How to Kill a “Lit” Paper

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People say a picture is worth a thousand words, but unfortunately for you, your English professor won’t accept a picture for your 1,000 word essay on To Kill a Mockingbird. Writing’s tough. If everyone could write, then we’d all pop out 600 plus paged Harry Potter books like J.K. Rowling in our sleep. If you groan and grumble every time you see the words “paper due,” then you’ve likely had some “tear-able” experiences with essays in the past. But writing a paper doesn’t have to make you consider dropping out of school to become a stripper.

Literary What?

If you’ve written papers for a history or philosophy class, don’t think you know how to write a literary analysis. Get ready to embark on a whole different type of genre. Be warned: The rules and expectations for writing a literary analysis paper differ, and you need to make sure you completely understand what your professor wants. Just like how there are different genres of music and books, there are a variety of genres for writing. “From paper to paper, students need to understand what the demands are…because writing is audience specific, and it is also genre specific,” University of Wisconsin-Madison English Ph.D. candidate Amy Kahrmann Huseby said.

Walking Through the Front Door  

You only get one chance to make a good first impression. Make a great first impression with a short and sweet introduction that gets straight to the point. “When you go to visit someone’s house, you don’t walk to their back yard, wander through their garden, enter the back door, walk through their kitchen and then eventually end up in their living room and say hello… You enter through the front door and say ‘hi’…it’s much more direct. It’s the same thing you want to do with your introduction,” Huseby said. Don’t write a half-page summary of the book, and avoid broad introductory sentences about gender roles since “the dawn of time.” Huseby also recommends starting with several examples of your argument followed by an example straight from the text to tell how you’re going to connect the example to your argument.

Debate What’s at Stake

The argument in your paper should be as strong as the ones you’ve had with your siblings over who gets the car for the night. “A thesis statement for literary analysis needs to make a debatable claim…[a debatable claim] needs to be something that a person who has already read the same book would not just agree with and say ‘yes,’” Huseby said. Your thesis should also have a how and a why. In the “how?” part of your thesis, explain your argument. As Huseby explained, this is a “road map” you follow on the several hour trip to complete your paper. Then, you need a “why?” As in, why are you taking this long road to explain that To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t actually involve killing a bird. Think of this part as the “So-what?” of your thesis. Explain to your reader what’s important about your argument and why they should continue to the next page.

Give your Body a M.E.A.L, it’s Hungry  

When your stomach angrily growls at you, feed it. Same goes for the body paragraphs of your paper. These paragraphs crave a meal, but not the tacos you ate on Tuesday. Feed your body paragraphs a M.E.A.L.–the main idea, evidence, analysis and link/logic. “Your paragraphs…need to be structured in such a way that you’re establishing your evidence, but they also connect to each other,” Huseby explained. The main idea is typically at beginning where you explain what you’re going to talk about. After, you need some evidence strong enough to win over Judge Judy. Prove why you believe Mr. Radley is innocent. Once you’ve shown the evidence, spend several sentences explaining how you understand the evidence backs up your general claim. You can dedicate the last couple sentences of your paragraph to using logic to link the current paragraph to the next. Now watch your paper come full circle.

Start a Conversation at the End

#TBT to when all you wrote were 3.5 essays and teachers taught you that the conclusion summarizes the main points. Now that you’re in college though, don’t just reiterate what you spent the last five paragraphs explaining. Writing a solid conclusion can be the difference between a B or an A on your paper. “Open the door” by engaging your readers in your argument, Huseby said. “[Think] about your papers in terms of a conversation. By that I mean you’re not just talking to yourself, you’re not just putting words on a computer screen that aren’t going nowhere, but you are explaining something to a human that’s reading that paper on the other side that might respond to you.” Raise questions you weren’t able to address in the paper or have enough pages for. Your paper will turn out more interesting and prompt continued discussions if you do more than just summarize Scout and Jem’s adventures in Maycomb.

Anne is a sophomore studying journalism and history at University of Wisconsin-Madison. A native Wisconsinite, Anne loves all things Wisconsin including sporting events, the outdoors and its summer concerts.

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