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Wednesday, November 2, 2016 3 Pitfalls to Avoid in Literary Analysis

Literary analysis can present a challenge. Even English majors struggle with the concept. It’s not the talking about what happened in the literature that’s hard; it’s the analysis part. To many, “analysis” seems like a slippery practice that they can’t quite get hold of. Really, analysis just means to take meaning from something. With this general definition in mind, let’s make this concept graspable by looking at 3 pitfalls to avoid in the practice of literary analysis.

Don’t just summarize.

It’s okay to have summary in your paper, but it should only be summary that helps to support a point of analysis. Rather than just telling us “what” happened in the book, poem, play etc., tell us “why” it happened and what it means.


  • Summary: In Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, Rocky reluctantly participates in the deer honoring ritual.
  • Analysis: In Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, Rocky demonstrates the encroachment of white culture on Native American culture when he shows reluctance to participate in the deer honoring ritual.

Don’t reference “the reader”

Many times people talk about “the reader’s” response to a work of literature rather than directly stating their own opinions. The problem is that you can’t actually know how other readers will react to a given piece of literature. Instead of speaking through the voice of “the reader” just state your opinions about the work straightforwardly.


  • Weak: When reading The Moviegoer, the reader will realize that Binx’s rituals demonstrate his attempt to make meaning of life.
  • Strong: In The Moviegoer, Binx’s rituals demonstrate his attempt to make meaning of life.

Don’t cast doubt on your analysis

Literary analysis isn’t completely objective, which means that there’s room for multiple interpretations of a single text. Even if there are other possible interpretations, your job is simply to prove your own. That being said, your analysis is weakened when you use qualifiers like “probably,” “might,” or “maybe.” Only in rare cases should you use qualifiers in your literary analysis.


  • Weak: The water in Housekeeping probably symbolizes memory, or maybe baptism; I’m not a professional analyst, so I can’t say for sure.
  • Strong: The water in Housekeeping symbolizes memory because it always appears in memory scenes and its fluid quality parallels the fluid nature of memory.

So, when you go to write your next literary analysis paper, remember to focus on pulling meaning from the facts. Speak from your standpoint rather than the anonymous “reader,” and state your claims with confidence!

Abby Paumen is an English major and a writing coach at Liberty University's Undergraduate Writing Center. 

Posted by Katrina Miller at 12:00 PM | Comments (0)
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