How to Study English Literature Effectively? The Best Guide for Beginners in the BA Program

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How to study English literature guide pdf article Alok Mishra

In the beginning, English literature may appear troublesome to many students. In the Indian scenario, right after intermediate examinations, focusing on one subject with its vivid dimensions (along with a few subsidiaries) makes students nervous. Moreover, English literature (or literature in any language, for that matter) is not like science subjects. One needs to read and understand the texts while caring about the context. And to understand the texts, there are many literary terms, complex theories, vague ideas, and linguistic embellishments a student should ideally know. 

What now? Who will guide you? If you are also a BA English literature student worried about your honours papers, read this article carefully. My name is Alok Mishra, and I will make your journey in the world of literature enjoyable, smooth, and purposeful. Here are the ten things any English literature student must do!

(1) Read introductory books: Before you read any complicated textbook, you may try reading a few suggested books. These titles will help you understand the basics of English literature – its aspects, methods ideal for studying it, definitions of the most used (and prominent) terms, introduction to key figures, and many other essential things. In the span of 15 years of my intellectual investment in this domain, I came across many books I liked. However, only in the latter half I realised a few books could help me make an informed entry into the academic world of English literature. I will make sure you don’t have to go through the same perplexing tunnel of information, expectation, and truth crisis. Therefore, I suggest you read any or all of the books listed below. The authors of these books are well-read, authorities in academia, and experts on the subject. Read these books (or any), and you will understand what studying literature for the next three (or five and more) years will look like; the road ahead will look clear to you with the best methods and techniques you acquire by studying these titles.  

  • How to Begin Studying English Literature by Nicholas Marsh – As the title suggests, you will have many things to know before you begin your academic journey. The book will provide information in a way most students will find helpful. Click here to get a copy from Amazon India.
  • Studying English Literature: The Essential Companion by Paul Goring & others – This book can help students in the early stage with many things. There are concepts, definitions, methods, meanings, and other essential ways to boost understanding of the subject matter in this book. Buy a copy from Amazon India now – click here.
  • Studying Literature in English: An Introduction by Dominic Rainsford – This one will introduce to the students different genres in literature and the best ways to read, interpret and study them. Not only that, but you will also get a concise introduction to the different movements and periods in the history of English literature. And I believe this book will prepare the students to sail through their years in college (studying literature). You can get a copy of this title from Amazon India – click here to go to the book page on Amazon now.
  • Studying English Literature: A Practical Guide by Tory Young – This book differs in many ways. Tory Young, here, suggests to students of English literature ways to improve their comprehension. He takes a distinct route and begins with reading and writing, ponders literary theories, advises about research papers & essays, and ends with reference methodologies. I suggest anyone should read this book after reading any or all the books listed above. You may get a copy from Amazon India – click here to go to the book page on Amazon

(2) Study the syllabus: It is a step that most students ignore. Remember to study your syllabus and give it at least 3-4 days. A proper analysis of the syllabus helps in understanding the division of the course (by genres, ages, categories, and philosophy of the world), the proportion of the subject matter distributed across the semesters, the inclusion of the texts from different periods in the history of English literature, and literary theories to be studied in BA (or MA) program. Once you understand the syllabus, planning for the semester (or the year) becomes convenient, and you can comfortably pursue the plan and score better in the examination. 

(3) Develop the habit of reading original texts: After carefully studying the syllabus, you should start by reading the original texts. Don’t start with a synopsis or summary. Get authentic, unabridged, and quality versions of prescribed novels, plays and poetry collections. Once you read a text, studying notes or critical commentaries will help you understand various aspects of the proposed literature. If you are confused about finding the best editions of literary texts, read this article – finding the best literary texts for academic needs.

(4) Make notes about anything you read: Taking notes is a productive thing to do. It helps you remember major episodes, powerful characters, vital twists in the plot, and many other things about a work of literature you read. There are effective ways to take notes. At the same time, it is about ensuring you can use it when it counts. Therefore, you are the best person to create the best method to take notes in a way that can be useful, fruitful, and accessible for a long time. 

(5) Write a lot: This is the most important thing to do as a literature student. You have to write a lot! Develop a momentum of writing as you will be writing for long hours in the examinations, for assignments, and eventually during your research projects at various stages of your college & university life. However, this is not like writing an essay in primary or middle school. Writing answers in literature requires an understanding of the subject matter, command over language, and skills to put the best arguments in the best order. You can achieve it over time with continuous efforts and prolonged practice. If you want to learn the best ways to enhance your writing abilities in literature, read this article – writing answers in English literature

(6) Use the internet (responsibly): Yes, the internet does help literature students. It can help students access quality content from anywhere in the world. However, using Google to find answers to any (and every) question you encounter is not a good idea! It will lead you into a comfort zone that does not allow intellectual thinking to grow. Read quality articles on websites offering only literary content. Use platforms like Wikipedia and Quora only for information, not for your arguments (while writing answers). You may also consider joining literature communities like English literature forum and others on the internet.  

(7) Discuss and debate in groups: Group studies become fruitful when you have friends who are deeply interested in literature. If you are lucky and have such people around you, discuss topics from different ages in the history of English literature with them. A well-read community will always pave the way for new thoughts, absorbing ideas, and quality arguments. Students pursuing BA and MA in English literature may consider creating debating groups. You may also join the above-highlighted and participate in online discussions. 

(8) Look beyond the syllabus: In the Indian scenario, ‘out of syllabus’ questions are typical. Ask anyone who appeared in any recent examination, and you will hear this phrase more often. True! At times, things go out of the defined ambit. Why shouldn’t one prepare for such situations? For example, assume one semester has three Victorian novels prescribed. If you read only these three novels, you may have the substance to answer the questions about these three novels. However, if you study one or two other works of the same era and read about Victorian novels (as a whole), you will cover various aspects that may be ‘out of syllabus’ for others!  

(9) Read poetry, listen to others read and sing it: Sometimes, you may wonder how a few people can memorise long poems by heart! Some people make things look easy. And they may have a formula for such things (and you may try it too). Listen to T. S. Eliot read his poems, preferably The Waste Land. Listen to other poetry recordings by famous readers (available in the public domain). You will find poetry becomes convenient to understand and memorise when you listen to it (and later recite it too). 

(10) Watch movies that enact novels (and plays): Literature has always inspired movie-makers. Jane Austen, Fitzgerald, Thomas Hardy, Orwell, Stephen King, Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, and many other novelists have produced literature that the world could also watch on the big screen. Try watching a movie based on any novel in your syllabus. I bet you will find it easy to understand that novel thereafter. Watching Shakespeare’s (and other dramatists’) plays on YouTube may help understand many aspects of the literary works. 

Once you start enjoying literature, there will be many other things to do. Make sure you understand the basics first, get into the depths second, and then start exploring the myriad world of English literature by employing your intellect, wisdom and education. 

I hope you enjoyed reading this article. If you follow these steps, I am affirmative you will see a successful career in (the field of) English literature ahead of yourself. Keep checking our website regularly to read more such articles, academic help, tips, and book reviews. All the best!

Written by Alok Mishra for the English Literature Education platform


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10 Comments. Leave new

  • Suraj Bharati
    July 20, 2023 7:02 am

    It was very encouraging for someone like me… I could not study the whole year because of some reasons. Now I want to resume my studies and do better. Thanks for the suggestions. I will start with motivation and determination.

  • Thanks for this amazing collection of tips for English literature students! I have just enrolled for the BA program and was totally bewildered about how to go… Your article helped me find my viable path and now I am a little relaxed. Very good site for English students.

  • Sujoy Sharma
    May 23, 2023 2:01 pm

    This is a very helpful article… I am in BA second year. I did not study very well in the first year. Now I want to study and score better to cover for the lost year. Thanks for the tips. I also read the article on writing answers in English literature examination. That is very helpful as well. Many thanks for this platform.

  • Samridhi Gupta
    May 8, 2023 1:21 pm

    Very important article with pieces of advice that we need as students of English literature more than often… it will help beginners and experienced students alike.

  • Many thanks for this amazing article… I enjoyed reading it. I also learned many things by reading this article. Especially for those who are just beginning their academic years with English literature major, this article will help very much.

  • Thanks for this article… I am a first year MA English literature student. I was worried because it is totally different from what I did in BA. Thanks for the tips and useful guidance.

  • Chandrakala Padmama
    December 17, 2022 4:17 pm

    One of the best articles I have read on studying literature so far! Genuine and very rational actions that will surely benefit students of English literature.

  • Very helpful article once again! It will help the beginners a lot.

  • This is a very helpful article! I am really glad I read this right before the classes will begin. Now at least I know what to expect, how to deal with concepts and what to read before I study literature. Thanks again guys.

  • Very good article… I learnt a lot and I am confident now. I will take 2 books from the list at the top. And I will follow all the things from the article. Thanks once again for writing this amazing article.


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