Writing a Literary Essay
Using Secondary Sources
What is a “literary critic”?
Someone who critiques a work of literature is
called a “literary critic.” They spend much of
their time studying, analyzing, and writing
about literature. When you write your own
literary analysis you too become a literary
What is a "primary source"?
When you are writing about literature, the text
that you are studying is called the "primary
source." For example, if you are writing about
Huckleberry Finn, that novel is your primary
source of evidence for whatever argument
(thesis) you are making in your paper. You
quote from the novel to support your claims.
You defend your claims with direct references
to your primary source—that is, with
quotations from the novel.
What is a "secondary source"?
Secondary sources are essays or articles that have
been written by literary critics about the text you are
studying. To write with authority about your choice
of literary text, you should familiarize yourself with
what has been written about that text in the past.
You want to be sure that the secondary sources you
use are reputable ones. Look for sources that have
been written by established literary critics.
Examples of what secondary sources
might look like:
Lynn, Kenneth S. Huckleberry Finn: Text,
Sources, and Criticism. New York: Harcourt
Brace Jovanovich, 1961.
Nadel, Alan. "Invisible Man, Huck, and Jim."
Invisible Criticism. Iowa City: The University
of Iowa Press, 1988. 124-146.
Do you want to make your paper just a
collection of what other people have said?
You do not read secondary sources to help you
write your paper. You write your paper on
your own. Be sure that you have your own
argument and that you write mainly about
what is in the novel and support your argument
with quotations from the novel.
But . . .
you do read secondary sources to help you
flesh out your ideas. You can use secondary
sources to support what you say.
You may not agree with what other people say
about the story you have read. You can quote
from those critics to show what you disagree
with and then explain why you disagree.
How do I document a secondary
You document a secondary source the same way you
do a primary source. If you use a direct quotation,
you must put quotation marks around the exact
language of the author. If you paraphrase (use your
own words), you do not have to put quotation marks.
However, whether you quote or paraphrase, you must
put the page number and author's name in
You must also create a works cited page and list the
sources (both primary and secondary) in proper MLA
To sum up, here are some tips about
using secondary sources:
Remember that your primary source is the text itself. Fill your
paper with quotations and references to the novel to back up
Use your secondary sources, the references to literary critics,
sparingly. Do NOT let the other literary critics take over your
paper. One or two references to a literary critic is plenty.
Your main purpose in consulting the other literary critics is to
get a broader, fuller understanding of the novel you are going
to write about.
Document secondary sources just as you would primary
sources, using parenthetical citations in the text and a works
These pages have been
taken from the following:
“American Literature II.”
Walters State Community
For an example of an
introductory and body
paragraph using primary and
secondary sources visit the