The Secret of Writing a Literature Term Paper: All Hows & Whys

Writing guide
Posted on January 23, 2019

A term paper is a writing assignment you are supposed to be writing for the duration of an entire term. Usually it deals with one of the topics involved in your course – the difference from your day-to-day studies being that you should get deeper into it than is supposed by the general course, and do individual research. To a significant extent, this is what the goal of a term paper is – to give you an opportunity to carry out independent research and demonstrate that you both possess enough basic knowledge of the topic and are capable of finding relevant sources and working with them.

A literature term paper usually deals with a particular literary work or works by a particular author, but sometimes it can be a comparative analysis of several texts, or even of schools of literature. How exactly one approaches writing such a task depends on the topic of a particular assignment, but all of them bear similarities – and this literature term paper guide will show them to you so that you never again experience problems writing literature term papers.
On average, a literature term paper writing would be about 12-15 pages long, although you should ask your instructor how long yours should be, because this value can vary from college to college.

How to Choose a Topic for Your Literature Term Paper

Unless you’ve been given a specific topic to cover, the first question you face when dealing with a literature term paper is what to write about. The amount of freedom students get is different from college to college and from instructor to instructor: sometimes you are not given any choice at all, sometimes the topic is vaguely sketched for you, sometimes you are free to write about whatever you like. Whatever freedom you have, use it wisely:

  • Try to select a topic dealing with the text you know well, especially if it is a larger work of literature like a novel. Having to read an entire book to prepare yourself to write a term paper can take a lot of time you may better use looking for secondary sources and doing research;
  • Try to be original and choose a topic that hasn’t been covered by dozens of authors before you. How to do it? Try using online academic databases like Google Scholar or JSTOR. Type in the title of the text you intend to write about and see what topics crop up. If something close to what you wanted to write about appears several times, it is better to look for something else;
  • Try taking an unusual and unexpected stance. If the text you are writing about is normally interpreted in a specific way, how about doing exactly the opposite and choosing a point of view that is drastically different from the one sported by the rest of academic community? This way you will both get an original topic and will be able to use all the research other writers did before you;
  • Do a bit of mind-mapping brainstorming. This is an incredibly powerful tactic to kickstart your creativity. Take a sheet of paper, write down the title of the text you intend to write about at the center and start jotting down every idea that pops up in your head all around it. It is important to do it in this format and not as a list – many practitioners of this method report that this freeform arrangement (as well as the use of multi-colored pens) helps them generate more and better ideas than normal.

Once you’ve settled upon a particular topic, it may be a good idea to ask your instructor if it is alright, in case you’ve missed some of the requirements. After all, you will spend an entire term working on it, and finding out at the end of this period that you’ve been working on an incorrect topic is not a very pleasant outcome.
Here are some examples of topics you may find useful:

  • William Shakespeare: Popular Myths and Known Facts;
  • The Influence of Victorian Era on Modern Literature;
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Its Influence on the Popular Image of Dystopia;
  • The American Dream in Literature;
  • Medieval Literature in Europe and in Japan: How National Literary Traditions Reflect the Cultural Differences;
  • The Idea of Racism in the Literature of 1960s and 1970s.

Preliminary Work

Before you set about writing per se, you should take care of a few other things:

  • Composing your thesis statement;
  • Collecting secondary sources;
  • Preparing a plan or an outline.

Depending on how well you are acquainted with the topic, the first two stages can go in any order.

Thesis Statement

Your thesis statement is the primary idea behind your entire paper in the form of a declarative sentence or two. It is important to differentiate it from the topic, as the topic simply defines a general area of research (e.g., the image of a faux-utopian society in Brave New World by Aldous Huxley). Meanwhile, a thesis statement expresses your views upon the subject matter, gives away the main point of your term paper (e.g., Aldous Huxley’s depiction of faux-utopian society in Brave New World had a strong impact on science fiction genre after him).
Although the thesis statement isn’t the first part of the paper and goes after the introduction (or as its closing part), it should be the first thing you write, because it defines what the rest of your paper is going to be about.

When writing it you should follow the following conventions:

  • Connect it logically with the introduction and body paragraphs that follow it;
  • Make it short, clear and definite. There is no place for vagueness and ambiguity, so make sure there is just one interpretation of what you’ve written;
  • Try to boil it down to a single statement. If you have to make several statements, try to closely connect them to each other. If connection between them can only be described as loose, chances are you have formulated your thesis statement poorly and it needs clarification and revision;
  • After you finish the rest of the paper, make sure it stays relevant. You may find it necessary to adapt it to your changing perception of the topic.

Secondary Sources

There are two types of information sources you will use when working on your literature term paper: the primary source (i.e., the text at the center of your research) and secondary sources (critical articles, books and general research done by other people). A high-quality paper should contain a lot of quotations from both.

It is important to maintain balance between independent thinking and reliance on the existing body of research concerning the issue in question. Obviously, the main goal of term paper writing is to teach you how to think independently about the text you analyze, but you should at the same time be aware of the ongoing critical debate about the text.
Nevertheless, your work shouldn’t be a compilation of other people’s ideas – you should present them only insofar as they help you promote your point of view (or to try and disprove points you disagree with). Here are some useful suggestions for the work with secondary sources:

  • Don’t add quotes and paraphrases just to bloat the word count of your paper. If you introduce them, do something about them: develop the idea they express, use them to illustrate a point or take an issue with them;
  • Distinguish your thoughts and ideas from that of your sources. It is especially important when paraphrasing, because it is all too easy to let your words get mixed up with those of other authors. That’s why you shouldn’t simply mention things but react to them. Don’t take other people’s words as a matter of fact – always make a meaningful response to every quote you introduce. You may be accused of plagiarism if you don’t do this properly;
  • Take notice of how the work of literature is perceived by other writers. Do most writers agree with your point of view or is there a dissenting view interesting enough for you to perhaps rethink parts of your thesis statement? Who agrees with you and who disagrees? Use this information in your writing.


It is often said that a minute spent in planning can save as much as 10 minutes spent in writing. Depending on your style you may write down a detailed outline mentioning every point and source of information you intend to quote at each stage or a very short and basic plan only mentioning the key points – it is up to you and what is more natural for you. Here is what your outline should contain no matter what:

  • Introduction – pay most attention to the hook that grabs the reader’s attention and gives him a reason to read on. It may be an interesting quote, an unorthodox interpreting of some well-known fact about the text you research or anything else that works in your case;
  • Thesis statement – see the guidelines above;
  • Body paragraphs – make sure you introduce but a single point per paragraph and connect them between each other with transition words and phrases;
  • Conclusion – here you restate the thesis statement and point out why you believe your research to be important and relevant for the continuing study of the text in question.

Writing: Style Recommendations from Our TOP Academic Writers

University-level term papers have to be written in formal style and clearly show your understanding of how academic discourse is carried out. Depending on the requirements of your particular university and instructor, the necessary style may be different, but some things are almost always present in literature term papers:

  • Focus on argument and meaning. You present your findings and back them up with information from both the primary text and secondary sources. Your personal perception and emotional response are of secondary importance (if they are relevant at all);
  • Use exclamation marks sparingly, if at all. They give off an impression of overly emotional attitude, and you should try to appear as objective as possible;
  • Italicize the titles of books and other publications and foreign words used in English text;
  • Choose a system of punctuation and be consistent with it. It is especially important in case of quotes: for example, British system uses single quotes first and double quotes if there is a quotation within a quotation. If you jump between several different systems or use no system at all, it makes a very bad impression;
  • Use rhetorical questions (i.e., questions that aren’t intended to be answered) carefully, if at all. You write a scientific work, not a speech;
  • Always make sure you quote accurately and don’t introduce any changes into the quoted material. If you want to attract the reader’s attention to specific words (for example, to demonstrate that a mistake is present in the original text), use ‘sic’ in square brackets after the word you want to emphasize.

Proofreading and Revision: Questions You Must Ask Yourself

Proofreading and revision on a university level is far less concerned with grammar, spelling and syntax than it used to be in school – you are expected to have more or less flawless English by that point. What you actually have to pay attention to can be summed up in this series of questions you should ask yourself upon finishing your paper:

  • Is my paper relevant to the question as it has been set?
  • Have I built a sound argument, with each stage of reasoning clearly marked?
  • Have I illustrated my points with sufficient and relevant evidence?
  • Have I provided enough background materials for the reader to understand my argumentation?
  • Have I been sufficiently independent in my thinking and interpretation of the primary text?
  • Have I been able to fit my paper into the maximum afforded word count?
  • Have I quoted and referenced all the sources I’ve used?
  • Have I formatted my paper according to the required style guide?

For better results, ask somebody else to read your paper – they will be able to provide better insights into what can be improved or removed altogether.
We hope that these literature term paper writing tips will be instrumental in assisting you with your next literature term paper!

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