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Literary Criticism: Developing a Topic

Developing a Topic

Your professor assigned a literary analysis of a work you read in your class. How do you start? What do you need? Below are some tips and suggestions for writing about literature using literary criticism.


Whether literary research is easy or hard very often depends on the topic or literary work you choose to analyze. The process does not have to be nerve-wracking or take forever. Here are some tips regarding topic selection to help make the research process stress-free:

  • It is easier to find criticism on works of authors from the past than on works by contemporary authors. It takes time for a body of critical writing about an author or literary work to grow.
  • It is easier to find criticism on works by well-known authors than on works by those not so famous.
  • Larger works, like novels and plays, seem to attract more critical attention than individual short stories, essays, or poems.
  • Don't finalize your topic too soon. Consider two or three works of literature, do some quick, preliminary searching for each title in the tools introduced in this research guide, and choose the one on which you can find the most information most quickly.  
  • Unless, of course, an obscure work or work by a contemporary author is something you are passionately interested in. Then ignore Tips One through Four, and choose it.

Your first step is to choose the work you want to focus on. This will be a poem, a short story, a play, a novel, etc. When developing a topic, consider

  • Character
  • Setting
  • Plot
  • Theme
  • Dialogue
  • Imagery
  • Figures of Speech
  • Tone
  • Rhyme/Rhythm
  • Point of view
  • Metaphor
  • Historical, Political, Geographical Context
  • Literary Theory

Step two is to make sure your topic has sufficient supporting evidence within the text, and that you can find secondary sources in support of your argument. Do a search in the library catalog, OneSearch, for the author or the title of the work. Check out Literature Resource Center to see if there are articles about the author/work.