4 Tips for Using Textual Evidence

How to Write About Short Stories for School

If you've ever had to analyze a story for an English class, there's a good chance your instructor told you to support your ideas with textual evidence. Or maybe you were told to "use quotations." Or maybe you were just told to "write a paper" and had no idea what to include in it.

While it's almost always a good idea to include quotations when writing about short stories, the trick lies in choosing which quotations to include and, more importantly, what exactly you want to say about them. Quotations don't really become "evidence" until you explain what they prove and how they prove it.

The 4 tips below should help you understand what your instructor (probably) expects from you. Follow them and -- if all goes well -- you'll find yourself one step closer to a perfect paper! 

01
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Make an Argument

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Image courtesy of Kristin Nador.

In academic papers, a string of unrelated quotations can't substitute for a coherent argument, no matter how many interesting observations you make about those quotations. So you need to decide what point you want to make in your paper.

For example, instead of writing a paper that's generically "about" Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People," you might write a paper arguing that Joy's physical shortcomings -- her nearsightedness and her missing leg -- represent her spiritual shortcomings.

Many of the pieces I publish on this site provide a general overview of a story but would not succeed as school papers because they don't present a focused argument. Take a look at my "Overview of Alice Munro's 'The Turkey Season'" to see what I mean. In a school paper, you'd never want to include a plot summary unless your teacher specifically asked for it. And you'd probably never want to bounce from one unrelated, under-examined theme to another, as I have bounced from intellectual-labor-versus-manual-labor to gender roles.

But I've tried to make a deeper, more focused argument in my second piece about Munro's story, "Ambiguity in Alice Munro's 'The Turkey Season.'" Notice how all the quotations I've used in "Ambiguity" help support the argument I'm making about Herb Abbott's elusive nature. 

02
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Prove Every Claim

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Image courtesy of Eric Norris.

Textual evidence is used to prove the larger argument you're making about a story, but it is also used to support all the smaller points you make along the way. Every time you make a claim -- large or small -- about a story, you need to explain how you know what you know.

For example, when I was writing about Langston Hughes' short story "Early Autumn," I made the claim that one of the characters, Bill, could think about almost nothing except "how old Mary looked." When you make a claim like this in a paper for school, you need to imagine someone standing over your shoulder and disagreeing with you. What if someone said, "He doesn't think she's old! He thinks she's young and beautiful!"

Identify the place in the story that you'd point to and say, "He does too think she's old! It says right here!" That's the quotation you want to include.

03
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State the Obvious

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Image courtesy of Blake Burkhart.

This one is so important that I've written an entire separate piece about it: "5 Reasons to State the Obvious in School Papers."

The short version is that students are often afraid to state the obvious in their papers because they think it's too simple. Yet stating the obvious is the only way students can get credit for knowing it.

Your instructor probably recognizes that pickled herring and Schlitz are meant to mark class differences in John Updike's "A & P." But until you write it down, your instructor has no way of knowing that you know it.

04
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Follow the 3-to-1 Rule

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Image courtesy of Denise Krebs.

For every line you quote, you should plan to write at least three lines explaining what the quotation means and how it relates to the larger point of your paper. This can seem really daunting, but try to examine every word of the quotation. Do any of the words sometimes have multiple meanings? What are the connotations of each word? What is the tone? (Notice that "stating the obvious" will help you meet the 3-to-1 rule.)

The Langston Hughes example I gave above provides a good example of how you can expand your ideas. The truth is, I don't think anyone could read that story and imagine that Bill thinks Mary is young and beautiful.

So try imagining a more complex voice disagreeing with you. Instead of claiming that Bill thinks Mary is young and beautiful, the voice says, "Well, sure, he thinks she's old, but that's not the only thing he thinks about." At that point, you could modify your claim. Or you could try to identify what exactly made you think her age was all he could think about. By the time you explained Bill's hesitant ellipses and the effect of Hughes' parentheses and the significance of the word "wanted," you'd surely have three lines. 

Give It a Try!

Following these tips might feel awkward or forced at first. (And of course, if your instructor doesn't like the results, you'll want to prioritize that feedback over anything I've said here!) But even if your paper doesn't flow quite so smoothly as you'd like, your attempts to closely examine the text of a story may yield pleasant surprises for both you and your instructor.