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How to Write an Essay About Any Book in English Class: Part 1

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Struggling to write your essay? Look no further

Struggling to write your essay? Look no further

Do You Hate Writing?

As a high school English teacher and online tutor, I've come to believe English literature is at the bottom of the favorite subjects list for most students. When prompted as to why, most will say point-blank, "I hate writing."

When it comes to the process of constructing an essay, English class is actually a lot like math. That is to say, there's a formula, that when followed, is nearly always going to produce an essay that works. Following this formula is easy. Mastering this formula can take a student from a non-writer to an above-average writer. And it is truly as simple as following a few steps, filling in a few blanks, and completing paragraphs by counting sentences.

Writing a Theme Statement

So, your teacher has informed you that a three-page paper "On Romeo and Juliet" is due Friday. It is now Thursday night and you haven't even begun. You have no idea where to start.

Writing an "A" essay, easily and quickly, is all about asking the right questions. If your teacher has given you a fairly broad assignment, like the one above, the first rule you need to understand is that summaries will no longer cut it. Teachers and professors don't want to see that you understand the plot of a story. That was your 4th-grade teacher. High school and college are more about analyzing themes (big picture ideas from a story that are applicable to real life) and an author's literary merit (as in, what kind of techniques are used to accomplish the goal).

When tackling a generic essay assignment, the best place to begin is to create a theme statement. This is a one-sentence statement that explains something the author is trying to convey about life, the world, humanity, or something else, through the story. Asking and answering the right questions will guide you into writing a proper theme statement, which can then become a great thesis statement (you know, that magical sentence in your introduction that defines your entire essay).

Yeah, great, I get that. But how do I start?

Step 1: Ask the Right Questions

It is time to start thinking about literature as having meaning outside of the story itself. It is time to interact with a text in a more personal and worldly way. It is time to write an essay that does more than summarize. To get started, answer these questions based on the text you are studying:

  1. What theme subjects does the text discuss? Note, we're not talking about the plot here. We're talking about themes. This means things like love, power, revenge, growing up, death, freedom, war, etc. Make a list.
  2. Which theme subject from #1 do I like, understand, and feel comfortable analyzing with this book? Pick one or two.

Step 2: Ask Some More Questions, Brainstorm Answers

I like to tell my students that if they spend the most time in the planning stages of writing an essay (thinking, brainstorming, organizing) then the rough draft will practically write itself. The best brainstorming is, again, sparked by asking and answering the right questions. The following questions, if answered using as much information from the book--and your brain--as possible, will lead you to a great theme statement which will be turned into your essay's thesis statement. Insert the theme subject(s) you chose in step one into the blank and answer these questions using evidence from the plot of the book:

  1. What are all the causes of [theme subject] in this story?
  2. What are all the effects of [theme subject] in this story?
  3. If you chose two subjects to work with, how do these two subjects interrelate?
  4. Based on the ideas generated in questions 1-3, what do you believe the author is trying to teach us, or say generally, about [theme subject] through this book?*
  5. Craft ideas in #4 using some keywords and narrow down your answer to one sentence.

Question #4, above, is the most important question to answer well. If you can narrow down a universal idea based on the plot the of the book, you have effectively written a theme statement. But this is tricky. First, this idea needs to be somewhat broad. It must be applicable beyond the story (as in, a lesson, thought, or truth that applies to life) so it cannot contain direct references to plot details. However, this idea also needs to be specific enough that it isn't something that could be said about absolutely any book on the planet. Finally, it must be proven using examples from the story. Confused?


Let's go back to Romeo and Juliet for a second, and see how steps one and two are illustrated in the following example.

Step One:

  1. What subjects are discussed and dealt with in Romeo and Juliet?
  2. Which of the above subjects do I want to discuss?
    ...fighting and family...

Step Two:

  1. What are the causes of fighting in the story?
    ...Capulets and Montagues hate each other from a long-time family feud, a grudge that has never been settled
    ...many characters fight over petty insults...
    ...Montagues and Capulets fight out of a long-time hatred of one another
  2. What are the effects of fighting in the story?
    ...decree from the Prince to harshly punish all public fights...
    ...Romeo and Juliet must hide their love for one another and marry in secret...
    ...Tybalt kills Mercutio...Romeo kills Tybalt...Romeo is banished...Juliet fakes her death...Romeo kills Paris then himself...Juliet kills herself when she sees Romeo is dead...
    ...LOTS of people die
  3. How are family and fighting related?
    ...two families who have a long-time grudge against one another fight out of hatred
  4. Based on the above ideas, what do you think Shakespeare is trying to say about fighting and family through this play? is a bad thing...lots of people will get hurt or die...
  5. Narrow down ideas using more effective vocabulary.
    ...Fighting between families almost always leads to destruction.

That final sentence in #5 is your theme statement. With a couple more steps, this theme statement can become a great thesis statement and an excellent essay.

Ready to move on? Read How To Write an Essay for Any Book in English Class: Part 2


Ali on August 16, 2020:

Good I understand

echa on April 15, 2020:

thanks really helpful

Ava on March 23, 2020:

Thankyou, this hellped a lot seeing as Ive never written an essay on a book befor and whith the schools being shut down it s harder than usual to get in touch whith my teacher.

Dorothy on February 28, 2020:

Paper 2: Interview Essay (Rough Draft)

JUNAID AHMAD KHAN on January 21, 2020:

how We be able to Start An essay about a topic given in Question paper,@Please Sister Intense Urgency for me.

ROHAN on January 12, 2020:

An Amazing trip

WASD on November 21, 2019:

How do I get it done in one day?

help on May 16, 2019:

How do I get this all ordered and making it look nice while getting it on time too.

Myles on May 02, 2019:

this helped me a lot with a school essay because I didn't know how to start. Thank you

Asad on September 06, 2018:

Abraham woah practice is the key

Abraham on August 17, 2018:

what can i do to be an excellent essay writer?

Carson on August 14, 2018:

My question is, when you said, "what do you believe the author is trying to teach us, or say generally, about [theme subject] through this book?*" In English class I have been tolled to be careful when expressing what my opinion is about what the authors message is to the reader. How would I approach doing this without making my intro about what I think? Or how would I do this without using 'I' or 'my',...

idk on July 16, 2018:

i have never wrote an essay in my life i dont even know what an essay is

Bob on June 05, 2018:

When i write the title and author of the book do i write it in italics

Kayla on April 30, 2018:

Thanks so much, this was very helpful.

Dayan on March 22, 2018:

Great. Very helpfull indeed

rita on March 22, 2018:

How would I write my body paragraphs based on this? My book is Kite Runner. How would I build my body paragraphs based on this?

clairewait (author) from North Carolina on February 28, 2018:

I encourage you to go to your teacher for help first.

Thompson shaung on February 25, 2018:

I need a help on the essay on the topic book

clairewait (author) from North Carolina on October 31, 2017:

Have you followed all the steps outlined here?

Move on to part 2 and pay attention to Step Four. Your 3 categories will each be the topic of 1-2 body paragraphs (depending on the length of your essay). Write body paragraph topic sentences very basically. Just introduce each category, one at a time. Then, fill in evidence and explanation to prove it.

Good Luck!

Anon on October 29, 2017:

How would I write my body paragraphs based on this? My book is Angels & Demons by Dan Brown and I have decided on writing about control and religion vs. science. How would I build my body paragraphs based on this?

JYderp on October 26, 2017:


clairewait (author) from North Carolina on October 02, 2017:

Hi there! If you follow the very simple steps outlined here in this post, I'm sure you'll have that thesis knocked out in no time.

Help on September 28, 2017:

I need help with a topic sentence for my Frankenstein essay

clairewait (author) from North Carolina on July 18, 2017:

The "contention" is your main argument. In this case, it is the same thing as the thesis statement. Use them interchangeably. Hope that helps.

Anonymous on July 09, 2017:

I don't understand something. In our essays we are asked a question and then we make a contention but nowhere do we have a thesis statement. Could you please help me out?

clairewait (author) from North Carolina on April 25, 2017:

You can TOTALLY do it. I know you can. And if you have specific questions, I feel confident your teacher (or a smart kid in the class) can help you.

Kevin George on April 24, 2017:

My paper is about The Chrysalids, I am a grade 9 student. My English teacher marks really hard. I don't think I can do it! Its due this Friday. I am in Toronto, Canada. The Chrysalids by John Wyndham.

piper on April 18, 2017:

mine is on tuck everlasting, a fantasy genre book by Natalie Babbitt. How should I write my Essay?

clairewait (author) from North Carolina on February 21, 2017:

Do you have a theme statement? Do you have a purpose to your paper? You say the paper is about "Harper Lee." What about Harper Lee? Her life? Her writing? Something she accomplished? To simply say "Harper Lee" is your subject is too broad. Follow the steps above. Narrow down the purpose of your paper. Then, the "introduction sentence" (I assume you mean first sentence of the entire paper) is a throw away. Essentially, just say something (anything) about Harper Lee, that segues into the body of your paper.

corina on February 21, 2017:

I still cant figure out an introduction sentence. My paper is on harper lee

Brah on November 07, 2016:

Awesome thx!!!!!

Grace on September 18, 2016:

Thanks this is helpful :)

hira on October 30, 2015:

this is perfect

Tabitha on April 19, 2015:

thanks it was really helpful, just what I wanted

Anirb! on April 15, 2015:

I've been trying to find something like this helped me out so much thank you!!

Lívia on March 14, 2015:

Thank you so much, this text is exactly what I needed. You probably are an excellent teacher. Thanks again.