I'm having trouble understanding a passage in a book I'm reading. How do I ask a good question about it on Literature Stack Exchange? What information do I need to include to help people find the question and answer it?

1 Answer 1


First, check that your question is on topic here at Literature.

Then, include:

  1. the name of the author and the title of the work;
  2. the passage you are asking about;
  3. enough context for people to be able to follow the passage;
  4. how to find the passage: a link, or the publisher, date and page number;
  5. what you are having trouble understanding: is it a word you don't know, a sentence you can't follow, an allusion that you don't recognize?

Why do I need to include all of this information?

  1. You want to bring your question to the attention of people for whom it is in their area of expertise. But they cannot know whether this is the case unless you tell them! If you want to attract experts on Emily Dickinson, then you need to mention that the passage you are asking about was written by her.

  2. You need to include the passage as a courtesy to people writing answers, so that they do not have to seek out the original. You need to quote the passage you are asking about (and not just summarize it) because in literature the exact wording is often very important.

  3. Passages in literature have meaning that depends on their context: perhaps the context is satirical, or ironic, or perhaps it's spoken by a character with a particular point of view, or perhaps the surrounding sentences have important clarifications.

  4. Some passages need a lot of context to understand, more than it is reasonable to quote in the question. So it is a courtesy to people writing answers to help them find that context, if they need it, either by giving a link to a website with the work, or by giving enough bibliographic information to track it down.

  5. This should be obvious, I hope!

How do I format a quotation?

In the edit box , put > at the start of each paragraph to format it as a quotation, and put two spaces at the end of a line if you need to force a line break in poetry.

How do I quote a passage from a physical book?

Here are three approaches:

  1. Find the same passage online and copy it. See this question for many online resources for finding the text of books.

  2. Take a photo of the page and use optical character recognition (OCR) software to extract the text. There are many online OCR services, and many OCR apps for mobile phones. If you use MacOS 12 or later, Preview.app has built-in OCR.

  3. Retype it yourself. (Treat it as typing practice!)

As a last resort, if you can't do any of the above:

  1. Take a photo and add it to the question. This is the least-good option as it is inaccessible to people using screen readers. To add a photo, click the image button above the edit box, or type control-G. See the editing help for details.

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