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Our first paper will require you to write about at least one text from our course syllabus and offer a compelling argument about what the text means that uses strong textual evidence to support your interpretation. You can focus on one text, one writer, or multiple texts with related themes or issues from multiple writers, as long as the texts and authors are on our class syllabus.

The challenge is that I do not want a simple summary, book report, or Wikipedia-like informational article. Those items already exist. What I want is for you to try and persuade your readers that when they look at the texts and authors you present in your paper, your interpretation makes sense and could be a legitimate explanation of what the texts and authors mean. In other words, you need to offer an interpretation about what the texts mean that leaves the reader with more than just facts: they should be able to see how other readers could conclude that the texts mean what you say they mean, even if they personally disagree with your view.

Topics vs. Thesis Statements/Arguments/Interpretations

The biggest challenge of this assignment is distinguishing between a topic and a thesis. A topic is a general issue, text, event, or person under discussion. The following could be topics of a paper in a generic English 101 course: "Why I am going to college," "Abortion," "The Civil War," and so on. Please note that identifying a topic is important, but it's not enough: you need to overtly state a thesis about the topic in your introduction that defines your argument in favor of your specific interpretation of the text or issue. Thus, you need to transform your topics into thesis statements:

  • Topic: "Why I am going to college"

    Thesis: "By going to college, I am attempting to set myself up for professional success in the future" or "College allows me to put off accepting the full responsibilities of adult life."
  • Topic: "Abortion"

    Thesis: "Abortion must be seen as murder since it terminates a life that would otherwise be born" or "Abortion frees women to pursue their personal, educational, and professional lives without being trapped by the consequences of an unwanted pregnancy that men generally never have to face."
  • Topic: "The Civil War"

    Thesis: "The Civil War was fought to defend state's rights guaranteed under the Tenth Amendment" or "The pretense that the Civil War was fought for state's rights whitewashes the reality that the 'right' being defended was to own people as property, and denying that fact is part of concerted effort to avoid the painful conversations about race that still need to occur."

In most literary courses, you can build a thesis around a range of interpretive lenses: history, politics, sociological or psychological issues, identity issues (gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.), aesthetics, and more. Most literature attempts to comment on the human condition, so building theses that explore these conditions is always an option.

Feel free to email paper topic ideas to me for suggestions on how to develop a thesis if you have difficulty developing your argument. Make sure you let me know what texts you are interested in and what specifically made you want to write about them.

Structure of a Literary Interpretation Paper

Most of you were taught the basic assumptions of a five-paragraph essay: an introduction that sets up your topic, thesis, and plan of development; three body paragraphs that address three points set up in the introduction's plan of development; and a conclusion that restates the thesis and the major points in the paper. That structure was meant to show the basic structure of most academic papers in a very manageable, short form: you need to set up what you want to prove clearly (introduction), you need to provide evidence to support your claim (the three body paragraphs), and you need to remind your audience of your major claim and connect it back to the major evidence found in the body (conclusion).

The challenge is to recognize that this structure—introduction, body, and conclusion—doesn't have to be five paragraphs. You can have a two-paragraph opening. You can have more body paragraphs than just three (or fewer). You need to close your argument by reviewing your major claim and the evidence, which may require a few paragraphs for a conclusion. Follow the basic pattern of the introduction/body/conclusion, but play with the number of paragraphs needed to complete each part.

Here's what's generally expected for each major section in the paper:


  • Don't start with a biographical or historical fact: start with an issue that sets up a context for the topic that makes it worth reading.
  • If you are working with one or two texts, introduce them by title and author. Make sure you mark the title correctly and spell the author's name correctly.
  • Make sure the topic and your thesis/argument/interpretation are clearly expressed. Do not simply announce that you will discuss a topic without giving the point you want to prove.
  • Set up your major points in the paper. There will probably be more than three.
  • End with a restatement of your overall thesis to serve as a springboard into the paper.

Body Paragraphs:

  • Make sure each paragraph starts with a tab (1/2" indention of the first line). Don't use five spaces.
  • Make sure that you have turned off the gaps between paragraphs.
  • The first sentence should create a transition from the previous paragraph and set up the central claim you are trying to prove in the paragraph.
  • Provide textual evidence to support your point through quotations.
  • Set up your quotations with a signal phrase, give citations, and discuss what the quotation means.
  • Don't start or end a paragraph with a quotation: you need to set up a point before you can give a quote to support your point. You need to discuss your quotation before ending the paragraph to make sure that readers understand how you specifically interpreted the quotation.
  • Don't end the paragraph with a new claim or point that isn't supported by the paragraph just to make a transition. Put the transition at the start of the next paragraph.


  • Create a clear transition that signals that you are bringing the paper to a close.
  • Don't use "in conclusion" as the transition.
  • Remind readers of the topic, why it's important, and what your specific argument actually is.
  • Review the major points of the paper.
  • Consider applying your interpretation to broader issues in history or modern life today.

Note that these guidelines are intended to help student writers get a handle on what is expected. All of these "rules" can be broken, but if you do so, make sure you understand the cost and benefits of challenging your reader's expectations of a literary analysis.

Expectations for the paper:

  • Page Count: The paper will be 4-6 pages long. Four pages means to the bottom of the fourth page without manipulating the margins, font, spacing, or similar word processing gimmicks. You should be within 1/4th of a page above or below the page count target using MLA format. The works cited page does not count in the total page count.
  • Format: The paper should follow MLA format. Do not use a cover page.
  • Font, Margins, and Spacing: Please use Times New Roman 12-point font (including the page numbers in the header). Use 1" margins (you may need to change this setting). Double space the paper but turn off the extra gap between paragraphs.
  • Author Names: On first use of the author's name, give the name as it appears on the text exactly. After the first use, give the last name only unless there are multiple authors with the same last name. Do not use honorifics like "Mr.," "Ms.," "Dr.," etc. unless there's a specific reason for using it that is clear from the context. Spell the names correctly.
  • Titles: Verify if the title should be in italics (normally large works like books, web sites, periodicals, etc.), quotation marks (normally smaller works like short stories, essays, individual pages on web sites, articles, etc.), or no marks at all (religious texts, government documents, etc.). Verify that you have followed MLA capitalization rules.
  • Cite your sources, both quoted and paraphrased: any direct quotation should be within quotes and have an in-text, parenthetical citation per MLA rules. Data points, facts, or paraphrased ideas also require a citation even if they are not direct quotes.
  • At least one block quote is required: you need at least one block quote in your paper. Block quotes should be indented ½" from the left (do not change the right margin). They should be double spaced. Drop the quotation marks normally used to show it's a quote. Put the citation after the final punctuation.  Make sure that when you continue your discussion after the quote is finished that you don't accidentally indent your first line of discussion. Block quotes must be four lines or more of prose in your one-inch margins before you can indent.
  • Use proper quote mechanics: all quotes should have a signal phrase, quotation, citation, and discussion. Verify that you punctuate your signal phrases correctly.
  • In-Text Citations: Follow the MLA rules for in-text citations, verifying that the author's last name is in the sentence, along with the page number of the text. The author's last name needs to line up with the first item in the Works Cited entry for the source. Modify as needed given the source's information following MLA rules.
  • Works Cited Page: since all papers require textual evidence, you will need an MLA Works Cited page with at least one text on it. The page should start at the top of the page, have the phrase "Works Cited" centered on the first line. Individual citations should follow MLA guidelines. Citations for texts found in the anthology textbook for the course should follow the rules for a text in an anthology. You may wish to use the cross-referencing technique for works from an anthology. Citations should be alphabetical, double-spaced (without extra gaps between paragraphs), and use hanging indents to keep the first line flush with the left margin with subsequent lines in the citation indented half an inch.
  • Special Issues with Poetry: If you are working with poems, there are some unique rules about quotes and citations you should review.

Online Resources to Help with the Paper:

The following resources may help you as you work on the paper.



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