20 Sep

Writing About Individual Works

Posted in DIY MFA, Literature

Up until now we’ve been talking about what and how one should read for DIY MFA.  These next two weeks we’ll be talking about responding to the literature, in particular responding on both the micro and the macro level.  This week, we’ll be discussing how to approach individual pieces of literature and ways you can respond to them in your writing.  Next week, we’ll talk about creating a meta-analysis of the literature in your field, why that’s important and what you gain by doing it.

This week, I chose an image that is the National Poetry Month poster from 2009.  I selected it because of the quote, which most of you will probably recognize from the T. S. Eliot poem, but which lovers of YA literature will also remember from Robert Cormier’s novel The Chocolate War.  This was also the title and topic of one of the earliest response papers I wrote for my Teen Lit class, my first year at The New School.  It was in this class and my subsequent literature courses that I really learned to appreciate the task of responding to literature in my writing.

In my mind, there are three main ways you can respond to individual pieces of literature: Reviews, Response Essays and Technical Experiments.

This is the most basic way you can respond to the literature in your writing.  What did you think of a book?  Why did you like it or dislike it?  Many of you may already write reviews on your blogs, so if you’re ready to raise the stakes a little.  One way to do this is to do a more in-depth analysis of the work.  Focus not so much on what the author is doing, but why and what these choices accomplish.

Response Essays
These essays are not straight reviews of a book, in fact, they might not a book at all.  Instead, what you do for a response essay is take a theme from a work of literature and run with it.  There are two loose categories for response essays: analysis and personal essay.  Some ideas for each category might include (but are not limited to):


  • Choose a page of the work and do an in-depth, sentence-level analysis (this works best for works that have very rich language and imagery)
  • Choose a secondary character and do an analysis of the role he/she plays.
  • Take a main theme of the work and then choose one scene and discuss how it furthers that theme.

Personal Essay:

  • Take a quote from the work that represents a strong theme and apply it to your own life in some way.
  • Choose a theme from the work and tell a story of that theme at work in your own life.

Technical Experiments
This is perhaps the most challenging approach to writing about literature.  In this case, you take a technique that the author uses in a particular work and try to apply it to your own writing.  In this type of writing, you don’t focus on the actual work itself, but simply try to figure out how the author did what he did, and how you can apply it to your own work.

OK, so I’ve written something.  Now what?
I can guess what you’re thinking: what’s the point in writing these papers if you’re not actually handing them in for school.  Not to worry, your efforts will not be for nothing.  Reviews can easily be posted on a blog and personal essays can be polished and submitted to appropriate markets.  Finally, technical experiments only serve to strengthen your W.I.P. so they are worthwhile in and of themselves.

So go ahead, disturb the literary universe a little and write a response paper.  I won’t tell.  In fact, I think I’ll do it too.


Comments on this post

  1. K.M. Weiland says:

    Good post. Analyzing and responding to literature is such a fabulous growth technique for any writer, whether he's studying for an MFA or not.

    1. Kerryn Angell says:

      Great post. I stopped doing reviews on my blog months and months ago because they didn't seem to hold any value. This has given me a new way to analyse stories and consider them more as a tool to learn about writing.

      I read a short story tonight and jotted down some key points that I could include in a review. It was interesting just to better understand why the story worked so well and how the author pulled it off.

      I see much more reviewing and exploration in my future.

      1. gabi says:

        K.M. Weiland – Glad you enjoyed. I agree that writing about what we read is a great way for writers to grow and expand their study.

        Kerryn – So glad you found this helpful! Remember, responding to what you read doesn't have to just be reviews. Journaling is another great to respond to what you read. Or, if you feel brave, try out some technique used by the author you read… just for fun!

        1. Dawn Simon says:

          Thanks for sharing this. We can learn so much by studying other people's work.

          1. salarsenッ says:

            I really enjoyed this post. Thanks for exploring the alternate ways one can use reviews. Analyzing an author's work can really make you think. And that work is never wasted. We can learn from it; and just as you stated, we can you it on our blogs.


            1. Damyanti says:

              Cool post. I have a question though. I have used a reference to an O.henry story in one of my short stories. It is an integral part of the plot…at the ending. Will this be termed a response to an individual piece of literature?

              1. gabi says:

                Damyanti – I think in the case you describe it's a reference to the story, as opposed to a themed response. But don't get too hung up on what "category" your responses/references fall under. What's important is that you're responding to what you read with your own writing. I just divided it into categories above to give you all an idea of the possibilities.

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