Tips to Writing a Successful Literary Essay Step 1: Prewrite

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Tips to Writing a Successful Literary Essay

Step 1: Prewrite – The form your prewriting takes does not make a difference – let it fit your purpose and style. At least, however, know your choices: webbing, lists, free writing… Also, remember why you prewrite. The two purposes of prewriting are: to brainstorm ideas and to discard those ideas for which you do not have enough support.
Step 2: Write a powerful introduction. Use something to draw the reader in and then use the thesis statement to introduce the paper. Remember to have a formal introduction because you are writing a formal literary paper. Your opening lines should align with the text you are about to write about. This is not a time for questions or anecdotes.
Rules to writing a thesis:

  1. Be positive about what you are writing (typically don’t say what something is not, say what it is)

  2. Use action verbs as main verbs

  3. Do not use the words: There are or These are

  4. Do not use number words

  5. Be sure – no could be, may be, might be

  6. Do not use the word “ reasons” – typically it is too general and something better can be used

  7. Do not address the reader (you)

  8. No “I think” “I feel” “I believe” “In my opinion”

  9. Do not tell the reader what he will read (In the upcoming paragraphs…In this essay)

  10. Set the tone for audience and purpose

  11. Stay parallel

  12. Create a “so what”

Step 3: The body of the essay is the “meat” of what you have to say. The body paragraphs are organized through the order of your thesis statement. You should have at least three solid body paragraphs – again, this is determined by your thesis statement. Every body paragraph begins with a topic sentence that outlines what that paragraph will focus on. After the topic sentence comes the direct evidence from the text. Below is how to insert evidence into your paper:

Direct Citation: Taking a phrase, sentence, etc…directly from the text.

Keep in mind: Only use what you need of the evidence and don’t get too lengthy. Ellipses (…) will help you with this.

Context: Always provide the who, when and what for the textual evidence. The reader needs to know what is happening in the plot of the novel at the time to truly understand the textual evidence. Don’t plop a quote! The quotation and your words must add up to a complete sentence

Balance: Be sure your body paragraphs are balanced. No one body paragraph should be lengthier than another, and vice versa - no body paragraph should be significantly shorter than another.

Transitions: Transitions should be used throughout your essay. Please see the transitions handout for more information. Transitions provide coherency and clarity for the reader.

Body paragraphs each end with a concluding statement that ties the paragraph back to the original “so what” of the thesis statement.

Step 4: Write a conclusion to the essay. The conclusion should do more than summarize. The conclusion should write a brief summary of the main points, but should mostly focus on the “so what” of the paper. “So what are you actually trying to prove?” In the sophomore year it is: “So what are you trying to prove about American Society?” The conclusion is the last impression you give the grader, therefore, it should be well written and not rushed through.

To guide you, you can always set it up as:

1st sentence of conclusion: Restate thesis statement (NOT copy & paste it)

2nd: Sentence summary of 1st body paragraph

3rd: Sentence summary of 2nd body paragraph

4th: Sentence summary of 3rd body paragraph

5th: Concluding thoughts/Overall ideas
Step 5: Proofread and Edit the Paper

  1. No first person

  2. Do not talk to the reader

  3. Use formal language – no slang, euphemisms, clichés

  4. Use literary terms (the boy in the story vs the male character in the novel or the end of the novel vs the resolution of the novel)

  5. No intensifiers

  6. Stay in literary present! – “The writers of books do not truly die; their characters…come back to life over and over again. Books are the means to immortality…Through them all we experience other times, other places, other lives…” (Anna Quindlen How Reading Changed My Life 69).

  7. Introduce the author and title in the first paragraph, then just use the author’s last name

  8. Titles of novels are underlined or italicized; titles of poems or short stories are in quotation marks

  9. Do not use contractions

  10. Follow usage rules (their, there, they’re)

  11. Use active voice

  12. Try to avoid using the word there

  13. Try to avoid using the word that

  14. Times New Roman

  15. 12 point font

  16. Double Spaced

  • Always type an MLA heading on the paper in the upper left of the page (you are not inserting a header)


Teacher’s Name


Date: 25 June 2015


A Works Cited entry must be included with every literary paper.

Last name, first name. Title. City of publication: Publishing company, year.


Silverstein, Shel. The Giving Tree. New York: Harper Collins, 1986.

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