Chapter 48: LITERARY REVIEW
How should you write a literary review?
Problem and Assignment
The Steps of the Process
1. Rough Drafting
3. Final Drafting
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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
(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
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Problem and Assignment
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.
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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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):
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
2. FOCUS ON ORGANIZING (Evaluate
Your Needs and Organize):
Read the chapter and samples. Then evaluate how best to organize your rough
Develop organizational parts:
Introduction: Your initial evaluative conclusion/judgment
(optional): brief biography of author
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
3. FOCUS ON A FINAL DRAFT (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
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
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
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:
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.
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 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
(1) Is the literary work (or one or more
elements of it) strong?
(3) effective/ineffective as a work of art?
(4) complete/missing something?
(5) pleasing/unpleasing; disturbing/satisfying?
(7) fair/unfair; biased/unbiased?
(8) emotionally powerful/weak?
(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
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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
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
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
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:
- Introduction: OVERALL EVALUATION
- BACKGROUND (optional)
- Conclusion: restatement of OVERALL
Here is a more detailed discussion of these
(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
(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
Descriptions of the elements according to reader interest/clarification.
Several interpretations from most to least possible.
(May also be divided into author's and readers' interpretations).
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
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.
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 " ."
Use the AUTHOR’S WORDS.
- 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
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
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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