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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 argue for an interpretation of a literary work?


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

We can more fully appreciate and understand literature if we examine it and share this examination with others. The most common method of examination is an argumentative literary paper: an interpretive thesis. Sometimes an interpretive thesis also is called an "interpretive literary thesis." Note that an interpretive literary thesis differs from the simple literary analysis discussed in an earlier chapter in this textbook: an interpretive thesis or analysis argues; a simple literary analysis does not argue but rather just points out the elements of literature in a literary work.


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Problem and Assignment

The Problem

An interpretive thesis usually is written for an academic audience. This audience probably already has read the same work of literature. Our role in writing this kind of paper is that of a serious student of literature speaking to other serious students of literature. Our need is to argue in favor of our own interpretation of the literary work or some part of it, and offer the reasons why we have chosen this interpretation. This kind of examination may be easier to write well if we choose a literary work we like.

The Assignment 

Choose an interesting, new, or unusual way of interpreting some part of a literary work you find especially enjoyable or meaningful to you. You may choose something to do with larger meanings sweeping through the whole work, or some particular meaning for a more limited part such as some smaller aspect of character, setting, or symbol. Then give a variety of reasons for why your interpretation is true. Assume your audience already has read the same work. Use several or more body divisions, one for each reason. In each body division, support your reason with one or more quotes or paraphrases.

The final draft of the paper also should have an introduction and a conclusion that summarizes and should be printed 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 literary work you like; then imagine an interesting argument to make about 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.

Organize: Develop organizational parts:

Your Interpretation
   Reason why #1
   Reason why #2
   Reason why #3
   (Reasons why #4/5)

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 an interpretive thesis is an argument with several supporting reasons why it is true.

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

  • Write a list of ideas or images, and then narrow the choices.

  • Make up a situation.

  • Sit back, relax, breathe, clear your mind, and imagine a scene.

  • Think of a person you know to whom you could write this paper.

  • Think of a feeling or wish and how you could use it to write this paper.

To get started, you need to consider whether you can choose what you want to read. If you can make this choice, then you may want to choose a literary reading which you know you will enjoy: writing a thesis is much easier if we like what we've read. However, if your reading has been assigned to you, you may try to pick apart what you enjoyed about it by choosing a thesis that will help you do this. On the other hand, you certainly may be negative as well. However, whether you are negative, positive, or both, remember that every point you make should tie in with your interpretive thesis, helping to prove it is true.

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 two separate ways given 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 arguing about it. The second way, a rough-draft interpretive thesis, is 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 both 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. Some of the major elements to summarize are as follows. These are discussed in more detail in Chapter 8: "WRITING ABOUT LITERATURE--The Elements of Literature." Reading this earlier chapter is necessary for being able to use this chapter well.

PLOT (hero/heroine, villain/obstacles, and goal/solution)
CHARACTERS (three-, two- and one-dimensional characters)
SETTINGS (places)
VOICE (1st or 3rd person)
TONE (high, common, serious, humorous, sly, obvious, etc.)
LANGUAGE (use of words, phrases, sounds, rhythms, rhymes, etc.)
SYMBOLS (metaphors, similes, et al.)
THEMES (major and/or minor)

Rough Drafting by Interpretation

Another way to brainstorm a first-draft examination of literature is to begin interpreting--start making an interpretive thesis--immediately. Remember that your role is that of a serious student of literature writing to other serious students of literature, and that all of you have read the same literary work. When writing this type of paper, do not start with a summary of the plot, characters, or other elements. Instead, start by choosing an argument to make about how to interpret the literary work or some part of it. You are not trying to convince these other readers that your way is the only way or even the best way to view the literary work. All you have to do is convince your readers that your interpretation makes sense--that it is at least logical.

What is an "interpretation"? It is your assumption, based on your experience, knowledge, and point of view, of some kind of meaning in the story that is more than just a simple theme obvious to most casual readers. You need to start an interpretation--an interpretive thesis--with a clear thesis sentence that states your special or unusual point of view. Some interpretations are author-centered: they may be interpretations that the author intended. However, other interpretations are reader-centered: they are interpretations available to readers, even if the author of the reading never intended them. Here are some examples:

COMPARISON-CONTRAST: (1) "A comparison and a contrast of Romeo with Juliet shows that one of them typifies modern adolescents, but the other does not."

CAUSE-EFFECT: "From the moment they first spy each other, there is a fateful chain of cause and effect leading to Romeo and Juliet's deaths."

CLASSIFICATION: "There are five types of love demonstrated in Romeo and Juliet romantic, erotic, friendship, familial, and religious."

PSYCHOLOGY: "Romeo and Juliet typify teenagers who must deal with dysfunctional parents."

POLITICS: "The two clans in Romeo and Juliet, the Montagues and the Capulets, are symbols of opposing political parties such as the Democrats and the Republicans."

ANTHROPOLOGY: "Romeo and Juliet demonstrate many of the same mating rituals as do teenagers in aboriginal societies."

FEMINIST STUDIES: "Juliet demonstrates many of the modern traits of a contemporary feminist caught between traditional and modern gender values and roles."

PHILOSOPHY: "Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet demonstrate an unshakably positive acceptance of the philosopher Plato's world of the Ideal.

ETHICS: "The play Romeo and Juliet demonstrates why it is morally right [or wrong] to let teenagers fall in love with whomever they choose."

BUSINESS/ECONOMICS: "Romeo, Juliet, their family, and their friends exemplify a culture of both privilege and hard work in the class to which they belong."

How do you develop a thesis? Some people have ideas after reading a literary work once. Others cannot develop a solid, easily identifiable idea even after reading a literary work several times. Many people find that they start with a fuzzy idea that they can state only vaguely; then, as they investigate this idea by writing about it and examining it in the literary work, their idea takes on more clarity and depth. Sometimes the opposite happens, too: people discover their initial idea is not useful for analyzing the literary work, and they must choose a new idea. However, sometimes such "failures" really are necessary to success: without thinking of and experimenting with one or two poor ideas first, it might not be possible to discover an idea that works.

The more creative the idea or thesis you finally choose, the better. Just be sure that you can find adequate proof of your thesis in the literary work you are analyzing, and also be sure that there is not strong proof against your thesis in the literary work. It is good to have highly creative and unusual interpretations, provided you can support them by details. It also is acceptable to have a more usual or average interpretation; however, avoid having a thesis that is so obvious to the other readers of the literary work that they could choose your thesis and write your paper as easily as you. You want to have at least some originality in your choice of a thesis.

Sometimes the best way to develop a thesis is to brainstorm a list of several, then choose the one which you think is most unique and/or which grabs you the most, emotionally, as an interesting idea with which to work. Often it also helps to take your list of ideas to your teacher and ask him or her which one she would find the more interesting.

Once you have chosen your thesis, you may start writing in brainstorm fashion: write as much as you can as fast as you can about the different details in the literary work which help prove or illustrate your thesis. When brainstorming you may write about any of the details in any order you want. However, if you prefer a specific game plan, often you are better off starting with the smaller details such as descriptions and actions of setting and characters, then working your way to larger details such as symbols, plot, and theme. Be sure to stick to using details from the literary work itself: don't start discussing your own life or anything else outside of the work you are analyzing, except perhaps briefly in passing--and then only if doing so helps you prove or explain to your readers what you mean.


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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 literary thesis--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 your rough draft already is developed by divisions, then you will need to polish these divisions and be sure that each one starts with a strong topic sentence. If you have many proofs, you probably will not want or need subtitles. However, if you have just a few main proofs, each of which you will develop at length using several paragraphs, then 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 amounts of quotes and paraphrases detailing your divisions. The introductions, divisions, and conclusions themselves will have these elements:



- Conclusion: restatement of ARGUMENT

Here is a more detailed discussion of these parts. The introduction and conclusion of both types of papers are discussed together. The divisions of a literary thesis and of a review are discussed separately:

(l) Introduction: Write an opening paragraph which summarizes in one sentence each or less the author and title of the literary work and your basic thesis. 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.

(2) Body: Then have a series of reasons why your thesis is true. If you to outline your thesis, you would have a thesis sentence and the reasons it is true, as follows:

__[Your idea]__ is true because: __[reason #1]__
                                                 __[reason #2]__
                                                 __[reason #3]__
                                                 __[reason #4]__
                                                 __[reason #5]__

Most interpretive analyses offer at least three reasons--in three divisions--explaining why their theses are true. Usually it is best to work from smaller details in the beginning of your paper to larger details in the end. This is because it is better to attend to the parts of the whole first, then the whole later, in order to be sure that all the parts are right, first, before passing judgment on the whole. It is too easy to make a snap judgment about the whole literary work, only to find, when the parts are examined more carefully, that the whole was judged incorrectly. "Smaller parts" means elements such as language, descriptions, such as major characters, plot, and theme. In a short thesis paper, each reason might be as little as one paragraph long (but could be longer). In a longer thesis, each reason might need several paragraphs to be properly developed. The discussion of each reason is a division, whether that discussion and division is one or many paragraphs. Divisions may vary in length. Whether you have a short paper or long, the structure of each division (whether one paragraph or many) is as follows. "Topic sentence" means, in this case, a sentence stating your next reason why your thesis is true:

             \     Topic sentence.    /
               \                    /
                \   details with   /
             \   quotations,  /
                  \ paraphrases, /
                   \     or     /
                    \   both.  /
                     \        /
                      \      /
                       \    /
                        \  /

Are you allowed to use details from biographical materials about the author? The answer is "sometimes." Some teachers allow or encourage this practice; others discourage it. If you do use biographical materials, do so sparingly: most of your details which prove your thesis should come from the literary work itself.

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


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3. Final Drafting


Revise what you have done. Interpretive analyses 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. Furthermore, be sure that you have a strong topic sentence at the beginning of each proof.

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.

AN EASY RULE OF THUMB: An easy rule of thumb to follow when your literary work is your only source is this: the first place in your paper that you quote or paraphrase your source, be sure you name the author. After that, supply the name of the author or title at the beginning of most quotes and paraphrases.


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An interpretive literary thesis is simply an in-depth argument about 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 analyses are thoughtful explorations of how to view literary works, explorations that challenge and interest both the writers of these papers and their readers as well.


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Sample Paper (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 2 March 2014

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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.
Images courtesy of Barry's Clip Art, Clip Art Warehouse, The Clip Art Universe, Clipart Collection, MS Clip Art Gallery and Design Gallery Live, School Discovery, and Web Clip Art
Click here to contact the author: Richard Jewell.  Questions and suggestions are welcome.