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Click on any  part or section below:

Part I. Basics/Process

  A. Chapters 1-6: Start

  B. Ch. 7-13: Organize

  C. Ch. 14-20: Revise/Edit

Part II. College Writing

   D. Ch. 21-23: What Is It?

   E. Ch. 24-30: Write on Rdgs.

   F. Ch.31-35: Arguments

  G. Ch. 36-42: Research

  H. Ch. 43-48: Literature

   I.  Ch. 49-58: Majors & Work

Part III. Grammar

 Study Questions




How should you write a literary review?


Introduction: A Definition

Problem and Assignment

The Steps of the Process

     1. Rough Drafting

     2. Organizing

     3. Final Drafting



Sample Papers (Separate Web Page)


See also Prewriting Activities and Critical Alternatives.


Introduction: A Definition

A literary review is an academic version of a typical book or movie review.  In formal academic language, it performs three primary functions:

(1) It describes the contents using the elements of literature using some kind of clear order, usually by element or by plot. 

(2) It discusses possible interpretations or arguments for and against its contents by the author's, the review writer's, and/or the reading public's opinions and feelings.

(3) It evaluates the quality of the writing using several worthy, balanced, and logical evaluative categories of judgment. 

A literary review is not a mere "book report."  Neither does it wander about aimlessly, making points here and offering descriptions there.  While the three parts of it--description, interpretation/argument, and evaluation sometimes may be intermixed, each part is clear to a reader and very much present in substantial degree.  A literary review also is not a negative blast or angst of emotion; rather, it is given with all due respect and balance for the author's attempt at writing, be it excellent or poor, and for the author's subject matter, whether worthy or not.


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Problem and Assignment

The Problem

We can more fully appreciate and understand literature if we examine it and share this examination with others. The type of examination we will look at in this chapter is a literary review for a public audience. We should assume the audience has not yet read the work of literature. Our role in writing a review can be to imagine that we are a literary critic writing a newspaper or magazine review of a literary work. Our audience is the readers of the newspaper or magazine. Our need is to offer a review of the literary work by describing, interpreting, and evaluating it, so that readers may decide whether they will read it. This kind of examination of literature is called a "literary review" and may be easier to write well if we have mixed feelings about the literary work we review--or we actively dislike it.

The Assignment 

Offer an evaluative conclusion of a work of literature--how it is well or poorly written or constructed. Then build up to this conclusion by using three to four body divisions: In the first--optional--division, summarize details of the author's life that relate to the work. In the second division, describe in unbiased terms the work itself. In the third, offer several possible interpretations of the work. And in the fourth, give several evaluations of the work's quality as a work of art.

The final literary examination also should have an introduction and a conclusion that summarize and that you should print in standard essay form.



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The Process

Here are three major steps of focusing during the writing process. Each is further divided (in most chapters) into two sub-steps. Remember that you may rearrange or otherwise change the steps shown here to suit your individual writing needs.

1. FOCUS ON A FIRST DRAFT (Brainstorm Ideas & Create a Rough Draft):

Brainstorm: Skim this chapter and its samples. Choose a work you do not like, then imagine you must write a news review of it. Start with a list of ideas or images.

Create a Rough Draft: Quickly write a rough draft. Do not organize unless doing so makes the writing easier.

2. FOCUS ON ORGANIZING (Evaluate Your Needs and Organize):

Evaluate: Read the chapter and samples. Then evaluate how best to organize your rough draft.


Develop organizational parts:

Introduction: Your initial evaluative conclusion/judgment

Background (optional): brief biography of author

Body: Descriptions of the literary work (elements of literature).
Interpretations of work (interpretive meanings, arguments, implications)
Evaluations of work (judgments of its quality)

Conclusion: Your final evaluative conclusion/judgment

3. FOCUS ON A FINAL DRAFT (Revise and Edit):

Revise: Consider audience knowledge of the literary work. Use lots of Q's and/or P's from the work to prove and explain your points. Develop a serious, formal tone and style.

Edit: When you are done with bigger changes, polish. Fix grammatical usage, spelling, and punctuation. Quote, paraphrase, and cite correctly.


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1. Rough Drafting


Start brainstorming by feeding your brain: skim this chapter for several minutes or read this page. Skim the sample papers. Notice that the heart of a literary review is an evaluative conclusion using descriptions, interpretations, and evaluations to reach this conclusion.

When brainstorming your paper, here are some ways to start. If you wish, you may combine more than one:

(1) Write a list of ideas or images, and then narrow the choices.
(2) Make up a situation.
(3) Sit back, relax, breathe, clear your mind, and imagine a scene.
(4) Think of a person you know to whom you could write this paper.
(5) Think of a feeling or wish and how you could use it to write this paper.

To get started, try you need to consider whether you can choose what you want to read. A literary review probably will be easiest to write if you dislike --or having strongly mixed feelings about--your literary reading. If your instructor assigned your reading to you, then you will need to write a review according to how you felt about the reading.

To write about your literary work well, you will need to read it at least two to three times. Once you have read your assignment and skimmed this chapter and its samples, you may start rough drafting. There are several ways to rough draft.

Create a Draft

Then express your thinking on paper. Choose one idea and explore it: write quickly and spontaneously. Avoid worrying about grammar, spelling, or punctuation. You may entirely avoid organization, or you may use the organizational parts suggested either earlier in this chapter's introductory "Process" page, or in the "Organize" section later in this chapter. You may write using regular prose sentences and paragraphs, creating one giant paragraph, or developing a traditional or cluster outline. Try to write one-fourth to one-half or more of the final required length of the paper.

Be sure that you have skimmed the sample papers before proceeding. There are three separate ways given immediately below for rough drafting. The first way, summarizing the elements, is a good way to start if you are unsure about the contents or meaning of the literary work you have just read, and you want to get to know it better before examining it. The second and third ways, a rough-draft analysis and rough-draft review, are better for getting the organization of your final paper started. Your teacher may ask you to use one specific method or another--or possibly a combination of them. If you are choosing, read the directions for all three rough-draft methods and select the one best suited to your needs.

Rough Drafting by Summarizing the Elements

One way to brainstorm a first-draft examination of literature is to summarize some of the basic elements of the literary work you have read. The elements of literature already have been well discussed in the "Literary Analysis" chapter: return to it for understanding what to look for when searching for and then describing the elements of the work you have read.

However, there is a difference in how you present these elements. In the "Analysis" chapter, you were told to present the elements to an academic or literary audience that, it is likely, already has read the work you are describing. You also were told to present the elements in order from the smallest detail to the broadest (e.g., from use of descriptions of scene and character to broader symbols and plot, and then to themes and arguments). However, when you are writing a literary review, you are writing for a different audience: a public audience, not an academic one. In addition, your audience not only will not have read the work; moreover, it is reading your review in order to make a decision about whether to read the work you are reviewing. For this reason, you must place the elements of literature in a different order: use the order that will make it easiest for your readers to get a sense of the entire work.

Thus it likely will be best to start your review’s "Description" section by offering your readers the outlines of the plot and setting, with characters following soon after. Remember when you describe the plot to not write a summary of the entire work’s events or action, but rather to break the plot into discreet parts: hero/heroines, villains/obstacles, and resolutions/outcomes. Likewise, when you describe setting and characters, do not just summarize casually, but rather use such basic descriptive systems as the five W’s of journalism, the five senses, and historical/psychological/social facts.

Continue on, then, to such elements as voice, tone, language, and symbols, and offer your readers an understanding of what some of the likely major themes are. When you discuss themes, keep to the obvious ones. If you see other themes, ones that are arguable, consider saving those more interpretive themes for the second body section.

Rough Drafting by Describing, Interpreting, & Evaluating (Review)

A third way to brainstorm a first-draft examination of literature is to begin making a literary review immediately. To write a review, remember that your role is that of a newspaper or magazine critic who is writing to readers who have not yet read the literary work you are writing about. You must review the work for them, helping them decide whether it is worth reading, by describing the work, interpreting it, and evaluating it.

How should you describe, interpret, and evaluate? First, when learning how to use these three functions, it is best to carefully keep the functions separate. When you describe, do only that. When you interpret, do not let evaluations also creep in. In addition, when you evaluate, do so thoroughly. Each of these three functions is a step with the second built upon the first, and the third built upon the second. If you do the first step well, the second step will be easier. If you do the second step well, the third step will be easier.

Here are the three steps:

DESCRIPTIONS: Simply describe what is actually there. Give the facts--a summary of the important details--with which no one would disagree. In other words, summarize briefly the literary elements described above as they exist in your chosen literary work, starting with the larger elements such as theme, voice, tone, plot, and setting, and ending with smaller details such as characters, symbols, language, and other descriptions. Try to touch upon all or most of the elements, and do so evenly without too much time or space devoted to just one or two elements. Stick to describing only what is actually there--do not comment on whether you like or dislike something, and don't try to interpret any meanings. Stick with obvious facts.

You may also describe facts about the author's life--without speculating about their meaning. However, most of your descriptions should deal with the elements of literature as used in the work you have read, and not with the author's life. In addition, remember to be brief--do not allow descriptions to overwhelm the equally or more important interpretations and evaluations.

INTERPRETATIONS: Offer interpretations of what you think the author might have intended as the purpose(s) of this literary work--what did he or she want to accomplish or have happen? Why did the author write it as she did? In addition to these author-centered interpretations, you may also offer reader-centered interpretations: what meanings and purposes might the readers find in it that relate to them psychologically, socially, ethically, emotionally, or in any other way, and why?

As you interpret, stick just to doing that. If you feel the need for more descriptions, add them to the descriptions section. And as you interpret, don't jump ahead to evaluation: don't yet evaluate whether some part of the literary work is well or poorly done, good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant. Save these evaluative comments for the evaluation section only.

EVALUATIONS: Evaluations is based on sound descriptions and interpretations. Once the first two steps have been accomplished, it is possible to judge how well or poorly the literary work has been written. Here are some of the possible judgments you can make. Answer some of these questions, especially about important or key parts of the literary work, and explain why the judgment is true using details from the work:

(1) Is the literary work (or one or more elements of it) strong?
(2) weak?
(3) effective/ineffective as a work of art?
(4) complete/missing something?
(5) pleasing/unpleasing; disturbing/satisfying?
(6) consistent/contradictory?
(7) fair/unfair; biased/unbiased?
(8) emotionally powerful/weak?
(9) moral/immoral?
(10) Will there be positive/negative affects on readers?
(11) How does it compare positively with one or more similar works?
(12) How does it contrast with one or more similar works?

Other evaluative questions also are possible. For a rough draft, you may want to work on the answers to just one or two important questions, or you may want to briefly answer as many of the questions as possible. Your ultimate goal will be to discuss the answers to several of these evaluative questions in detail.

That is how to make a rough-draft review. If you give your rough-draft review to other students or a teacher for a judgment of how you are doing, be sure that a majority of the rough draft includes both interpretations and evaluations. These two steps are the more difficult ones and the ones most in need of judgment and suggestions from others.

Why write literary examinations?

A literary review has its uses in the worlds of school and work. The three steps of reviewing--describing, interpreting, and evaluating--are among the most 12 basic steps of good critical thinking: in chemistry and biology, for example, good experimental procedure asks that you first describe the factual details of your experiment; second, offer possible interpretations of the results; and third, evaluate how well or poorly the experiment was conducted. In academic research in any field, you first must gather the details (do the research), then examine the details for possible interpretations, and then evaluate these interpretations--why and how some are correct and others are wrong. Describing, interpreting, and evaluating are three steps at the core of good, thorough intellectual thinking.

Similarly in the world of work, describing, interpreting, and evaluating are essential to good business, both as a method of creative growth and as a method of cautious appraisal. Those in the business world who help make decisions must be able to do the following: (1) examine any situation without personal bias or prejudice to see all the relevant facts; (2) perceive several possible interpretations, points of view, or recommendations, employees, or customers in any given situation; and (3) evaluate the positives and negatives of each interpretation, point of view, or recommendation, employee, or customer. Good business thinking is good critical thinking, and describing, interpreting, and evaluating is a common pattern of thinking in the business world.


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2. Organizing


Start thinking critically about your paper by reading the chapter and the sample papers carefully. Then ask yourself, "How well can my rough draft meet the needs of this paper?" Some rough drafts may fit closely while others may require shifting of tone or parts. Still other rough drafts may need partial or complete rewriting.

Use a set of criteria--a series of judgments--to help you evaluate whether and how your rough draft meets the assignment needs. Here are some possible criteria to consider:

a. Is the tone right--does the rough draft sound like this type of paper?
b. Can I organize my rough draft or its idea into the needed parts?
c. Who is my primary audience and are the contents right for it?
d. Do I like my rough draft? If not, could I rewrite it so I do?
e. Do I need to understand the subject any better than I already do?
f. Do I need to read all or parts of the literary work once or twice more?
g. Have I chosen the right type of paper for my purposes, needs, and abilities?

Rough drafts are helpful starters for your thinking. The next step, however, requires evaluation of what you need to do with your rough draft to make it work best for this writing assignment. Sometimes this evaluation is simple, but sometimes it can be more complex. If it is complex, using the criteria above can help break the evaluation down into easier steps.


The next step is to organize your paper. If you have done the brainstorming well--especially if you have chosen to start your brainstorming by writing the beginning of a review--then organizing should not be difficult.

There are several ways to move from your rough draft to a more organized draft. If your rough draft is very rough, you may need to create divisions as described below by starting with a topic sentence for each, summarizing what you will say in that division. If you’ve already developed your rough draft by divisions, then you will need to polish these divisions and be sure that each one starts with a strong topic sentence. You may also want to use subtitles or space breaks between divisions to show where each new division begins. It is not traditional to do so; however, if you were to look in professional literary journals, you would find that many modern literary scholars do use some kind of divisional dividers.

Organize by divisions. Remember that the most important part of your writing as you organize is to have large numbers of quotes and paraphrases detailing your divisions. The introductions, divisions, and conclusions themselves will have these elements:


- BACKGROUND (optional)

- Conclusion: restatement of OVERALL EVALUATION

Here is a more detailed discussion of these parts:

(l) Introduction: Write an opening paragraph which summarizes in one sentence each or less (a) the author and title of the literary work and (b) your overall evaluation. The "overall evaluation" sentence would summarize in some way your final judgment or statement of value of the literary work. In longer or more fully developed papers, there may also be (c) a more formal detail, quotation, or example from the literary work, an example that typifies or best illustrates your thesis or evaluation.

(2) Background (optional): If you wish, you may write a brief biographical sketch of the author. This might include his/her previous works of interest or significance to your readers, his/her life and how it may have resulted in this or other works, and any awards or other literary or public recognition he/she has received. In other words, if you choose to write this section, offer readers the kind of informed background about the author that they might want reviewed or find interesting or helpful in deciding whether to read the reviewed literary work. Remember, however, to keep this section brief (just one or two paragraphs is sufficient) and to keep everything in it relevant to the work you are reviewing.

(3) Body: After the introduction, there are three divisions. Regular newspaper and magazine reviewers often mix these divisions much more than suggested here; however, keeping the three divisions well separated as intellectual functions or steps makes thinking about and using them easier to do correctly. Each of the divisions has been described in detail in the "Brainstorming" section above. Each division may be one or more paragraphs, and each division should be roughly the same size as the other divisions: do not spend a long of time and space on "descriptions" and have short "interpretations" and "evaluations" divisions. The main purpose of the review paper is to require the development of a number of different interpretations and evaluations. Here is how each division may appear:

Topic sentence.
Descriptions of the elements according to reader interest/clarification.

Topic sentence.
Several interpretations from most to least possible.
(May also be divided into author's and readers' interpretations).

Topic sentence.
Several evaluations from most developed to weakest.

(3) Conclusion: Write a closing paragraph which summarizes in one sentence each or less (a) the author or title of the literary work and (b) a closing restatement of your thesis or overall evaluation. In longer or more fully developed papers, there may also be (c) a final formal detail, quotation, or example from the literary work exemplifying your thesis or evaluation.


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3. Final Drafting


Rewrite what you have done. Literary examinations contain many references to the literary works that they examine. These references are the proofs or examples of the points you make. You will need to know how to write these references smoothly and sensibly. In addition, as you rewrite, you should be sure that all your details are in the divisions where they best fit, and that you do not have anything in your divisions which does not fit there. In addition, be sure that you have strong topic sentences at the beginnings of your divisions.

There are two ways to referring to a literary work or other source. One you know: it is the use of quotations. The other is called "paraphrasing." To paraphrase is to explain what someone has written or said, but in your own words. A quotation must always be in the person's own exact wording; a paraphrase always must be in your own wording:

QUOTATION: Martin Luther King said he had "been to the mountain top and seen the Promised Land" (258).

PARAPHRASE: Martin Luther King envisioned a perfect world (258).

Another important element of incorporating references is to do so smoothly with adequate explanations for the reader. This is especially true of quotations (and less so of paraphrases). Often it is best to introduce each quotation with a sentence of your own, and to close each quotation with another sentence of your own afterwards:

Your sentence. "Quotation." Your sentence.

The first sentence is a transition that may prepare the reader for the quote, summarize the idea of the quote, or simply introduce it. The last sentence may summarize the idea for the reader, conclude the paragraph, or simply provide a transition from that idea to the next one. Notice how the sentence with the quotation is enclosed like a sandwich by the introductory and closing sentences before and after it:

Another important concept is that of remaining free. According to Amelia Johnson, "We value freedom" (36). This means that people in our country consider freedom one of our most important values. For example, . . . .

Using this pattern insures not only smooth, easily read writing; it also insures that the author's point you are trying to emphasize is clearly made in exactly the way you intend.

Avoid Plagiarism

One more thing needs to be said in this revising section, and that is the importance of avoiding plagiarism. You probably won't need to worry about plagiarism if you are simply analyzing or reviewing one literary work without using any other sources. However, if you are going to use other sources--or even ideas from the back cover, inside cover, or introduction to your literary work--you must be careful to avoid plagiarism.

What is plagiarism? It is the use of someone else's words or ideas without giving that person credit. If you use someone else's words, you must put quotation marks around the words and give the source (author, title, and sometimes the page number). If you use someone else's ideas, you still must give that person credit! You do so by giving the source of the idea just as you would with a quotation, as explained above:

- AUTHOR'S WORDS -- Give his/her name and use " ."

- AUTHOR'S IDEA -- Give author's name, but don't use " ."
  Write it in YOUR WORDS.

In academic writing especially, plagiarism is considered highly unethical. Very highly placed people in some of our top universities have been fired or forced to resign because of plagiarism, even in cases where the plagiarism was unintended or accidental. In the business world, too, it is considered unethical--and in some cases can lead to lawsuits and loss of jobs.

So, if you plan on using anyone's ideas, even if from only the back cover of your literary work, you must give full credit to this source.


Use an editing strategy: make a list of your major and minor editing problems and needs, and then fix them one at a time. Don't try to fix everything in one sentence or paragraph, everything in the next, and everything in the next: this is both tiring and inefficient. You will find editing less tiring and be more efficient if you take care of just one or two types of problems at a time throughout the whole paper.

In addition, as you edit, avoid reading your contents as much as possible. If you read your contents while you edit, you will become caught in what you are saying instead of checking how you are saying it. One good way to avoid reading contents while you edit is to edit backward: start with your last sentence in the paper, then your next to the last, then your third to the last, etc. In this way you are less likely to pay attention to contents and more likely to notice editing needs.

In using quotations and paraphrases correctly, there also are some editing requirements. Quotations--the direct words you quote from literary works--always should have quotation marks (" ") around them, and remember always to use the author's actual, unchanged words when quoting. You may start a quotation and end it anywhere in an author's sentence where it is convenient for you--beginning, middle, or end. You also may leave words out of the middle of a sentence or even leave out whole sentences or paragraphs; however, if you leave words out, you should signify this by typing three dots-- . . . --to signify that words are missing.


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A literary review is simply an in-depth discussion of one or more aspects of a literary work. This chapter has explained the steps for completing this assignment and has shown outlines of the final product. The best reviews are thoughtful explorations of how to view literary works, explorations that challenge and interest both the writers of these papers and their 24 readers as well.


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Sample Papers (Separate Web Page)


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 43. What Is "Writing to Lit"?

 44. How To Read Literature

 45. Analysis of Elements

 46. Critical Analysis

 47. Interpretive Thesis

 48. Literary Review


Prewriting Activities

Critical  Alternatives


For writing about content in articles, essays, & books, see

E. Responding to Reading



 Related Links in

4. Literature, Reading, & Writing


Updated 16 July 2017





Writing for College by Richard Jewell is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 CC iconby iconnc iconsa icon also is at and

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1st through 5th Editions:: Writing for School & Work, 1984-1998;, 1998-2012
6th Edition: 8-1-12, rev. 8-1-13.  Text, design, and photos copyright 2002-12 by R. Jewell or as noted.
Permission is hereby granted for nonprofit educational copying and use without a written request.
Click here to contact the author: Richard Jewell.  Questions and suggestions are welcome.