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Chris Garden

USC Upstate Checklist for Writing about Literature

Click here for a printable PDF of the checklist

Writers, did you remember to…

On the first page
In the body paragraphs

Around your quotes

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Aims and Purpose

1. Write papers to analyze and interpret texts.

  • Your paper should answer the question: How does the way the text is written affect its meaning? The way the text is written can include any of several features:
    • the genre(s) to which it belongs and the ways it follows or breaks the rules of its genre(s).
    • the narrative structure, including the order of events, the perspective and/or credibility of the narrator or speaker, the resolution or lack of closure provided at the end, etc. Note: prose texts (novels, stories, essays) have narrators, but poems have speakers.
    • the interactions among characters and which characters are represented sympathetically or unsympathetically.
    • the use of language, especially literary figures such as imagery, metaphor, rhyme and/or meter.
    • the representations of major cultural and social issues of the text’s time, such as gender, class, race, nature, progress, sexuality, conflict and other human themes.
    • the role of the text in changing or adding to the direction of the literary tradition, either as an example of the literary movements of its own time period or in comparison with literary movements of various times, places or particular groups of writers.
    • the similarities in plot, character, theme or imagery with other texts.
    • the representation of theoretical concepts revealed and explored within the text.
  • Note: In literature classes, we do not study what the author intended. That is called the "intentional fallacy." The only way to know what the author intended is to study the author’s notebooks or journals, and we aren’t going to do that. The point of literary analysis is to find meaning in the representations provided within the text, whether the author intended them or not. You know you are right if your interpretation is consistent with the details of the entire text.

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2. Use plot details as your evidence, not your argument. 

  • Write a thesis statement or claim that presents your original analysis of the significance or meaning of the text. Your thesis should answer a question about how to interpret the details, not about what happens in the text. For example, your thesis could be an answer to questions like these: Does Romeo and Juliet offer such a negative representation of women that it calls into question its ability to be a romantic tragedy? Does the experimental use of language in twentieth-century literature make the literature less politically engaged, or does it more clearly emphasize the political problems of the time? Does the focus on the colonies of the Caribbean in Jane Eyre use fear of other races and other nations to highlight the gothic character of the novel, or is the novel being critical of British racism?
  • Once you have your thesis, use topic sentences in your body paragraphs that help to prove different parts of your thesis. Do NOT just follow the plot or use plot summary for your topic sentences. For example, start with this thesis: "Although Romeo and Juliet is often considered a romantic tragedy of two ‘star-cross’d lovers’ (Prologue, line 6), the negative representations of the nurse, Juliet, and Lady Capulet as helpless and naive call into question the possibility of any love within an upper class household." The body paragraphs would be best organized by character and negative representation—the nurse’s incompetence, Juliet’s innocence, Juliet’s inability to carry out a plan independently, Lady Capulet’s ignorance within her own marriage and family and the role of their class positions in keeping them helpless and ineffective. Transitions should highlight these main points of your argument, not the order of the play.

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Textual Evidence

1. Introduce the context for any quotations.

  • Include the name of characters making statements or referred to within the quote. Note: characters may say things, but authors write or state them. We are usually more interested in the way that texts represent ideas and people rather than what authors feel, believe or intend.
  • Explain where the quote appears in the text (early, middle, late, to what events does the quote respond?).
  • Establish the narrator’s or speaker’s tone when making the quotation (sincere? ironic? sarcastic? mournful? etc.). Remember: the narrator (prose) or speaker (poetry) and the author are not the same.
  • Avoid unattached or dropped quotations by using signal phrases, such as "the narrator states," "the speaker notes," or "the final lines of the poem call into question the solace of art." Note, in the last example, you would use a colon instead of a comma before the quote, since the signal phrase is actually a complete sentence.

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2. Analyze the details that make quotes worth including in your paper.

  • Refer to specific word choices, images or literary figures within the quote to highlight their importance to your interpretation.
  • Cut down long quotes by using ellipses ( . . . ) to eliminate irrelevant sections of a long passage. If you use a long, block quote in your paper, you must discuss the whole quote. In MLA Style, you use a space before and after the three periods. . . of an ellipsis you add. If you delete the end of a sentence, you use a period, then three, spaced periods (four periods total) for the ellipsis. . . . You never need an ellipsis at the start of a quote; it is understood.
  • Use a summary of actions or description of overall strategies when the specific word choices are unimportant.
  • Draw connections among the various quotes you used as your evidence.
  • In general, surround their words with yours to ensure that you are analyzing, not summarizing. To signal that the words you are using come from a text, not from your own mind, use a "signal phrase" like "according to xxx," "CHARACTER NAME states," "the speaker reflects," etc. It is especially important to indicate which character is speaking if you are quoting dialogue.

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Mechanics…Sweating the Small Stuff

1. Use proper punctuation for titles.

  • All titles should use capital letters for all words, except articles (a, an, the), prepositions (to, for, about, etc.), coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, for, nor, yet), and the to in infinitives (e.g. Bid Me to Live). The first words and last words of the title and the subtitle (if applicable) should always be capitalized.
  • The title of your paper should not use any special formatting (NO underline, italics or quotes) unless you are quoting another title or lines from a source as part of your title. Then, follow the punctuation rules for that source.
  • Titles of short works should be surrounded with "quotation marks." Short works include individual poems; short stories; chapters; essays; songs; individual episodes of television series; articles in newspapers, magazines or academic journals and individual pages within a website.
  • Titles of long works should be italicized. Long works include novels; plays; films; television series; albums; newspapers, magazines, or academic journals (the whole publication, not the individual articles within them); entire websites (such as MAPS or The Modernist Journals Project); anthologies or collections of short stories, essays or poems or book-length poems (such as The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Waste Land, The Canterbury Tales, etc.). The type of punctuation tells readers about the type of text; be accurate.
  • Note: The 2008 MLA Style Update does NOT use underlines at all.

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2. Use present tense to talk about literature.

  • Events in books happen in the present tense. This means Ophelia kills herself, David Copperfield finds out he is rich and Huckleberry Finn travels down the Mississippi River.
  • In order to maintain present tense in your sentences, you may need to alter some quotations through partial quotes, paraphrases and grammatical indicated with brackets. For example, in writing about Heart of Darkness, you may say this: The novel begins on board the Nellie as it "wait[s] for the turn of the tide" (1). The original sentence uses "wait," but your sentence requires the present tense "waits."
  • You will not make changes to every quote in order to keep present tense. For example, when characters use past tense in dialogue, you do not need to change their words to present tense, as they tell a story about their pasts. The goal is to avoid shifting tense within your sentences.
  • When you talk about historical events that form the context of your analysis, you use past tense. For example, you would say that World War II took place from 1939-1945, or that William Wordsworth published the Preface to Lyrical Ballads in 1800. However, you should avoid switching too often between history in past tense and literature in present.

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3. Rules to remember.

  • Use the author’s first and last names only the first time you mention him or her. Use last name only for all other references. Never refer to the author by first name only; it is not Mark, Bill or Toni, but Twain, Shakespeare or Morrison.
  • If you do not need an in-text citation because you are referring to a partial quote from a larger passage you cited just before, using language in scare quotes or referring to a title of a short work, then periods and commas go inside the quotation marks, as when I refer to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s "Ode to the West Wind." Colons, semicolons, question marks or exclamation points go outside those quotation marks, but you had better have a great reason for exclamations in an academic paper.

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4. Rules for Quoting.

  • Use MLA Style rules for in-text citations and Works Cited pages. Use Rules for Writers, another style guide or go to www.dianahacker.com/resdoc/p04_c08_o.html or http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/557/01/ for details. Do not wing it. Remember that your textbooks are often anthologies and you cite as a work in an edited collection or anthology.
  • When you have an in-text citation, the quotation marks go around the quote, but a period or comma goes after the citation in parentheses. Your paper might state, "A quote from a novel could appear here" (32). The parentheses include the page number. That example assumes that you already introduced your author and title in an earlier sentence and that you are not switching between multiple authors or texts in ways that might confuse your reader; therefore, you do not need the author’s last name as well as the page number.
  • If the quote ends with a question mark or exclamation point in the original text, then you put their special punctuation inside the quotes and end with your own period after the parentheses: "question in a quote?" (32). It’s ugly, but it’s true. Try to avoid this.
               If you have a quote but you ask your own question, then you put the question mark outside the parentheses: How could the narrator expect readers to believe that "quote quote quote" (21)?
  • If you quote prose (novels, stories, essays), use page numbers in parentheses.
  • If you quote poetry, use line numbers, but indicate that the first time you cite: "example quote" (line 9). Next time, we will know you mean line and you may simply use the numbers: "This is an example quote / that extends over two lines of a poem" (7-8). As in that example, use a slash with spaces before and after ( / ) to show line breaks and two slashes ( // ) to show stanza breaks.
  • If you quote a play, use act, scene and line numbers in parentheses. If the quote is from act 5, scene 4, lines 13-15, you would write (5.4.13-15). If there are no act, scene, or line numbers, use page numbers instead.
  • If you quote dialogue from a play always format it as a block quotation, indented one inch from the left margin. Type the character’s name in ALL CAPS followed by a period, then indent each character’s speech by another .25 inch. All indents can be changed using the ruler in Microsoft Word or by selecting paragraph for details. For example,

CHARACTER ONE. Here’s what the character said that started the whole need to include this quote in the paper.

CHARACTER TWO. Here’s what the next character replied.

CHARACTER ONE. Then it ended. (2.3.24-27)

  • Rules for block quotes (indented one inch from the left margin) vary based on the kind of text you are using. For prose, use a block quote for FIVE lines or more. For a play use a block quote for FIVE lines or more of a speech by a single character. Use a block quote whenever you cite dialogue among two or more characters in a play. For a poem, use a block quote for FOUR lines or more. With a block quote, the quote always ends in whatever punctuation was used in the original, with the parentheses on the outside with no other punctuation (see above). Block quotes, like the rest of the paper are double-spaced.
  • If you quote a section of text that included quotes in the original, then you use quotation marks ("") to show what you are quoting and single quotes (‘’) to show what the source quoted. I could write that the narrator of Heart of Darkness introduces Marlow by saying, "He was the only man of us who still ‘followed the sea’"(3).
  • Cite any secondary sources, including critical books or articles and reference works like encyclopedias or dictionaries, using the MLA Style rules you learned in English 101/102. Ask for help if you have questions. Use specialized reference books, like the Oxford English Dictionary (available in our library databases) or dictionaries of literary terms rather than general reference books now that you are doing college-level literary analysis.

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