Where to begin, with the study of literature? Unlike science students, who are often given plenty of contact time and teaching, students of literature often find themselves very much dependent on their own interpretations and timescales, which can be intimidating.
What’s important to realise, before anything, is that you are probably studying literature because you enjoy it – reading it, writing it, critiquing it, pulling it apart. It is imperative that you keep this in mind, because good literary analysis is reliant on the personal interpretation of the reader. It is impossible to judge literature well, if you are applying ‘blanket’ or ‘inherited’ interpretations.
Nonetheless, you’re obviously not going to enjoy reading and studying every piece of literature you are presented with. That’s okay – what you can focus on is why you don’t. Is it the language? The subject matter? Was a play too predictable, does the ending of a novel fall flat, or does the poem seem one-dimensional? The good stuff comes from analysing what does and doesn’t work, in your opinion. Moreover, you’ll probably cover a range of genres and time periods within your literature course, and there is no better way of distinguishing exactly what it is that you enjoy, than experiencing what you don’t.
Within a literature degree, you’ll sometimes be asked to write essays, sometimes you’ll have to write a cohesive analysis of a text, and sometimes you’ll have to present your thoughts out loud, to a supervisor or with a group of peers. This will get easier the more you do it – but here are a few hints:
Be confident in what you are saying or writing. Don’t qualify anything – say what you see in the text and don’t apologise for it.
Identify what you struggle with and practise. If you find the opening paragraph of an essay tricky, give yourself some questions and practise rewriting the beginning. If it’s the flow of your sentences, practise writing about something you enjoy writing about. If it’s speaking your ideas aloud, try and articulate them to yourself in private when you’re writing an essay.
Always keep yourself in the reading and writing – trust your instincts; chances are that they are what the writer intended you to feel. But also keep a critical distance. Use academic terms and write as if you are a critic.
Before approaching an exam, make sure you practise under timed conditions and hand write your essays.
Always keep reading for pleasure.
One thing that a lot of students of literature struggle with is the lack of contact time. So setting yourself a routine is really important, but be flexible enough to change it if you need to. The best literary analysis comes from absorbing yourself in what you are doing – whether that takes minutes or weeks. Every literature student works in a different way!
Literature does and always has, changed lives. It has been the driving force of the biggest social, political and cultural changes and it is arguably the only study which allows you the opportunity to learn about history at the same time as giving you the opportunity to reflect upon yourself. Keep loving it – that’s the greatest advice available.