How to Analyze Literature
How to Analyze Texts
Throughout your academic studies, you’ll be expected to analyze many texts. Analyzing a text on your own can be very intimidating, but it gets easier once you know how to do it. Before analyzing any text, you’ll need to thoroughly study it. Then, tailor your analysis to fit either fiction or nonfiction. Finally, you can write an analysis passage, if necessary.
Studying the Text
Write out essential questions or learning objectives for the text.In many cases, these will be provided by your instructor. If not, consider why you are reading the text, what you hope to take from it, and how you will use the text. As you read, try to address the essential questions or objectives.
- Include your answers to these questions or objectives in your notes about the text.
Read the text.It’s hard to analyze a text you haven’t read! Do a slow, close reading of the text. As you read, look for content that addresses your essential questions or objectives. You’ll likely need to read the text multiple times to fully understand it.
- Although it’s best to read the text at least twice, this may be harder with longer texts. If this is the case, you can re-read difficult passages within the book.
Annotate the text by highlighting and writing in the margins.Annotating means marking up a text to help you understand it. Use different colored highlighters to mark important passages in the text. Alternatively, you could underline passages. Include your notes, ideas, and short summaries in the margins.
- For example, use a yellow highlighter to indicate main ideas, and use an orange highlighter to mark the supporting details.
- For fiction, use a different colored highlighter for passages related to each main character.
Take notes as you read.Include the answers to your essential questions or objectives, ideas the text brings to mind, and important information from within the text. Make sure you write down the main ideas and any supporting details provided by the text.
- For a fiction text, write down the names and basic information about characters. Additionally, make note of any symbolism and use of literary devices.
- For a nonfiction text, write down important facts, figures, methods, and dates.
Summarize each section of the text.Once you have a sense of the text's structure, writing short summaries will help you better understand what the author is saying. If the text has sections, use the existing sections to create your summaries. Otherwise, you could summarize every paragraph or every few paragraphs.
- For example, summarize each chapter of a novel. On the other hand, summarize each paragraph of a small article.
Write out your own response to the text.How you feel about the text can help you analyze it. However, don’t base your entire analysis on your own thoughts. Consider your response alongside the rest of your analysis. Ask yourself the following questions to help shape your response:
- What am I taking away from the piece?
- How do I feel about the topic?
- Did this text entertain me or inform me?
- What will I do with this information now?
- How does this text apply to real life?
Make a reverse outline of the text.A reverse outline works backwards from an existing text to develop the framework of the text. This helps you examine the structure of the text.
- For a work of fiction, outline the plot of the story, as well as any important details and literary devices.
- For a nonfiction text, focus on the main points, evidence, and supporting details.
Read other analyses of the text.Looking for other analyses of the text can help you contextualize your initial thoughts and feelings. You don't have to agree with everything you read, nor should you depend on the analyses of others for your own work. However, reports, essays, and reviews from other scholars can help you get a better initial sense of the text.
- These analyses are easy to find through a quick internet search. Just type in the name of your text followed by the word, "analysis."
Review the context of the text, such as when it was written.Knowing the background of the text and its author can help you understand the influences on the text. To understand the context of the text, answer the following questions:
- When was the text written?
- What is the historical background of the work?
- What is the author’s background?
- What genre does the author work in?
- Who are the author's contemporaries?
- How does this text fit in with the author's larger body of work?
- Did the writer provide their inspiration for the text?
- What type of society does the author come from?
- How does the text’s time period shape its meaning?
Identify the theme of the text.The theme encompasses the subject and the writer’s thoughts on that subject. It helps to think of the theme as the message of the book. What is the author trying to say?
- A short story might have 1 or 2 themes, while a novel might have several. If the text has several themes, they might be related.
- For example, the themes of a sci-fi novel might be “technology is dangerous” and “cooperation can overcome tyranny.”
Determine the main ideas of the text.The main ideas will likely be related to the theme of the text. Examine the characters, their relationships, and actions, and the issues that arise in the text to identify the main ideas.
- Notice the character’s words, actions, and thoughts. Consider what they convey about the character, as well as possible themes.
- Watch for symbolism, metaphor, and the use of other literary devices.
Identify pieces of text that support the main ideas.Pull out direct quotes where the author illustrates their points. For a longer text, you will likely find several. It’s a good idea to note as many as you can, especially if you’ve been assigned an essay or will be tested over the material.
- You can use these quotes to support your own claims about the text if you write an analysis essay.
Examine the author’s writing style.The writer’s style can include their word choice, phrasing, and syntax, which is the arrangement of the words in a sentence. Although style can be strictly an aesthetic quality, it can also contribute to the text’s meaning.
- For example, Edgar Allan Poe’s style of writing enhanced the effect of his poems and stories in an intentional way. If you were analyzing one of his texts, you’d want to consider his individual style.
- As another example, Mark Twain uses dialect in his novelPudd'nhead Wilsonto show the differences between slave owners and slaves in the deep south. Twain uses word choice and syntax to show how language can be used to create a divide in society, as well as control a subsection of the population.
Consider the author's tone.The author's tone is their attitude or feeling toward the subject. Through their language choices, sentence structure, and use of literary devices, the author can create different tones that lead you as a reader to feel a certain way about the subject.
- Common tones include sad, solemn, suspenseful, humorous, or sarcastic.
- Tone can be indicative of not only what's happening in the piece, but of larger themes.The Wonderful Wizard of Ozchanges tone, for example, when Dorothy leaves Kansas for Oz. This is seen in the film through the change in color, but in the novel, this is established through the shift in tone.
Determine the author’s purpose.Why is the author writing this piece? Knowing this purpose can help you better understand the meaning of the text. To determine the purpose, ask yourself the following questions:
- What is the topic and discipline?
- What does the text accomplish?
- What does the author make you think, believe, or feel?
- Are the ideas in the text new or borrowed from someone else?
Examine the writer’s use of language, including jargon.The writer’s word choice, especially when it comes to jargon, can give you more perspective on the text. You can determine the intended audience, as well as the tone of the text.
- Using jargon and technical language shows the author is writing for people in their field. They might be trying to instruct or may be presenting research ideas. If you're unsure of a writer's intended audience, technical terms and jargon can be a good indicator.
- The tone is the mood of a text. For example, a researcher might use a formal, professional tone to present their research findings, while a writer might use an informal, casual tone when writing a magazine article.
Identify the author’s argument.Consider the author’s thesis, as well as any claims stated within the text. In a shorter piece, the entire argument may be presented clearly in the thesis, but a longer text may include multiple claims.
- If you’re struggling to find the author’s argument, review the evidence they provide in the text. What ideas does the evidence support? This can help you find the argument.
- For example, the thesis could read as follows: "Based on data and case studies, voters are more likely to choose a candidate they know, supporting the ideas of rational choice theory." The argument here is in favor of rational choice theory.
Examine the evidence the author uses to support the argument.Evaluate the type of evidence used, such as data, facts, or anecdotes. Then, determine if the evidence fully and accurately supports the argument, or if the evidence is weak.
- For example, evidence that includes research and statistical data may provide a lot of support for an argument, but anecdotal evidence might result in a weak argument.
- You may want to write out the evidence in your own words, but this may not be necessary.
Separate facts from opinions in a nonfiction text.Although the text is nonfiction, the author will likely include their own viewpoints. Both the factual information and the author’s ideas are important to your analysis, but you need to know the difference between the two. Read with an eye for the author's use of rhetorical or persuasive techniques.
- For example, you might highlight facts and opinions using different colors. Alternatively, you might create a chart with facts on one side and opinions on the other.
- For instance, the writer might state, "According to the survey, 79% of people skim a ballot to find the names they know. Clearly, ballots aren't designed to engage voter interest." The first sentence is a fact, while the second sentence is an opinion.
Determine if the text accomplishes its purpose.Does the writer achieve what they set out to do? Based on your analysis, decide if the text is effective, as well as why or why not.
- For example, you might find that the paper on rational choice theory contains few statistics but many pieces of anecdotal evidence. This might lead you to doubt the writer's argument, which means the writer likely didn't achieve their purpose.
Writing an Analysis Paragraph
Create a topic sentence explaining your views on the text.What have you concluded about the text? What ideas will your selected text support? Use this information to create a topic sentence.
- Here’s an example: “In the short story ‘Quicksand,’ the author uses quicksand as a metaphor for living with chronic illness.”
- This is another example: "In the novelFrankenstein, Shelley displays the conventions of the Romantic Period by suggesting that nature has restorative powers."
Introduce your supporting text by explaining its context.You will need to include a direct quote from the text to back up your views. It’s best to introduce this quote by explaining how it's presented in the text, as well as what it means.
- You could write, “At the beginning of the story, the main character wakes up, dreading the coming day. She knows she needs to get out of bed, but her illness prevents her from rising.”
Provide your supporting text, using a lead-in.This will be a direct quote from the text that illustrates your views on the text. It’s a piece of evidence that shows you’re right about what the text means.
- For example, “To show the struggle, the author writes, ‘I sank back into the bed, feeling as though the mattress was sucking me further and further down.’”
- As another example, "InFrankenstein, Victor escapes from his problems by frequently going out into nature. After spending two days in nature, Victor says, "By degrees, the calm and heavenly scene restored me..." (Shelley 47).
Explain how the supporting text backs up your ideas.Describe what is happening in the text, as well as what it means in the context of the entire text. You can also discuss any literary devices that are used, such as symbolism or a metaphor. Similarly, you can explain how the author’s style, diction, and syntax affects the meaning of the text.
- You might write, “In this passage, the author builds on the metaphor of an illness acting like quicksand by showing the main character struggling to get out of bed. Despite fighting to get up, the main character feels as though they’re sinking further into the bed. Furthermore, the author uses first-person point-of-view to help the reader understand the main character’s thoughts and feelings on their illness.”
- Study guides like Cliff’s Notes can help you analyze a longer text, which is harder to re-read.
- Working with a partner or group can help you better understand a text because you can see it from different perspectives. However, make sure any written analysis you do is your own work, not the group’s.
Video: √ How to Analyse Texts Critically - Critical Thinking - English
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