First, start out with a topic to investigate — ideally, in the form of a question. For instance... Why does Chinua Achebe use so many parables in Things Fall Apart? or... How do Christianity and gender affect the characters in The Present Moment ?
Good research papers are specific and focused. If your topic could be a book, you probably need to zoom in more .
Once you have a general topic or topic question in mind, do some general research to see what sorts of resources and information is available to you. Once you know what’s out there to work with, you’ll have a better idea of how to approach your topic.
The goal of a literary research paper is to do two things:
show what other people have said about a topic or about issues within a topic, and
show what your own perspective is now that you are informed about the topic yourself and have considered other perspectives.
The writer and teacher Gerald Graff has called this process “ They say; I say” If you keep those two phrases in mind as a structure for your paper, you’ll be off to a good start.
So where do you start once you have your topic in mind? Lots of possibilities.
go to the library and roam through the stacks
do an internet search
look at some of the databases the library subscribes to
Wikipedia and other online sources can be a perfectly good source for a general overview of your topic. Wikipedia and similar sources, though, are just a starting point. You probably won’t even want to cite them in your paper, unless you’re desperate. (Yes, citing Wikipedia is generally a sign of desperation.) But that doesn’t mean you can’t use them to give yourself some direction at the beginning.
One of the things you’ll need to think about is what counts as a reputable source for a literary research paper. Generally, you’ll want to aim for the most academic sources you can find. Things with their own lists of references and works cited. Things that have been cited by other sources repeatedly (you can discover how much something has been cited via various tools such as Google Scholar ). Let our books be a guide to you — the Norton Critical Editions, the Oxford edition of Tarzan , the edition of The Present Moment that we have — all of these are filled with reputable academic material. You’re welcome to cite this material in your paper. Remember, though, that you do need to have material you’ve found outside of our textbooks.
Take notes as you research. Write your Works Cited page as you go along. You can always remove things you don’t cite once you’ve finished your paper.
Do not write in library books. Doing so will cause your fingernails to break, your teeth to fall out, and your friends to abandon you. You will spend the rest of your life starving in a ditch, living on your own drool. Really. Other people need to use those books. Be considerate. Take notes on paper or use Post-Its.
Don’t be afraid of reference librarians. Their entire job is to help you find good material for your research.
Once you’ve done some research, gathered your sources, and begun to answer your topic question, it’s time to focus your topic more. One good way to do this is to create a tentative title. You don’t have to keep it, but starting with one will help you stay focused on what you’re trying to say.
It’s okay if you change your ideas as you write your paper. You can revise and make it all make sense. Don’t stick with bad ideas. Fix them!
Quote from texts. Quotes are your evidence. Think of yourself as a lawyer making a case to a jury. Why should the reader believe you? Evidence helps prove your case.
Don’t keep the first opening paragraph you write. It’s probably an exploratory paragraph in which you try to figure out what you want to say. This is important to you, but not the reader. Get to the point.
Which of these first paragraphs do you prefer? Why? In Things Fall Apart , Chinua Achebe uses parables to show readers one of the ways Igbo culture communicated knowledge and history. This technique also allows readers to see some of the significant differences between Igbo and British cultures, and between traditional and modern ways of knowing. The parables have been a powerful and contentious element of the text for readers and critics from the earliest days of the novel’s publication. My paper is about the fact that in Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe there are many parables used. Parables are stories that contain moral lessons and teach readers/listeners something. Things Fall Apart is a novel published in the 1950s. It is an African novel and African use parables. I liked the book, but not all of it. There are many parables in Things Fall Apart .
Remember to write for an informed audience: an audience that has read the main text you are writing about. Analysis is more appropriate than summary. A summary tells what happened. An analysis answer the questions, “Why?” and “How?”
Plan ahead. You need to leave yourself time to revise and edit, and perhaps even to visit the Writing Center and then revise and edit some more. Also, stuff happens. If you allow yourself time for emergencies and last-minute changes of plan, you’ll save yourself many headaches.
Don’t be shy about asking your professor for guidance or advice. Office Hours exist for a reason. But remember: plan ahead. A frantic email the day before the paper is due isn’t likely to be much help. In fact, it’s most likely to be ignored.
Read the guidelines for the paper carefully. Read the proofreading guidelines carefully. You can write beautifully and do amazing research, but if your paper doesn’t follow the guidelines, your grade will suffer.
Know the difference between a Works Cited page and a bibliography. Know which one you need for this paper. Know which citation system your professor prefers (e.g. MLA, APA, Chicago, etc.)
Try to give yourself at least one whole day for revision and editing. One of the best ways you can edit your paper is to read it aloud to yourself and listen carefully to what you hear. You’ll notice things you wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. Repeat after me: ALLOW TIME FOR REVISION!
Finally, find a way that you can have fun with, or at least maintain interest in, the topic you are writing about. If you are uninterested in what you write, why should a reader be interested?