How to Write an Interpretive Essay and Literary Analysis

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How to NOT Write an Interpretive Essay

Remember when you assigned a literary analysis or an interpretive essay and all you got was 237 summaries of a short story you’d already read 15 times, so you slammed your hand in the filing cabinet drawer until you drew blood and broke every finger? The better option, of course, would have been to teach students how to write an interpretive essay or to teach students how to write a literary analysis.

The Basics

Use the following guidelines for teaching how to write an interpretive essay or how to write a literary analysis:

  • The introduction must introduce the literary work, capture the reader’s attention, and include a clearly written thesis statement that contains the literary interpretation.
  • The body of the essay must support the thesis statement through evidence–facts, examples, summaries–and commentary–opinions, analysis, interpretation, insight.
  • The conclusion summarizes the interpretation and allows the writer to draw attention to the most important aspects of the analysis.

An ‘A’ essay does the following:

  • Identifies the author, title, and gives a brief summary of the literary work.
  • Provides a clear interpretation of the author’s message and purpose.
  • Provides details, quotations, and other evidence to support the interpretation.

Drafting and Revising

When teaching how to write a literary analysis or interpretive essay, emphasize the following:

  1. Reread the literary work several times. This seems logical to teachers. It’s not logical for students. Read through the first time to get a feel for the work. Reread and look for passages and ideas that stand out or have special meaning.
  2. Before drafting, brainstorm possible interpretations. A good strategy is to write annotations as you read.
  3. Discuss the interpretation with others who have read the work. As a teacher, it’s important to have class discussions on works being analyzed.
  4. Make sure you have a clear answer to the following questions as you write or revise:
    • What is the main point of the essay? This main point should be clearly identified in the thesis statement.
    • What evidence best supports the interpretation?
    • Are there any points that should be added to clarify the interpretation?
    • Is there any superfluous evidence that could be deleted?

Common Pitfalls of Literary Analysis

Following are the most common errors with literary analysis:

  1. Writing a Summary: No matter how many times you emphasize that you do not want a summary, you’ll still get them. The only way to eliminate this error is to model analysis and give really low grades to students who summarize rather than analyze.
  2. Listing Facts: A close relative of the summary is listing facts. It’s also called the, “I’ll list as many facts as I can about this literary work and hope the teacher doesn’t grade it very closely” syndrome. Explain that listing facts without explaining how the fact supports the thesis statement or why that fact is important is useless.
  3. Having No Evidence: At the other end of the bad analysis spectrum is the no evidence analysis. It consists of nothing but conjecture.

Mini Lesson

Teach how to write a literary analysis or how to write an interpretive essay and avoid the common pitfalls before you assign the essay. Try this exercise:

  1. Write down a specific quotation or example from a literary work.
  2. Underneath the quote write the phrase this shows________.
  3. Complete the sentence two times for each quotation.
  4. Discuss answers and point out the difference between analysis and summary.
  5. Once students have the basic idea down, assign the essay.
  6. Another option is to have them answer discussion questions in the following format: 1 detail from the story, with 2 pieces of analysis.

Unit Plans

Find an entire semester of lesson plans and handouts coordinated with language arts standards with this English syllabus.

This post is part of the series: Different Types of Essays

Implement these strategies for different types of essays.

  1. Lesson Plan: How to Write a Reflective Essay
  2. Interpretive Essay Lesson Plan: How to Write a Literary Analysis
  3. Writing a Career Research Paper
  4. Lesson Plan: How to Write a Problem/Solution Essay
  5. American History Project Ideas: Capturing Oral History