will provide student the chance to experience and reflect on the changes needed time-management, writing process, and use of student resources that result in a higher essay grade.

Key to Common Grading Feedback

Here’s a list of my commonly used ENG 1002 grading phrases and what they mean; those in blue are writing related and those in pink are citation/documentation or argument related. While grading ENG 1002 essays, I usually point out grammar and mechanics mistakes/errors without providing a suggested correction. I do this BECAUSE students are then presented with a basic question: what is wrong here and what do I know about grammar/style that could correct it? Answering the question yourself or seeking help will promote learning more thoroughly than being given the answer. Additionally, this provides a more useful rewrite process for those who decide to turn in a rewritten essay.

Explain more / add more depth: isolates a section of the essay that could use a few more sentences that describe your point, citation’s context, or the connection that you’re making. Often appears near the end of body paragraphs.

Phrasing: the sentence phrasing in this highlighted/underlined area is confusing, awkward, or unclear.

Present Tense / Use Present: highlighting moments in the essay where the student does not use present tense to discuss the event of the story/poem. Unless pointing out a sequence of events or using the perfect tense, discussion of literature is done in the present tense.

Proofing: points out a typo, a missing word, a repeated word, or spelling error.

Punctuation: the circled or referenced punctuation is incorrect.

Signal Phrase: citation or paraphrase/summary isn’t attached to or introduced with a signal phrase.

Singular / Plural: the underlined words are not using subject/verb or pronoun/antecedent agreements.

Word Choice / WC: the word circled/highlighted doesn’t fit the context of the sentence or is the incorrect preposition.

Word Form: most often points out the wrong verb or pronoun form/tense; incorrect use of plural versus possessive; use of dangling modifiers, or incorrect homonym/homophone.

WCP: Works Cited Page.

However, if you choose to rewrite an essay or are replacing a failed essay, please do not rely solely on my comments and feedback; I don’t point out each and every grammatical or mechanical mistake but those that show up “the first time,” most often, and/or appear to be distracting from your sentence/argument meaning the most.