Literature Research Paper Writing: A Complete Guide

Writing guide
Posted on January 23, 2019

All literature assignments can be roughly subdivided into research and non-research papers; however, many students seem to have trouble fully understanding the difference between them, so let’s clarify things a bit.

The scope of a non-research paper is limited to the text it deals with – it is all about this text, your writing abilities and your skills as the reader of the said text. Depending on how well you manage to analyze it, how well you are acquainted with literary theory, other works of the same author and the authors of the same period and so on, you will write a better or worse paper.
A research paper includes all this, but also much more. It covers all the discussions held about the text in question ever since it was written and many things that may not seem to be immediately relevant. In a sense, it is your contribution to a conversation between scholars that may have started long before you were born and won’t be over for centuries to come. You are not just the reader of the text, but also its historian, you study it not in isolation but in connection with other texts, historical period it was written it, the entire body of research about it and so on.

This boils down to the following: in order to write a research paper about a work of literature you have to study not just the text but also books and articles by many other people, and be ready for your own paper to be read and criticized by others. The very nature of an academic research paper presupposes it being reviewed by peers, so you should write it while keeping in mind potential counter-arguments and objections. This literature research paper guide will help you learn how to do it.

Stage 1: Choose a Topic

One of the primary purposes of literature research papers is to teach you how to think independently and carry out your own research as a part of scholarly community. As a result, you will usually not be limited in your freedom of choice when it comes to selecting topics. Even if the assignment seems to be pretty rigid to begin with, usually you can discuss it with your instructor and arrange for something a bit more convenient. Here are some useful principles you should follow when making your choice:

  • Choose something you know. By selecting a text you are well familiar with you already eliminate a huge part of work you would otherwise have to do. It is even better if the text in question is not among those usually chosen for analysis. For example, if you happen to have read and liked Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis, you can safely choose it as the basis of your research paper. The topic won’t be overloaded by existing research that will make it hard for you to write anything without unintentionally plagiarizing somebody’s work, but at the same time there will be just enough research to build your argument on. The same goes for any other less mainstream book;
  • Once you’ve defined the general direction of your research, refine and narrow it down. On university level, you cannot merely discuss a work of literature in general – it would be more of a book review than a research paper. You should select an aspect of this work and dig deep into it, looking for support for your point of view among other researchers and finding proof both in the text itself and outside it;
  • Turn your topic into a question – it doesn’t necessarily have to be the title of your work, you do it for your own sake. If there is no implied question in your topic, there is nothing to write about. For example, if the topic of your research paper is the theme of orphancy in the works by Charles Dickens, the question you imply to be answering may be “What does Dickens’ attention to orphancy stem from”?

You should end up with a topic that has a number of specific characteristics:

  • It isn’t too broad – you should concentrate your attention on a narrow area to be able to say something new about it;
  • It isn’t too narrow – otherwise you won’t have much room for maneuver;
  • It should have an existing body of literature covering it – all research papers exist only in connection with other peer-reviewed works. You cannot present viable academic argument without backing it up with existing research – which means that you have to take care of finding information sources even before you start writing.

Here are some examples that can help you get the right idea:

  • Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as an Allegory of a Man’s Struggle to Contain Primal Instincts;
  • Reflection of 18th Century England in Johnathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels;
  • The Idea of Freedom in the Poems by Lord Byron;
  • The Concept of Struggle for Survival in the Works by Jack London;
  • The Role of George Orwell’s 1984 in the Creation of Modern Dystopian Literature.

Stage 2: Thesis Statement

Your thesis statement contains the general point of your paper confined in a single sentence. Sometimes two sentences, but if you need more space to give the reader the idea of what is most important in your research paper, you probably spread yourself too thin and have to make your writing more focused.
Make sure you understand that you not just state the topic of your paper here, as thesis statement is quite different from it. A topic is the area you research, it is what you study, there may be no two minds about what you write here. A thesis statement states what you try to prove in your writing. For example, The Image of a Dystopian Society in George Orwell’s 1984 is a topic. However, a thesis statement for the paper with such topic would be “George Orwell’s 1984 lies at the foundation of the entire modern genre of dystopian science fiction and has a greater influence on it than any other single work”.

When writing your thesis statement, make sure to keep to these ideals:

  • Brevity – express your main idea in as few words as possible;
  • Clearness – don’t leave any ambiguity;
  • Relevance – don’t go into unnecessary detail. If something isn’t absolutely necessary to drive your point across, get rid of it.

Stage 3: Sources

Any literature research paper is based on two types of sources: your primary text (the one your paper is about) and secondary sources of information (critical works, research papers from peer-reviewed journals, books and so on). The primary text you have in front of you from the very beginning, and a significant portion of your quotations and references should come from it. As for secondary sources, you should find them – and the best way to do so is to use tools specifically designed for that purpose.

Academic search engines like Google Scholar, Microsoft Academic Search, EBSCO, JSTOR and many others can be of enormous help, especially if you don’t know much about the topic of your research. They not only help you find dozens of relevant sources of information on your chosen topic in a matter of minutes, but also provide all the data necessary to define their relative value (where they have been published, how many times they have been referred to in other peer-reviewed papers, have their authors written other works on similar topics and so on).
Before choosing any work as a source, go through the following checklist:

  • Who is its author? Is he an expert on the text in question? Has he written other works on similar topics before or since? Is this article related in any way to other works by the same author?
  • Is the author biased? Are there any signs of an agenda in his writing (overly emotional language, mishandling or concealment of facts, obvious confirmation bias? What is the purpose of the article – is it aimed to provide information or to convince the reader of something?
  • Where was the source published? Does the publisher have any sponsors of affiliations that may influence its objectivity? Does the publisher take responsibility for all the content it publishes?
  • How reliable is the information presented in the source? Does the author provide enough viable evidence to back up his claims? Can these claims be verified? What are the sources the author refers to? Are they trustworthy?
  • What is the publication date? Does the source contain up-to-date information? Was there any other relevant researched published since then that may influence the credibility of the source?

Stage 4: Outline

Simply put, an outline is a plan of your paper. How you write it fully depends on your preferences: it may be as detailed or as superficial as you are comfortable with. You may do with a few words covering the most important points of every segment or write detailed subplans for each stage of your paper. Just make sure you write down everything you are going to need so that you don’t forget anything when the time comes.

Stage 5: Writing

How you write is a matter of your style and your approach to work, but some principles are universal and should be followed by all students.

  • Never ever resort to plagiarism. Plagiarism is any use of another writer’s work without acknowledgement, passing it as your own. It has always been a bad idea, but taking into account how easy it is today to run a plagiarism check on any paper, it is suicidal. Being caught plagiarizing can even lead to your expulsion, so make sure you don’t do it accidentally – for example, by forgetting to put a phrase into brackets or to mention the source;
  • Combine long and short sentences. One can sometimes hear a recommendation to keep all sentences about the same length (usually 20 to 30 words), but it makes your writing look monotonous and repetitive even if it isn’t. So try to vary sentence length, using a few shorter sentences for every longer one;
  • Limit yourself to one point or idea per paragraph. Every paragraph should more or less follow the same structure: introduction of a point, one or more pieces of evidence to back it up, transitional phrase to lead up to the next paragraph;
  • Be ready to write more than one draft of your paper. Sometimes mistakes become obvious only after you’ve written the better part of your assignment, and sometimes they are serious enough to require a full rewrite of at least some parts of a paper.

Stage 6: Revision and Proofreading

Many students believe that once the last line is written, their work is finished; or at least that they’ve done with the biggest part of their assignment. However, to write an outstanding research paper, you should pay as much attention to revision and proofreading as you did to the rest of your work combined – it is the part of your job that can make or break you.
Give yourself some time for the paper to settle down in your mind before you start proofreading. Then go over it with this checklist in hand:

  • Cover sheet – is it formatted correctly?
  • Introduction – is it interesting enough to attract and keep the reader’s attention?
  • Conclusion – does it sum up all the points mentioned in the body paragraphs?
  • Do you present all your points clearly in the body paragraphs?
  • Are your arguments presented in a logical sequence?
  • Do you support all your points with viable evidence?
  • Do you meticulously cite all the sources, even the ones you don’t cite directly?
  • Does your paper read clearly for its entire length? Are there proper transitions between paragraphs and larger parts?
  • Is grammar and syntax in order?
  • Does your literature research paper conform to the word limit?

If your paper holds up under the barrage of such questions, you may be reasonably sure that it doesn’t need significant changes. However, it may be a good idea to ask somebody else to read it and give their independent opinion.

We hope that the next time you have to write a literature research paper you will be better equipped thanks to these literature research paper writing tips – make sure to follow them closely!

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