How to Write a Research Essay in Classic English Literature: Every Detail You Need to Know

Writing guide
Posted on April 23, 2020

A research essay is a small version of a research paper – instead of being a dozen pages long or more it usually contains no more than 1,000-1,500 words. This sets certain limitations for the author – one has to think carefully about the topic before setting out and be sure to determine the direction of research in a way that will allow one to cover it sufficiently within the confines of such a humble word count.

The subject matter being classic English literature leaves its impression – you have to extensively work with both primary and secondary sources related to books of this period, which can be quite difficult, especially when it comes to older publications that used language that is often quite different from the English we speak today.


  1. Choose and Narrow Down a Researchable Topic
  2. Formulate Your Research Question and Thesis Statement
  3. Find Viable and Reliable Sources
  4. Evaluate Sources
  5. Write an Outline


  1. Write the Introduction
  2. Write the Body
  3. Write the Conclusion


  1. Be Ready for More Than One Draft
  2. Ask Somebody to Read Your Essay
  3. Start Big, End Small
  4. Put Proofreading until the Very End

Pre-Writing Stage

Choose and Narrow Down a Researchable Topic

It may sound obvious, but we will mention it nonetheless – the main requirement for a research essay topic is that it should be researchable.
Firstly, it means that the answer to your research question should not be self-evident (e.g., ‘Allegorical Interpretation of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress’ is not a very good topic, because everybody knows that Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory, and a fairly straightforward one, so there is nothing to interpret).

Secondly, it means that you should be able to research the topic and produce results. Sources of information on the chosen subject should exist, and you should have access to them. This means that selecting an obscure author without an existing body of literature about him/her is not the best idea – you will have to work using only primary sources, and a short work like an essay is not a good choice for tapping into a previously unstudied subject.

Thirdly, it means that the scope of work should be consistent with the type of assignment you are dealing with. In academia, it is usually better to stick to narrow topics, but it is especially true for essays. Something like ‘The Theme of Love in Classic English Literature’ is an untenable choice, as you cannot hope to cover it in a roughly 1000-word essay.

Therefore, you should aim for a relatively narrow topic that has to be researched to come to conclusions and have an existing body of research related to it. Something like this:

  • Jane Eyre and How It Reflects Its Historical Background;
  • Political Issues as Covered in William Shakespeare’s Othello;
  • The Literary Influence of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress on Later Authors;
  • Religious Symbolism in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities;
  • The Fairy Queene by Edmund Spenser: Mythological Elements and Their Interpretation.

Formulate Your Research Question and Thesis Statement

Many students are a bit fuzzy on the difference between the topic, the research question and the thesis statement. To write a successful essay you will need all three.
The topic determines the area of research and its limits. E.g., ‘The Use of Norse Mythology Symbolism in The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis’ defines both the work you study and its aspects you intend to research.

The research question sets the question you intend to answer with your research. In this case, it will be ‘Is the imagery C.S. Lewis uses in The Last Battle reminiscent of Norse mythology?’
The thesis statement is the main point of your essay, expressed in one or two sentences. E.g., ‘Imagery and symbolism C.S. Lewis uses in The Last Battle bears strong resemblance with some aspects of Norse mythology’.

When writing the thesis statement, keep it short (no longer than 30-35 words) and stick to a single point. If you feel the need to dedicate more space to it or cannot boil down your main idea to a single point, it most likely means that you did not narrow down your topic enough, and it needs further clarification.

Find Viable and Reliable Sources

Any essay in classic English literature is based on both primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are the text or texts you study and analyze. They should be the foundation of your essay – whatever you say about the subject matter, you should support it with relevant quotations and paraphrases from the source material.

Secondary sources are derivative works – academic articles and books dedicated to the subject matter written by other scholars, reference literature, encyclopedias, dictionaries and so on. Whatever your research is, you should heavily supplement your own findings and reasoning with references to the existing body of literature on the subject. The same as with all other academic disciplines, works in classic English literature do not exist in isolation. To prove that you are familiar with the subject matter, you have to demonstrate that you have read not just the book you study, but also the works of other scholars dedicated to it.

You can find sources using:

  • Suggestions from your instructor;
  • Your library catalog;
  • Bibliographies of the sources you already found;
  • Periodical indexes;
  • Online academic databases (EBSCO, Google Scholar, Microsoft Academic, etc.).

Evaluate Sources

Before you use the information from any of your sources in your essay, you have to make sure you can trust it. Not all sources, especially among those found on the Internet, are equally trustworthy. This is best done systematically, using a pre-determined set of criteria:

  • Purpose – what is the purpose of the source? Does it influence its credibility?
  • Intended audience – for whom was it written? Does the level of its intended audience correspond to the level of your research?
  • Authority and credibility – does the author have the necessary qualifications to speak about the subject matter?
  • Accuracy and reliability – can you verify the information? What other sources does the author use? Are they reliable?
  • Currency – when was the source published? Does it reflect the current state of knowledge on the subject? Were any significant works on the topic published since then?
  • Objectivity – does the author show signs of bias? Does he/she (or the publisher) have an obvious or probable agenda?

Write an Outline

The structure of your essay may differ depending on your subject matter and goals of your work, but whatever it is, preparing an outline before you proceed to writing per se will improve your results. An outline is a plan where you detail what and where you will write, what quotations you will use and where, how you will connect parts of the essay to each other and so on. There is no one right way to write an outline. Some people simply enumerate the main points of each paragraph. Others write a detailed plan so that they just need to flesh out a little bit to get a complete essay. Choose what works for you.

How to Write a Research Essay in Classic English Literature

Write the Introduction

The introduction is important because it determines the initial impression your essay makes on the audience, which is why you should put a lot of thought into the first couple of sentences. Try starting with something that immediately grasps the reader’s attention. It may be:

  • An intriguing statement (e.g., something contrary to the commonly accepted point of view on a certain writer);
  • A quotation (preferably something that will motivate the audience to keep on reading to find out why you inserted it);
  • A question that is not readily answered and requires further thinking and investigation;
  • An interesting and little-known fact about the subject matter.

In the long run, anything that can encourage the audience to continue reading is good.
After the introductory sentence (‘hook’), you have to provide some background information – the absolute minimum of knowledge necessary to understand and appreciate your research. Consider your audience to be intelligent amateurs in the field under scrutiny – do not cover general knowledge but discuss what they are less likely to know.
Finally, introduce the thesis statement you wrote earlier.

Write the Body

The body is the main part of the essay, its informative part. Here you present your argument, evidence, research and try to prove the point you made in the thesis statement. The body is divided into paragraphs, with each paragraph dedicated to a single point – if you find yourself switching between two or more points back and forth in quick succession, it suggests that you did not think the structure of your essay through well enough. Get back to it and strive to make the structure a bit cleaner and more straightforward.
Each body paragraph usually consists of:

  • The topic sentence – a sort of mini-introduction for a paragraph. Here you tell what you will discuss in the paragraph, how it is related to the rest of the essay and the previous paragraph, of what importance it is;
  • Supporting evidence – the main part of the paragraph, these sentences present the proof of your point: quotations from primary and secondary sources, paraphrases and your own reasoning. In other words, it is the real meat of your essay, here you present your thoughts, findings and ideas;
  • Summary – if a paragraph is long enough, you can summarize it in one short sentence so that it is easier to connect it to the rest of the essay.

Write the Conclusion

If the research you carried out is complex, and you cannot just jump from the enumeration of your points to the results, give a summary of what you found out. If you have not yet explained the significance of your findings for the field in general or the studies of a specific author or text in particular, do it now. Get back to the statements you made in the introduction and see if your initial thoughts about the subject matter turned out to be true. The body of your essay covered the details of your argument and research – now is the time to show how what you said there becomes a part of a bigger picture. Generalize your findings, show them in the context of the existing body of research and indicate how they influence the current points of view. If further research suggests itself, point out its potential venues.

Editing & Proofreading

Be Ready for More Than One Draft

9 times out of 10, you should avoid handing in the first draft of the essay, even after editing and proofreading. If you approach your work seriously, you are likely to discover multiple potential improvements that require more than just adding or replacing a couple of sentences. If you see that you can improve your essay by rewriting or rearranging huge portions of it, do not hesitate to do it – it is a normal practice. Many students find it useful rewrite their essays from scratch even more than once to achieve the desired results. While it may be going a bit overboard, do not shy away from significant alterations.

Ask Somebody to Read Your Essay

Ask a friend, acquaintance or somebody else you trust to read your essay and tell what they believe can be improved. A good practice is to become study buddies with one of your peers and read each other’s essays with a purpose of mutual improvement – this way you can be more or less sure that the feedback you get is genuine. You can also hire a professional proofreader or editor if you can afford it.

Start Big, End Small

When revising, editing and proofreading your essay, start with the general structure and tone of your essay and move downwards: first to paragraph level, then to sentence level, finally to word level. This means that first you should concern yourself with the structure and general logic of the essay – anything that may need considerable rework. Do you have to remove, rewrite or add something? Then proceed to internal structure of paragraphs and their interconnections. Finally, check if your grammar is right.

Put Proofreading until the Very End

You may be tempted to proofread your essay (i.e., check spelling and grammar) as soon as you complete it, but try to resist it. Firstly, you are likely to miss many mistakes as the text is still too fresh in your memory. Secondly, you are likely to make some significant changes before you are done with your essay, which means that doing minute editing at this point is counter-productive. First, you should make sure the text is going to stay more or less the same.

Do not do your job haphazardly – use this guide and proceed one step at a time!

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