For students not familiar with keeping a class journal or writing short free response papers, the assignment can be intimidating and confusing. The good thing is that it doesn’t have to be. Journal entries are generally a lot less formal than essays, and if you understand the rationale behind journal entries you will find them easier to write.
Analyze Don’t Summarize
A mistake many students make when writing journal entries is to include too much summary or re-narration. Your professor has already read the story, and there is no need for you to retell the entire story in your own words. Journal entries are not summaries, and you don’t have to go through the entire storyline before getting down to your analysis. Analyzing a text means examining the structure or the details of the text. To get started, think about the following aspects of the text and jot down whatever comes to your mind. Literary analysis is about getting your mind wrapped around the text and thinking critically about its components. Asking questions about the text is a great way to start the ball rolling.
Think About Structure
Look at the structure of the text. Does the author write in first person or third person? Does the narrator have a certain persona? Is the narrator involved in the story? Is the narrator omniscient, meaning that he or she can describe the inner thoughts and emotions of multiple characters? What effect does the choice of narrator have on the reading of the story? Do you think the story would have the same effect if it were to be told by a different narrator? Often the choice of narrator gives the reader a specific lens with which to interpret the story.
Other elements of the structure can also be written about in an English journal entry. Is the text written in verse, in regular paragraphs or with a lot of dialogue? Does the text move forward in time, or does it make use of flashbacks for dramatic effect? How does the author’s choice of setting, timing and style affect the reading of the piece?
Sample journal entry section: “It’s interesting that the author chooses to write the story from the point of slew of an eight-year-old girl. Seeing the plot unfold through the eyes of a naive child adds a different dimension to the text. At the same time, it can be frustrating for the reader not to be able to know what is going on in the plot from a more mature, grown-up viewpoint”
Think About Details
Write in your reading journal about any specific detail that caught your attention. How does the author use description or colors in the text? Does a certain object of the person seem to represent something greater? Is the way that a certain person is described a stereotype? How do the characters talk? Do any characters have a particular accent? What are the social classes of the characters? How do their positions in society relate to the overall story? How are women portrayed in the story? How are men portray in the story? Does the narrator have any biases or prejudices? Is there any scene that particularly stands out to you? Why does this scene resonate with you more than the others?
Sample journal entry section: “The way that the author represents women shows his fear of female sexuality. For example, when Celine walks into the room he describes her with ‘eyes like a viper looking for its next kill.'”
Think About Author Motivation
When analyzing a literary text, it is important to think about author motivation. What do you think was the point or goal of the text? Why did the author choose a certain time period or geographic location for the story? Why has the author portrayed certain characters in a more negative or positive light? Think about the author’s own background and history. How do you think the author’s own experiences play into the text? In a journal entry, it’s okay to make guesses. Thinking about motivation means asking all the “why” questions about the text.
Sample journal entry section: “It seems as if the author is writing a satiric portrait of the monastic life. I wonder what his own experiences were with the church, and if he believed all religious persons to be corrupt and hypocritical. In the text, he certainly portrays monks this way.”
Think About the Overall Picture
Think about the greater canvas of the literary text you are reading. What significance may it have had when it was first published? How do you think the public reacted to it? Why do you think they would like or not like it? Is it similar to any other literary text that you have read? Does this piece bring up themes that are discussed in other works of literature from this time period? How does this piece of literature relate to the political and cultural context of the time?
Sample journal entry section: “It’s easy to see why this work was condemned by critics when it first was published. The ideas presented in the novel are radically feminist and challenge many of the reigning social norms of the day. For example, the author’s main character is a single female who runs her own business and refuses to get married. I can understand why this novel would have a primarily male readership up in arms”
When writing a journal entry for English class you will want to use first person. Write with “I” and talk about what the text made you think. Don’t simply talk about what you liked and what you didn’t like about the piece, but try to think deeper. Why didn’t you like a certain of the text? You can give your critical analysis of the text in your journal entry, but avoid generic blanket statements like “It was boring” or “The story was too long.” The purpose of reading and writing journal entries is not to torture you, but to teach you how to engage with a piece of literature. Think of your journal entry as a way of talking back to the text. Ask questions.
Remember, your journal entry does not have to be a polished essay. It is good to choose one or two main points to expand on, but you do not need to have a thesis and back it up. Think about what you would tell a friend about the text. Ask yourself some of the questions given above and jot down your ideas. This should get your mind spinning and give you plenty of ideas to start your English class journal entry.