From Gerald R. Lucas
📝 English Composition Writing FAQ 11011102📖

Understanding Common Conventions and Vocabulary for College Essays

Writing about literature can be a daunting task, especially for first-year college writers who may not have much experience with literary analysis. But fear not, for there are common conventions and vocabulary used in literary analysis that can help make the process easier to navigate. By understanding and utilizing these tools, you can effectively write about the complexities of literature in your college essays.

When it comes to writing about literature, there are some necessary conventions that every student writer must learn and practice consistently. The purpose of this post is to introduce first-year college writers to the common conventions and vocabulary for writing about literature.

Necessary Conventions for Writing About Literature

When writing about any cultural text — a book, a poem, a painting, a song, a play, a film, etc. — established conventions should be followed, even when writing digital documents.

  • Present Tense: When writing about literature, always use the present tense, as it creates a sense of immediacy that brings the reader closer to the text. For example, “In To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout learns valuable lessons about racism and injustice” rather than “In To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout learned valuable lessons about racism and injustice.”
  • Textual Evidence: Always support your arguments with textual evidence. This can include direct quotations or paraphrases from the text that support your claims. Be sure to properly cite your sources.
  • Analysis: Don’t just summarize the text; provide analysis and interpretation of the text. This means digging deeper and exploring themes, motifs, symbols, and other literary devices used by the author to convey meaning.
  • Thesis: Every essay should have a clear thesis statement that presents a specific argument about the text. This thesis should guide the rest of the essay and be supported by evidence and analysis. As a general rule: the more focused an essay’s topic, the more interesting and comprehensive it will be.


Title Examples
  • short story: “Hills Like White Elephants”
  • novel: Beloved
  • movie: Blade Runner
  • poem: “To His Coy Mistress”
  • newspaper: New York Times
  • TV episode: “The Galileo Seven”
  • TV series: Star Trek: The Next Generation
  • essay/article: “A Rape in Cyberspace”
  • song: “Ants Marching”
  • play: Hamlet
  • videogame: Call of Duty

When writing about literary works, there are specific conventions to follow when it comes to titling them in your essay. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Books: The titles of full-length books, including novels and novellas, should be italicized, such as To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
  • Plays: The titles of plays should also be italicized, such as Hamlet by William Shakespeare.
  • Short stories: The titles of short stories should be enclosed in quotation marks, such as “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson.
  • Poems: The titles of individual poems should also be enclosed in quotation marks, such as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot.

Title format can vary depending on the citation style being used. Always check with your instructor or consult a style guide for specific guidelines.

Use Literary Vocabulary

In addition to the necessary conventions, there is also a specific vocabulary that is used when writing about literature. Each class you take will use a specialized vocabulary for the particular subject. However, there is a general literary vocabulary that you should be familiar with and begin using in your first-year courses. For example, when writing about a novel, write “novel,” not “book” or “story.” Use “protagonist” instead of “main character” or “hero,” and “antagonist” instead of “bad guy.”

Below are some of the most common literary terms and devices:

  • Plot: The events that make up a story.
  • Characterization: The process by which the author reveals the personality of a character.
  • Setting: The time and place in which a story takes place.
  • Theme: The main idea or underlying meaning of a literary work.
  • Symbolism: The use of symbols to represent ideas or qualities.
  • Motif: A recurring element or idea in a literary work.
  • Foreshadowing: The use of hints or clues to suggest what will happen later in the story.
  • Irony: A literary device in which the opposite of what is expected occurs.
  • Point of View: The perspective from which a story is told.
  • Tone: The attitude of the author towards the subject matter.

Similarly, be sure you know what you’re writing about: don’t call a “book” a “novel” when it isn’t. A precise vocabulary shows your knowledge of the subject matter and lends your writing more credibility.


Written: 2002, 2022; Revised: 02-21-2024; Version: Beta 0.7 💬