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Writing About Literature

TIP Sheet

There are many ways to write about literature, many ways of reading, interpreting, and appreciating literature. Assignments in literature can range from close reading of passages to very broad discussion of its themes and ideas. The following are some of the ways instructors may ask you to approach and understand literature:

  1. The summary, that is, a critical retelling of the story and examination of its interior logic
  2. Passage analysis, a close reading of a selected or shorter passage
  3. Structural analysis, or an examination of plot elements and why the author has so arranged them
  4. Character analysis, for example, discussing characters' motivations or how they externalize themes and ideas
  5. Point-of-view analysis, or who tells the story and how this affects the telling
  6. Metrical analysis, that is, looking at how the rhythms and patterns of language communicate ideas
  7. Style analysis in prose, or examining how an author says what he says
  8. Tone analysis, or discerning the overall mood of a work
  9. Historical or cultural analysis, that is, how a piece reflects the beliefs and values of the society that produced it, or how history can shed light on a work for modern readers
  10. Comparing and contrasting to demonstrate similarity, difference, or superiority
  11. Imagery analysis, or the sensory impact created by words
  12. Symbolism analysis, or how the things in a story simultaneously represent something else
  13. Ideas or themes analysis, or detailed discussion and evaluation of the author's ideas
  14. Evaluation, or a judgment on the overall quality and value of a work


The different ways of examining literature frequently overlap; for example, characters or authors' styles can be compared or contrasted, a passage analysis might focus on ideas, or an author's imagery can be found to contribute to the tone of a composition. Bearing in mind this overlap, the following are suggestions for ways to organize papers that are commonly assigned in literature classes. Adapt these suggestions as needed to suit your particular situation.

1. The summary
There are two elements to consider when writing a summary:

  • The story or plot-the main events as they appear in chronological order. The main events are those that propel the story forward.
  • The causes, motivations, or logic underlying the story.

In pre-college or lower division work, a fairly simple thesis may be satisfactory:

Jurassic Park by Michael Crighton is a fast-moving, suspenseful story.

For transfer level or upper division work, the fact that you are summarizing an existing work will not excuse you from developing a thesis statement. Generally, college instructors look for an interesting, provocative, and supportable thesis, even for a "mere" summary. The thesis statement for a summary paper makes a claim about the events, motivations, and interior logic of the work:

J.R.R. Tokien's The Lord of the Rings shows that renunciation of power can lead to individual salvation.

Alternately, you may theorize that the book shows that individual evil cannot be overcome without help from other people or that divine intervention aids right effort. Whatever your claim, you should logically support your thesis while summarizing the story.

In general, organize a summary paper as follows:

  • In the introduction, identify the work, the author, the most significant characters, and the general situation. State your central idea in a thesis sentence.
  • In the body, summarize the events and evaluate the logic of the story. Keep in touch with the original work, citing significant words, phrases, or passages to illustrate.
  • End with a restatement of your thesis and a conclusion that goes beyond the points you have already made.

2. Passage analysis
If you are asked to analyze a passage of a longer work, don't be tempted to cheat–first read the entire work to make sure that you understand the relation of the part to the whole. What are the central ideas or themes of the whole work? Then study the passage you are to write about. What is its central idea?

The chapter "The Mirror of Galadriel" in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings shows that the elves' ability to handle uncorrupted power (as illustrated by the Mirror and the elvish rings of power) does not guarantee their ability to handle corrupted power as it is embodied in the One Ring. Rather, Galadriel, a heroic figure, refuses the offer of the One Ring knowing that its destruction will diminish her as well. Wisdom to refrain from using evil is a central struggle throughout The Lord of the Rings.

In general, organize a passage analysis paper as follows:

  • In the introduction, describe the particular circumstances of the passage, placing it in the context of the longer work. Who speaks? What is the setting? State a general reaction to the passage.
  • In the body, combine the results of your close reading of the passage with one of the central ideas you have discovered in the work as a whole. Do they reinforce each other, or does tension exist between the two? Use examples from the passage to back up your claims. Always explain how the material you quote supports your point.
  • End with a restatement of your thesis and a conclusion based on the points you have made.

3. Structural analysis
Structure is the organization of a literary work-how and why the author has arranged plot elements or ideas. The structure of a work should support not only the plot but the ideas the work explores; therefore, an analysis of structure must begin with the understanding of these ideas and then go on to examine the work's organization in terms of its success in supporting or communicating them.

The structure of D.H. Lawrence's short story "The Rocking Horse Winner" supports one of the story's themes–that objects are no replacement for love. For example, rather than engendering content, the advent of money only worsens the household situation: "The voices in the house suddenly went mad,...[they] simply trilled and screamed in a sort of ecstasy: ‘There must be more money!'"

In general, organize a structural analysis paper as follows:

  • In your introduction, state the most important ideas in the work and explain how the work's organization contributes to them.
  • In the body, provide selections from the text to back up your claims about themes. Then, discuss the way in which these ideas influence the form. Also, describe how the form influences the ideas–that is, how the parts relate to the main ideas.
  • In the conclusion, evaluate the structure: Are all the parts of the work necessary? Are all parts equally important? Would the work be damaged if any part were omitted or transposed? Are the parts successful in creating the author's intended impression?

4. Character analysis
A character analysis is a detailed examination of some aspect of a character or characters. For example, you might describe the behavior of characters as it reveals their motivation. Or, you might discuss how the author develops a character to embody themes or ideas. You may compare similar characters or contrast diverse characters-the possibilities for character analysis are probably endless.

There are several ways an author can reveal character in his principle actors:

  • By what the person himself says (or thinks, in the first-person or third person omniscient point-of-view)
  • By what the person does
  • By what other characters say about him or her
  • By what the author says about him or her, speaking as the storyteller or as an observer of the action

Sometimes you may find that the setting reflects characters' feelings, values, or states of mind. To illustrate, certainly the storms in Shakespeare's King Lear mirror both the action and the inner states of various characters.

Much of character analysis involves your impressions–supported by citations from the work-of a character's character. For example, in examining Michael Cunningham's The Hours, you might find that Clarissa is motivated by love for material objects and by too much of a need to be accepted by others, and yet acknowledge that, ironically, she is the only healthy character in the novel. Your essay could contrast some of her opinions, experiences, and emotional reactions with Laura's and Virginia's, the other principal characters.

In general, organize a character analysis paper as follows:

  • In your introduction, clearly state a central idea about the character or characters.
  • In the body, develop and support your claim. Choose a pattern of organization: around primary characteristics, around central incidents that reveal primary characteristics, or around various sections of the work.
  • In the conclusion, state how the selected traits of these characters relate to the work as a whole.

5. Point-of-view analysis
Point of view is the personal pronoun-I/we, you, he/she/they–from which a story is told. Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is told from the first-person, or "I" point of view:

The widow she cried over me, and called me a poor lost lamb, and she called me a lot of other names, too, but she never meant no harm by it.

On the other hand, John Steinbeck's Cannery Row is told from an omniscient third-person, or "he" point of view:

The bums who retired in disgust under the black cypress tree come out to sit on the rusty pipes in the vacant lot. The girls from Dora's emerge for a bit of sun if there is any. Doc strolls from the Western Biological Laboratory and crosses the street to Lee Chong's grocery for two quarts of beer.

The speaker's attitudes and the scope–or limitations–of his knowledge contribute to the development of the work. Point of view should help make the work seem authentic and contribute to the overall mood. In Poe's "The Telltale Heart," for example, the first-person point of view contributes greatly to the agitated, claustrophobic feel of the story:

Meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart increased. It grew quicker and quicker, and louder and louder every instant. The old man's terror must have been extreme! It grew louder, I say, louder every moment!–do you mark me well? I have told you that I am nervous: so I am.

Organize a point-of-view analysis as follows:

  • In your introduction, describe the work, answering the following kinds of questions:
    • Who is the speaker?
    • What is the character and background of the speaker?
    • What is his function in the story-protagonist, antagonist, supporting character?
    • What is his relationship to the person listening to him?
    • Does he speak directly to the reader, or in such a way that the reader is a witness or eavesdropper?
    • Does the speaker rely on others for information?
    • Is he/she affected by the action?
  • In the body, analyze the effect of the speaker on the situation and vice versa, pursuing any of the above questions that appear promising. What is produced by the perception, ideas, and language of the narrator?
  • In the conclusion, evaluate the success of the point of view: Is it consistent? Effective? Truthful? Does it succeed in making events and motivations more probable and believable?


6. Metrical analysis
Metrical analysis, or prosody, gives you the opportunity to develop your sensitivity to the sound of language and to become aware of the power of sound and rhythm to communicate and amplify meaning.

William Carlos Williams' descriptive poem "The Dance" illustrates how patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables help convey the writer's meaning, in this case suggesting the relentless rhythm and whirling dance of fair-goers. The author also uses onomatopoeia in the stressed words chosen to approximate the sounds of the bagpipes:

In Breughel's great picture, The Kermess,
The dancers go round, they go round and
Around, the squeal and the blare and the
of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles
Tipping their bellies...

And in the lines below from Edna St. Vincent Millay, the longer vowels and flowing cadence of the first line contrast with the crisper sound and slightly choppy rhythm of the second to suggest the movement, look, and sound of the waters:

The larger streams run still and deep,
Noisy and swift the small brooks run...

A metrical analysis may include discussions of foot (a unit of accented and unaccented syllables), meter (a predominant pattern of feet), rhythm (which, as in music, drives a sense of movement), rhyme (an echoing of sound and structure), and stanza (group of lines).

In general, organize a metrical analysis paper as follows:

  • In the introduction, include a brief discussion of the rhetorical or dramatic situation of the poem as it leads into a consideration of prosody:
    • Is the poem narrative, descriptive, argumentative, or expository?
    • What is the principle idea of the passage?
    • What is the dominant mood?
  • In the body, discuss the rhythm of the passage and the basic metrical pattern and variations (where they occur). Look at the relationships of the syntactic units to the meter–is there a conflict, or is there agreement between sentence structure and metrical emphasis? Discuss the sound of the passage, including quality and length of sounds. Also discuss assonance, alliteration, consonance, onomatopoeia, and patterns of consonant and vowel sounds.
  • In the conclusion, evaluate the success of the passage. Are the metrical devices appropriate? Do they augment the idea of the passage? Or do they contrast or conflict with it? Do they give the passage more power than it otherwise would have?

7. Style analysis in prose
Style means all the ways in which a writer uses words, phrases, and sentences to achieve his desired results. In particular, the connotative and symbolic values of words, their rhythm and sound, and the complexity or simplicity of grammar combine to reveal the style of a writer.

Diction, or word choice, might be the easiest element to observe in style analysis. Words do not exist by themselves, but jostle each other in a context in which one word affects another. The connotation, or implied "color" of a word, the symbolic value of some words, and words' functions in similes, metaphors, and other figures can all be fruitful to examine.

Despite the difference between poetry and prose, various "poetic" devices such as alliteration, assonance, and onomatopoeia may be at work in prose. Read the passage aloud and listen for its rises and falls, its rhythms and lengths of utterance.

Grammatical analysis can reveal complexity or simplicity in an author's style. Sentences may fall into patterns, or an author may use recurring rhetorical devices. A mere description of grammar, however, can be deadly dull if it leads to no generalizations.

John Steinbeck, for example, is an American author generally straightforward in his style and not given to florid expressions or hyperbole. This holds true for his book Tortilla Flat. But here, in addition, the author uses grammar skillfully-mostly short, simple clauses alone or in strings of run-ons-to suggest at once the childlike simplicity and occasional duplicity of his characters. He sprinkles their dialogue with Spanish expressions and diminutive endearments. He even succeeds in approximating the respectful form of address found in Spanish, and which has no like form in English:

"Ai, Pilon, amigo!...Pilon, my little friend! Where goest thou so fast?...I looked for thee, dearest of little angelic friends, for see, I have here two great steaks from God's own pig, and a sack of sweet white bread. Share my bounty, Pilon, little dumpling."

Pilon shrugged his shoulders. "As you say," he muttered savagely.... Pilon was puzzled. At length he stopped and faced his friend. "Danny," he asked sadly, "how knewest thou I had a bottle of brandy under my coat?"

In general, organize a style analysis paper as follows:

  • In your introduction briefly describe the author and the example of his work-the composition or passage–you will discuss.
  • In the body, discuss one or more of the three areas of analysis listed above: grammar, rhythm and sound, or diction. Cite your source to illustrate.
  • In the conclusion, evaluate how-and how well–the rhythm and connotations of the author's words and sentences contribute to the author's intended effect as you understand it.

8. Tone analysis
Tone is the overall atmosphere, or mood, of a work. An author's tone suggests his or her attitudes (though tone and attitude are often used synonymously). Tone is not so much seen as sensed, not so much stated as implied. Tone pervades the entire work, not just individual parts, settings, or characters.

An author uses every story element to reveal tone–diction, character development, point of view, grammar, structure–everything. Words carry connotative or emotional overtones in addition to their denotative or dictionary meaning; characters can be nefarious or sincere; even grammar can be redolent of meaning or sparse, austere, direct. In addition, the structure of a work can be linear or complex, reinforcing or contrasting with the dominant mood.

What tone do you feel in this opening paragraph of D.H. Lawrence's "The Rocking Horse Winner"?

There was a woman who was beautiful, who started with all the advantages, yet she had no luck. She married for love, and the love turned to dust. She had bonny children, yet she felt they had been thrust upon her, and she could not love them. They looked at her coldly, as if they were finding fault with her. And hurriedly she felt she must cover up some fault in herself.

Although as straightforward as a fairy tale, the way good things turn bad gives this passage a bitter tone, and the story remains bitter when the mother is present. In her absence, the tone is often anxious:

The Grand National [horse race] had gone by: he had not "known," and he had lost a hundred pounds. Summer was at hand. He was in agony for the Lincoln [horse race]. But even for the Lincoln he didn't "know" and he lost fifty pounds. He became wild-eyed and strange, as if something were going to explode in him.

"Let it alone, son!" don't you bother about it!" urged Uncle Oscar. But it was as if the boy couldn't really hear what his uncle was saying.

The shift in tone is central to the dynamics between mother and son: she is bitter and unhappy, and he anxious and isolated.

Describe tone with adjectives: simple, straightforward, complex, forceful, gentle, ironic, sarcastic, understated, sympathetic, humorous, angry, analytical, evasive, sardonic, neutral, hostile, grand, serious, ghoulish, mournful, comic, jovial, friendly.

In general, organize a paper on tone as follows:

  • In the introduction, describe the tone and state the role tone plays in the piece. Your thesis should enumerate those areas you plan to investigate.
  • In the body, expand on your central idea. If there is unity of tone, treat various sections to show this. If there is a shift in tone, or complexity of tone, demonstrate this.
  • In your conclusion, relate your conclusions about the tone to your overall understanding of the work.


9. Historical/cultural analysis
Though most literary artists aim at universality, their works are also products of their time and place. Historical and cultural analysis examines the beliefs and values of the society that produced a piece, or seeks to clarify the work itself for a modern reader by shedding light on its historical milieu. Historical or cultural analysis can also compare or contrast beliefs or values expressed in a work to modern beliefs or to those of other cultures.

If, for example, you were doing an historical analysis of Virgil's The Aeneid, your introduction would explain the forms of government, social hierarchies, pantheism, and art of ancient Rome. You would speak of city-states, tyrants, the custom of slavery and how slaves were treated; you would discuss the way armies were conscripted.

When you engage in historical or cultural analysis, observe the effects on the composition of its time and place in history as well as the effects the work may have had on readers of its time. To evaluate you may ask and answer these questions: What elements of the times and culture are present in the work? Are there elements that challenge or diverge from the norm? In historical analysis, discuss to what extent history has bypassed the problems delineated in this work.

In general, organize an historical or cultural analysis paper as follows:

  • In your introduction, discuss the period in which the work was written and the relationships of the work to that period–to what extent does this work reflect the beliefs and values of its time, or challenge them?
  • In the body, refer to the author's style, structure, main ideas, and preconceptions. Consider the setting and events of the story, as well as the clothing styles, machinery, speech habits, topics of conversation, and habits of thought of the characters.
  • In the conclusion, evaluate the work according to its success in giving a picture of life at a particular period. Does this work remain relevant to readers today?

10. Comparing and contrasting
You may compare (show similarity with) or contrast (show differences between) almost any of a great many elements within a work or between two works–characters, motivations, point of view, tone, or themes, for example. You may compare or contrast the works or characters of two different authors or of two by the same author. You might compare or contrast two authors' styles. Whatever you compare or contrast, your purpose is to demonstrate their similarities and/or differences, or the superiority of one over the other.

For example, you might compare and contrast the characters of Bilbo, Frodo, and Gollum in
The Lord of the Rings. You may decide that the ring symbolized fate for the three characters. You explain how Bilbo was fated to find the ring, how Frodo was fated to destroy it, and how Gollum was fated to be destroyed by it. Further, you may argue that these fates reflect basic character traits of the three: Bilbo the adventurer, who grew up in an innocent age; Frodo the adult, who had responsibility thrust upon him; Gollum the fallen, who couldn't resist temptation. If you wished, you could even argue further that these three facets actually are part of everyone, and that the three characters are really one character.

In general, organize a compare/contrast paper as follows:

  • In your introduction, state what you are comparing or contrasting and formulate your claim about similarities, differences, or superiority.
  • In the body, support your claim by reference to the works, citing examples as needed.
  • In the conclusion, reiterate your main idea. Acknowledge the limitations of your treatment of these works. Point out the implications of your treatment, drawing conclusions, if possible, beyond (but still based upon) the points you have already made.

11. Imagery analysis
Imagery communicates meaning on a level even more basic, perhaps, than words. It is the use of figurative language to evoke sensory, emotional, psychological, or intellectual responses in a reader by showing rather than by telling. Figurative language, including allusion, metaphor, simile, allegory, personification, symbolic embodiment, all use sensory details–seeing, smelling, hearing, touching, tasting–to conjure sympathetic feelings in the reader.

Meaningful, thoughtfully constructed imagery creates mood, externalizes thought, and increases dramatic effects (especially if there are abrupt changes in imagery). Imagery might exploit the etymology, or origin and history, of words, to subtly revive their original meanings.

In general, organize a paper about imagery as follows:

  • In your introduction, state your central idea about the imagery of the work you will examine, for example, that it is mainly visual, or that it makes the poem more powerful, or that it is ineffectual.
  • In the body, describe the imagery–you might group images by type, such as animal imagery, food imagery, or sexual imagery. Discuss the kinds of responses elicited by the imagery: What feelings or ideas does it evoke? Does this work rely on a particular device or technique to generate images? You may also address some of the following:
    • the frames of reference, or sources of the imagery.
    • the effect of one image, or series of images, upon other images and ideas in the work.
    • the way imagery causes suggestions and implications to appear in the work.
  • In the conclusion, state how effective the imagery was in communicating the author's ideas or strengthening the intended effects. Was the imagery meaningful, or merely decorative?

12. Symbolism analysis
When a thing in a story–a person, place, thing, or action–represents more than itself, either by association, resemblance, or convention, it is a symbol. To some extent, symbols are cultural icons, allusions to important historical or mythical events or religious customs. A certain amount of cultural immersion may be necessary to pick out and appreciate the symbols in a work. Other symbols seem almost universal, or at least frequently recurring. For example, water often represents life no matter when or where you live. And the image of the ubiquitous trickster-hero appears in many cultures (think Coyote, Loki, Br'er Rabbit, Bugs Bunny).

To identify literary symbols, look for something that recurs in a work. Does this "something" appear when the author is making related points? The interpretion of literary symbols is fluid, as objects can carry meaning at several levels. Take the symbol of a ring, which in western culture symbolizes commitment-and possibly entrapment. In The Lord of the Rings, the master ring symbolizes the ultimate entrapment: power, corruption, fear, hate, amorality, hubris, domination, addiction, slavery, seduction.

In general, organize a paper discussing symbolism as follows:

  • In your introduction, identify the main idea of the piece and briefly describe the symbol or symbols as they relate to this idea.
  • In the body, develop the relationship between the ideas and the symbols, citing examples to illustrate your points. Are the symbols particular to a certain culture or do they appear to be universal? Are the symbols essential to understanding the ideas?
  • In the conclusion, evaluate the success of the symbolism. Do the symbols enrich the story or are they merely embellishments?

13. Ideas and themes analysis
While the theme of a work is usually implied by the events, characters, and other devices of the work, the ideas typically are explicitly stated. You might find the ideas put into the mouth of a principal character, or they may be revealed by a third-person narrator. If the author's own voice is heard overtly in the work (in the person of an observer, perhaps, or in a first-person narrative), it may be the one to articulate the ideas.

To identify ideas and themes, look for some of these:

  • Direct statements by the author
  • Direct statements by the author's persona, the narrator
  • Dramatic statements made by the characters in the work
  • Characters who stand for ideas or themes

A central idea stated in Victor Hugo's Les Misererables, for instance, is put forth by a third-person narrator commenting on the actions of characters in the story: "...Those are rare who fall without becoming degraded." As there may be many ideas embodied in a work, it is usually best to write about one important idea rather than several.

Philosophical novels, such as James Redfield's The Celestine Prophecy, interconnect many ideas because the main purpose of such novels to explore ideas rather than develop character. Expecially to discuss this genre, you may need to choose a main idea and write about how well some of the other ideas logically connect with it. For instance, The Celestine Prophecy proposes that a deep purpose underlies seeming coincidences. The book connects this idea to the complex idea that we must be nonjudgmental in our attitude to experience the deeper meaning of coincidences. This is supported, the book points out, by experiments in quantum physics: expectations affect results. The author proposes that expectations are energy. Further, the book posits that an unmanifest source of energy exists from which humans can learn to draw, leading eventually to expansion of human consciousness–and the reason we have coincidences. In a paper about the ideas in this book, you could conclude that the disparate ideas really form a cohesive unit.

In general, organize a paper about ideas as follows:

  • In your introduction name the idea you intend to discuss. You might also show how you arrived at your decision to write about that particular idea-Why, briefly, have you chosen to discuss this idea?
  • In the body, show the ways in which the writer brought out the idea in his work. How forcefully is the idea presented? Use illustrations from the text that are clearly relevant and reinforce your point.
  • In your conclusion, evaluate the idea and its relevance and function in the work. How convincing is it in the story?

14. Evaluation
Too often students will avoid making judgments or commitments about literature, though they may describe beautifully the metrical structure of a poem. Yet the ultimate goal of all literary study is evaluation, the act of deciding what is good, bad, or mediocre.

While personal preference may guide what you read, it is valueless as the basis for literary evaluation if it is purely whimsical, without any basis in thought or knowledge. But by what standards may a work be judged good, bad, or indifferent? At the risk of oversimplifying, we will classify these standards as truth, vitality, and beauty.

First, we can try to evaluate a work in terms of truth or honesty. A work should have interior logic and be true to its own purpose; that is, every aspect of a story should contribute to achieving the main purpose. In addition, a work should reflect life and offer insight into humanness. Ask these questions: Is this work believable? If it is a fantasy, does it stay true to its own fantastical framework? Do you believe in this universe, or are you at least willing to believe in it? Does this work touch upon universal truths or is it merely escapist? Does it seem to express authentically the realities of human nature? Does it reflect the world as you know it?

A good work of literature appears to have vitality, or a life of its own. To evaluate the vitality of a work, ask these kinds of questions: Is this work, are these characters complex and rounded, or are they flat and unbelievable? Is the point of view convincing? Does the author show emotions through action, or merely tell about them? Does the work keep your interest? Are there surprises in the plot, or is this a formula story? Is there a dilemma or paradox that is true to life?

Last, you can try (if you are brave) to discuss a work in terms of its beauty. Bear in mind that the beauty of a literary work is not found in pretty scenery or attractive characters; but rather transcends all a work's individual elements. (A bad composition about a very attractive woman, for example, is still a bad composition.) Discuss proportion and balance, coherence and unity, apt imagery and language. If you do not subscribe to such classical definitions of beauty, look for asymmetry, vertigo, contradiction, and grittiness! Define beauty in your own terms, and go on to support your claim about the work.

In general, organize an evaluation paper as follows:

  • In the introduction, briefly describe your central idea and the points by which you expect to demonstrate your idea. State on what grounds you are evaluating this work, and describe your criteria. (This is where, for example, if you have chosen to define beauty in highly personal terms, you would set out your criteria for beauty.)
  • In the body, demonstrate the grounds for your evaluation. Show the good points (or deficiencies) of the work you are evaluating. Such points might be qualities of style, idea, structure, character portrayal, logic, point of view, and so on. Describe the probability, truth, or force with which the work demonstrates your claim.
  • The conclusion should be a statement on the overall impression of the work you are evaluating. Did you find it good? Bad? Mediocre? Truthful? Vital? Beautiful?

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