How to Write an English Literature Essay

Knowing how to write an English literature essay is an important skill for any student, but it can be a difficult one to master. With this guide, you’ll learn how to write amazing literature essays.

Decide on a your topic

Depending on your assignment, your first challenge with a new English literature essay will be to decide on the topic. You may have a general theme to write about, or you might be given leeway to choose your own subject matter. But even if you have a specific question to answer, you will still have room to find your own approach to answering it.

Whatever the rubric, choosing the essay topic should primarily be influenced by one question: what interests you? Writing an essay is always a challenge, but especially so if you’re writing about something that bores you. 

So, take the opportunity to look at what most appeals to you. Within the constraints of the essay requirements, what do you want to find out more about? What theme or subject inspires you to write about it? What idea have you learnt about that you want to explore further? There might even be a perspective which you feel strongly about, and either want to argue for or against.

Read, read, and read again!

Once you’ve decided on an essay topic, this is where the real work begins. But forget about actually writing anything now; the next stage, and possibly the most time-consuming one, will be to do some reading. 

Find quotes and catalogue them

Your primary text

You might have already read the primary text that will be the focus of your essay, whether it’s a novel, play, or poem. But now you need to do it again. Don’t worry though, because it shouldn’t take as long as the first read-through.

If you’re familiar with the text, you can just skim-read. However, the purpose of this stage is to be active in terms of how you engage with it. Even though you can scan through it, quickly but methodically, you should be identifying key phrases and passages.

Make notes of anything and everything that stands out to you. Copy out these quotes verbatim into a word document. Take care to make note of the page numbers as well, so you can easily find it again. 

As you go, you’ll start to notice common themes, ideas, and patterns while your list of quotes grows. You can even categorise them as you go. This will help you later.

Critical readings

Once you’ve read through the primary text, you can move onto secondary material. Reviews, critical journals, and other published essays are an invaluable resource for your own ideas. Depending on what your essay is for, you may be required to reference some of these additional sources.

Identify some of the key sources that relate to your essay topic and your primary text. Just like you did before, you’ll need to read through them and transcribe any interesting quotes that relate in one way or another to your selected subject-matter.

Review your readings

Now that you’ve got a big list of quotes from both primary and secondary sources, you can go over them all with a fine comb. Put them into categories, start finding trends, and see if there’s the start of any more complex ideas forming when you place two or more side by side.

Do any critics argue the same points? Try and find quotes from the novel, poem, or play that takes their ideas a step further. Or do two critics have conflicting arguments? Try to decide which one you agree with and how you could support their opinion, or perhaps find your own stance between this point of contention.

Develop your argument

Now that you’ve identified some key arguments, both your own and other critics, that can be used in your essay, you’ll be able to pull them together and start seeing how they could all connect.

This is where you’ll need some time to think. Reread the quotes, make notes of the main points you want to focus on, and try to fill out the blanks. What’s left to say? It may be that you can develop your own ideas further, or now might be a good point to find new sources to read in order to glean additional nuggets of theory.

Structure all your notes

At this point, you should have a big bullet point list of phrases and quotes from your primary source, quotes from secondary material, and ideas of your own. With this, the next step is to put them into some sort of order that can form the first full plan for your essay.

You can have some fun rearranging all these bullet points. Find more explanatory quotes that can be used to establish your essay topic. These can be used in the introduction. From there, look at how other phrases might link out of the beginning. Your essay should ideally flow smoothly from paragraph to paragraph, with each discussion point leading naturally to the next, following from one to another in a way that makes sense. As this chain grows, each of your ideas should build on the other, growing until reaching your conclusion.

This is the benefit of making a detailed plan like this: you can get an overview of the complete shape of your essay before you actually need to construct any full sentences.

Review your final plan

With a complete plan of your essay, you can do a few final checks before commencing with writing.

Are there any gaps in your argument? Could a paragraph have another critical quote to support it? Is there more you can achieve by close reading another paragraph from your primary text?

Check through the plan with these questions in mind, and do more reading if necessary to really solidify your essay. Then, it time to start writing.

How to write your English literature essay

If you’ve followed the previous steps and made a detailed plan, all that’s left is to put your English literature essay together. Depending on how in-depth you made your notes, it should be as easy as turning your bullet points into full sentences.

The main thing to focus on is how to link each point to the next. Your ideas should flow naturally, pulling in the quotes to either support your argument or act as a jumping-off point for a new line of discussion.

With the plan in place, you won’t need to worry so much about how the current sentence you’re writing will fit into the rest of the essay. Just follow the structure of bullet points that you’ve made and the writing will follow easily.

Review, reread, redraft

Now that you’ve got a first draft completed, you might be surprised by how good it’s looking! Unlike other methods which involve less planning, your first draft should be coherent and well-structured. But don’t be tempted to submit the essay yet. There’s still more work to do.

Review your draft. No matter how detailed your plan was, there will always be points to improve once it’s written out in full. You might even have to do some more reading of other additional sources if you feel it needs another perspective. Then redraft to add these extra bits in, making sure to keep your argument consistent.

Get someone to proofread your essay

Even after spending hours scouring through your essay, it’s entirely possible to miss small grammar mistakes or confusing sentence structures. This is where it’s useful to have someone else look over your work.

It could be a friend, family member, classmate, or even a teacher. They don’t need to know anything about the topic of your essay, but having a fresh set of eyes can help catch little errors and points of improvement that you’ve overlooked.

Decide on your title

There’s one last thing to do before you’re ready to submit your essay. If you haven’t been given a set question already, it’s time to decide on the title for your essay:

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How to choose an essay title:

With your final draft complete, deciding on a title for your essay should be easy. What’s the main topic, and what’s your argument? Include the name of the primary text as well.

Overall, your title should be concise and punchy. It doesn’t need to be attention-grabbing like a tabloid headline, but it should entice the reader with a promise of being an interesting read.

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