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Writing in Literature: General Research Papers

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English instructors often assign papers with few restrictions on subject matter. While this can be quite liberating, it can also be disconcerting. If you can write about virtually anything, which piece of anything should you choose? Many students find themselves paralyzed when faced with this kind of openness, but there are strategies for dealing with it.

Choose Something You Like

Literature is an art form, and as such it is meant to move, inspire or even outrage its readers. If you have a lot of options, choose something that appeals to you, even if you cannot justify your choice.

Example: Suppose you are taking a class on Jane Austen. Even though you’ve only seen the movie, deciding now to write on Sense and Sensibility will make you more interested when you get to the novel in class.

Make Your Choice Early

Even during the first week in the semester, try to make some preliminary decisions on the subjects of your major assignments, and then read those works first. You will be better prepared when the semester heats up later on, and if you really cannot stand your choice, you have time to make another.

Example: As you walk home from the bookstore with a stack of literature, make some preliminary choices on what might be interesting based solely on some preliminary reading you do that evening. Set aside the one you like best and start reading it that evening.

Turning Interest into Interesting

Saying that you like a work is not the same as writing a paper about it, but it can be a good place to start. Analyze your attraction for the piece and try to jot down answers to basic questions like these:

  • What do I like about this piece?
  • Why do these things appeal to me?
  • What makes them different enough from the surrounding material that they stand out in my mind?
  • Where does that difference come from?
  • How is it achieved?

You may also use some of the invention strategies outlined above.

Reading the Readers

Literary criticism can seem daunting to a first time reader. Sometimes when you find yourself confused by a work, a basic analysis by a noted scholar can clear things up immensely. Your instructor is your best source for recommended reading, but you can also find sources on your own. Anything calling itself an “Introduction” or “Overview” of an author or work is probably a good bet. Remember to take notes.

Example: After reading some of Dante’s Divine Comedy, you find yourself intrigued but confused by the astronomical references in the poem. An essay on Dante’s astronomy may not only clear up your confusion, but suggest some possible paper topics, as well.

Straight to the Top

Talking to your teacher about choosing your topic can be helpful, but only if you handle it correctly. Instructors are wary of giving their students specific instructions; choosing a topic is part of the learning process. However, his or her familiarity with the literature can point you in new directions. Instead of looking for specific answers, go looking for advice.

Example: You go to your instructor’s office hours with a list of about five ideas for a paper you’ve been thinking about. Instead of asking “Which one should I write?” say, “These things have been of particular interest to me during our class time. Where can I find more information about them?”