When you’re writing an interpretive essay, you definitely want to identify the author’s methods. What tone did the author use? What were the major characters? What was the main event? The plot of the story? Where was the setting? All of those things are important, but it’s not the only thing you want to do. This is only step 1. Step 2 is to evaluate and analyze the author’s methods. If you only identify them, you’re only going so far.
To have an effective interpretive essay, you want to evaluate the methods the author used instead of simply identifying them. One thing to keep in mind when you’re doing this is that there is a certain ambiguity in most literary works. This is the presence of multiple, somewhat inconsistent truths in a literary work. When you’re evaluating, you may say, “Oh, there was this good guy, but he made a bad decision. He did a bad thing.” You have to maybe come to a judgment on that person. Do you think that they were a good person or a bad person? Were they bad because of the bad thing they did, or was it forgivable because overall they were a good person?
There is a lot of ambiguity and a lot of questions that come up in great literary works. That is because great literary works attempt to show life in all of its messy reality. It’s true; life is messy. Nothing is as cut and dry as it seems. You may see someone steal a loaf of bread and some peanut butter, but if they’re doing it because they’re bringing it home to their five small children because they’ve been laid off, then it’s harder to judge them for stealing the bread and peanut butter.
Keep in mind ambiguity whenever you’re coming up with your interpretation of literary works. A lot of literary works are going to pose more questions than answers. That’s good. They make you think. They don’t just tell you the answers; you’re left wondering, “I wonder what the author meant by that,” or “Was it really bad of this person to do that, or was it okay because of the situation? How do you feel about that?” Works that make you ask yourself questions like that tend to be the great literary works.
Whenever you are writing your interpretive essay, you want to respond to the likely questions of readers. If it’s a question you had, then it’s likely that other readers have the same question. They’ll be interested in your essay, because it’s going to answer or give a possible answer to one of the same questions that they had. One of the best ways to make your interpretive essay effective is to let other people read your early drafts. This may be hard, especially if you’re a shy or self-conscious writer, but you’re hopefully showing your writing to someone that you trust. That is, someone that’s going to give you not always positive but at least helpful criticism.
One thing you should do is work their questions in. If they ask you, “Well, why did you say this?” or “I really thought the characters seemed this way. How did you get to this idea?” Work those questions in, because if your early readers are having those questions, your same readers reading the final draft are going to have those kinds of questions. Does your argument hold up? If you argued that someone was a good person, despite the bad thing they did, you have to make sure you put enough defense in there for your argument to hold up. Is the thesis statement effective? If you put in a thesis statement about honesty being the best policy always, then it’s going to be hard for you to write about how sometimes it’s alright to bend the rules.
You need to make sure that your interpretation is going to support your thesis statement. You may need to rewrite the thesis statement if you find that the rest of your paper doesn’t support your original one. This is one of the harder ones. Don’t get defensive if your readers are telling you things that you need to fix or change, or that they don’t like. You might be apt to get defensive, but, remember, they are people you trust. They’re your friends, and they’re telling you these things to help you, not to be mean. Another way to help yourself not be defensive and maybe edit your own paper is to try to view it as a reader.
Try to be detached and not view your paper as the author, but as someone reading something that they found in the newspaper, not necessarily something that you wrote. Then, it may be easier for you to be objective about what you need to change. The last, but very important, step here is to remember that early drafts are meant to be improved upon. It’s a draft for a reason. No one’s going to write a perfect paper the first time they write something down. There’s going to be something they can add to make it better. There is going to be some grammatical error they need to fix. Remember, it’s a draft. It’s meant to be drafted more times, edited, and added to until you get that final copy that you are really proud of.
When you’re writing an interpretive essay, first identify the author’s methods, but, most importantly, go back and evaluate those methods and come up with your own interpretation of the text. Because you’re interpreting it one way, you have to remember that there is ambiguity. Other people may interpret things other ways. Make sure that you are responding to some likely questions, but you’re leaving room for other answers whenever you’re coming up with your interpretation.