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Writing about Literature

The Writing Process

Getting Started

Choosing a Text

If the assignment allows you to choose which text to write about, try letting your initial impressions or "gut reactions" guide you. If you do so, your first impulse may be to choose a text that you like or "get" right away. Perhaps its language resembles your own; it depicts speakers, characters, or situations that you easily relate to; or it explores issues that you care deeply about. Following that first impulse can be a great idea. Writing an engaging essay requires being engaged with whatever we’re writing about, and we all find it easier to engage with texts, authors, and/or characters that we like immediately.

You may discover, however, that you have little interesting or new to say about such a text. Perhaps you’re too emotionally invested to analyze it closely, or maybe its meaning seems so obvious that there’s no puzzle or problem to drive an argument. You might, then, find it more productive to choose a work that provokes the opposite reaction—one that initially puzzles or angers you, one whose characters or situations seem alien, one that investigates an issue you haven’t previously thought much about or that articulates a theme you don’t agree with. Sometimes such negative responses can have surprisingly positive results when it comes to writing. One student writer, for example, summed up her basic response to William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell with the words "He’s crazy." Initially, the poem made no sense to her. And that’s precisely why she decided to write about it: she needed to do so, to make sense of it for other readers, in order to make sense of it for herself. In the end, she wrote a powerful essay exploring how the poem defined, and why it celebrated, seeming insanity.

When writing about a text that you’ve discussed in class, you might make similar use of your "gut responses" to that conversation. Did you strongly agree or disagree with one of your classmate’s interpretations of a particular text? If so, why not write about it?

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