Using Textual Evidence: A Lit Crit Toolbox
Once you have an argument you are excited about, it’s time to get writing (or maybe you already have)! This page is a collection of tips on using the various tools you have to support your argument: quoting and using textual evidence and the technique of close reading, as well as some basic literary terminology you may find helpful to know.
Quoting and Using Textual Evidence in Literature Papers
- Using direct quotations is an important part of writing about literature.
- Think of quotations as evidence for your main point/argument.
- If used correctly, quotations will make your argument stronger, but they cannot stand by themselves (i.e. the reader needs to know the evidence’s purpose). For example, in a murder trial a piece of evidence might be a bloody rag. However, this evidence is useless unless it is clear whose rag it is, where it was found, and what it implies for the trial.
- Make sure that readers know the purpose and context for every quotation in your piece.
- Introduce each quotation and draw a conclusion from it. This conclusion must relate to your thesis and thus connect to the main argument of your paper.
- Alfred Rosa and Paul Eschholz, authors of The Writer’s Pocket Handbook (2nd ed, Pearson Education, 2003), make the following suggestions:
- “When you are considering using a quotation, ask yourself three questions:
- How well does the quotation illustrate or support my analysis?
- Is this quotation the best evidence of the point I am making?
- Why am I quoting the text instead of paraphrasing or summarizing it?” (169)
- “When you are considering using a quotation, ask yourself three questions:
- Use “signal phrases” to introduce quotations and integrate them into the flow of your paper. Signal phrases tell the reader who is speaking and indicate where your ideas end and someone else’s begin.
- “Verbs that you should keep in mind when constructing signal phrases include the following (Rosa and Eschholz 168): Acknowledges, adds, admits, believes, compares, confirms, declares, endorses, grants, implies, insists, points out, reasons, reports, responds, suggests.”
- Consider the following example:
- McTeague, by Frank Norris, suggests that man’s natural instincts are often evil in nature. Norris illustrates this in the scene when Trina is lying unconscious in McTeague’s dentist chair. Suddenly McTeague is overcome with the urge to take advantage of her. He battles with his conscience but ultimately loses, unable to stop himself from kissing Trina on the mouth. “He could only oppose to it [the foul stream of hereditary evil] an instinctive stubborn resistance, blind, inert” (23).
- Now look at what happens when a signal phrase is used and a conclusion is drawn
- McTeague, by Frank Norris, suggests that man’s natural instincts are often evil in nature. Norris illustrates this in the scene when Trina is lying unconscious in McTeague’s dentist chair. Suddenly McTeague is overcome with the urge to take advantage of her. He battles with his conscience, but ultimately loses, unable to stop himself from kissing Trina on the mouth. Norris suggests that McTeague does not have the capability to reason with his impulse, that “he could only oppose to it an instinctive stubborn resistance, blind, inert” (23). Here, McTeague portrays sexual longing as something that needs to be controlled; it is an instinct that must be battled.
- Observe how in the second example, the signal phrase introduces the quotation and integrates it into the body of the paragraph. Also, note how the author draws a conclusion from the quotation, relating it to the essay’s main idea (this relates to doing close reading— a technique explored below).
- Although there is no rule against starting a sentence with a quotation, when learning how to incorporate quotations effectively you might want to avoid doing so. Starting a quotation mid-sentence often forces you to include a signal phrase; however, this is not always the case. Also, signal phrases are not always sufficient to provide the reader with the quotation’s context so be sure to provide necessary background.
- In literature papers, too many quotations can distract readers from your argument. Use direct quotations only when the specific wording the author uses is essential to providing your analysis. A good trick is this: if you are unable to paraphrase the original wording without destroying the meaning/conclusion that you would like to draw from a particular quotation, then it is best to leave that quote as is.
- For the same reason, avoid using long (over four lines) quotations too frequently when you can simply mention them. Remember: in a literature papers you want to assume that the reader has already read the piece that you are writing about.
- When talking about ideas that do not necessarily require the direct quote, use paraphrasing instead (but still document where in the text this idea or situation is being discussed/occurring.
- In general, quote the least amount of the text that conveys the point you are trying to make.
- Make sure that you quote accurately. Copy the text and punctuation exactly as they appear in the source from which you are quoting. If you need to change a pronoun or the tense of a verb (or anything about the sentence) in order to integrate the quote into the flow of you paper, use brackets (  ) to indicate the changes you’ve made.
- Try not to get attached to any one quote. Even if it “sounds good,” it may not be the best piece of evidence for your argument. Likewise, remember to not just ignore evidence that seems to go against what you are arguing (see our note on not ignoring contradictory evidence)
- It takes practice to be able to incorporate quotations effectively into a paper—work hard and keep at it!
Examples of quotations used as textual evidence in various types of literature papers (click to expand each):
Classic Literature Paper
When Wright becomes interested in books, he describes struggling to fully concentrate due to the hunger gnawing at him. However, Wright also gains from his reading a new type of hunger; he describes, “But to feel that there were feelings denied me, that the very breath of life itself was beyond my reach, that more than anything else hurt, wounded me. I had a new hunger” (250). Similar to the limitations whites placed on black’s education, hunger impedes Wright’s intellectual capabilities. However, the knowledge Wright gains from his reading provides him with a drive for something more-a hunger to right wrongs. Thus, hunger challenges Wright’s capability to read, but also encourages him to strive for something more.
Annotation: Be sure to explicate the quote, which means to reference back to it in the sentences following. Explain the quote’s significance, its meaning, and how it ties into your argument. It may strengthen your paper to re-quote specific words or phrases out of the initial quotation as they pertain to your paper.
Faulkner portrays age in both pieces of work in a similar way. As Faulkner displays both Emily and the woman from the sketch, he alienates them from the rest of his characters and makes them appear lonely. In A Rose for Emily, Faulkner describes, “When we next saw Miss Emily, she had grown fat and her hair was turning gray. During the next few years it grew grayer and grayer until it attained an even pepper-and-salt iron-gray…from that time on her front door remained closed” (319). Faulkner assigns a negative connotation with Emily’s aging, making her appear less physically attractive. By having Emily become reclusive from the neighborhood, Faulkner also makes her appear unfriendly and antisocial. In New Orleans Sketches, as Faulkner describes the woman appearing young then suddenly old again, he says, “…her face became the face of a woman of sixty, toothless and merry as a gnome’s. Her eyes were contemplative, yet personal-it was as if someone had whispered a sublime and colossal joke in the ear of an idol.” Faulkner makes the woman’s elderly face appear comical, clearly revealing his attitude towards women of an older age. Therefore, Faulkner keeps a consistently negative attitude towards women of an older age, as he portrays their aging physical features as exaggerated and comical.
Annotation: For comparative papers, it’s important to directly relate the two quotes and interpret them individually. The purpose of such a paper is to create an essay comparing and/or contrasting two (or more) works of literature. Try drawing similarities in tone, style, or meaning. Relay to the reader the significance of these connections-what do they suggest about the author, message of the book, or general context?
In the collection of short stories Lost in the City, Jones uses D.C. to provide context for the reader. The first story in the collection, The Girl Who Raised Pigeons, is the account of a young girl, Betsy Ann, who raises pigeons with her father. As the story progresses, Betsy Ann describes feeling ostracized from her friends as they move to the other side of the city due to the building of a railroad track. Jones writes, “Gradually, as more people moved out of Myrtle Street, the room became less attractive for Betsey Ann to visit” (18)1. Jones uses the changing neighborhoods of D.C. to reflect a change in his characters. Through the shifting demographics of D.C., the reader gains insight into the feelings of Betsy Ann.
Annotation: In English classes, students are often asked to write research papers that consider the historical context of a given piece of literature. When writing such historical essays, look for quotations that reflect cultural/historical changes or events. When explicating your support, remember to remark upon the literary and historical significance of the quote. Elaborate on how the quotation ties in with the historical context of the book, and what it suggests about the dynamics of the time.
Personal Response Essay
In Sula, Morrison still holds the responsibility of speaking for a marginalized group as she did in her earlier novels. The story revolves around female black characters, and largely focuses on the dynamics of the relationship between two women: Sula and Nel. Morrison describes that the two girls discover, “that they were neither white nor male, and that all the freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they had to set about creating something else to be” (52). I found this statement to be “touching” as it made me realize the limitations race forced on these girls. However, despite these constraints, both Sula and Nel had a rebellious nature-something that also “touched” and inspired me. I was interested in understanding the motives behind the women’s angst, such as why Sula was driven to cut off her finger; however I struggled to do so. I think this is due to the fact that Morrison gives very little context, thus making the reader struggle to grasp at a central meaning to the novel. I felt as though my role as a reader in Sula was to be an observer, rather than partake in any emotion. This feeling was actually articulated in the book, when Sula watched her mother burn. Morrison describes, “Sula had watched Hannah burn not because she was paralyzed, but because she was interested” (78). Thus, I was interested in the course of the events in the novel, but like Sula, I wasn’t “moved” to spring into action.
Annotation: When supporting a personal response to a piece of literature, look for quotes that you can relate to. Think about your initial reaction to the quote, and then why you chose it. In your explication, explain your connection to the quote and its significance to you. Perhaps include personal anecdotes to support your point, or refer to your emotional connection to the piece.
1 Jones, Edward P. Lost in The City. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992. Print.