Writing a Literary Paper


1. A research paper about a literary topic will focus on the works used more than on any other source. 

A. For example, if you are writing a paper on rap music as poetry, your paper will focus on the individual rap songs much more than on any source that will explain modern music.

B. If you writer a paper on Wally Lamb's She Comes Undone, the paper will use the novel to the extent that it may be the only source used in writing the paper. 

C. Notice how the sample paper “Side Shows for Maisie” uses only the Henry James novel What Maisie Knew.


2. The first step in writing the paper is then to decide on what work that you want to write and read that work so thoroughly that you understand it enough to write on it. 

A. If you need to use other sources to help you understand the work and you use those sources in writing the paper, remember that you have to cite those sources as the writer of “Quiet Moments of Kindness:  Love in ‘Neighbor Rosicky” does in her paper.

B. If you use only one source, as in “Side Shows for Maisie,” you will have only one works cited entry.


3. Once you have read the works, decide what you want to do with the paper. 

A. Come up with a topic that will give you enough material for a 5-7 page paper.

B. For example, if you read James’s “The Beast in the Jungle,” you may decide that you want to write about James’s description of the destructive nature of materialism on personal relationships. 

C. If you read Willa Cather's One of Ours, you may decide to write about how WWI becomes a type of redemption for Claude’s life.


4. Once you have a topic, arrive at a thesis that will make a point about your topic. 

A. Make sure the thesis is specific enough that you can write 5-7 pages about that thesis. 

1. As you have learned in composition classes, the more specific your thesis is the easier your paper is to write. 

2. Mention the author and the work in the initial thesis.

B. Here are some sample thesis statements:

            1) Mark Twain shows how racism can corrupt good people in Huckleberry

2) The climax of Stephen King’s The Stand represents the classic struggle of good versus evil.

3) Theodore Roethke’s “Elegy for Jane” illustrates how powerful the single image of an act is in influencing the imagination.

4) In "The Swimmer," John Cheever uses the metaphor of the swimmer to describe the escape of a modern man from his personal life.

5) In Hondo, Louis L’Amour’s title character represents the idealized hero in western literature.

6) Jack Ryan in Tom Clancy’s Debt of Honor is a classic modern hero.

7) The main character in “To Build a Fire” has the man versus nature struggle that characterizes naturalist writings.


5. Gather evidence to support your thesis. 

A. As you read the work, underline what will fit your point and write marginal comments about how the evidence fits. 

B. A second method is to take notes on the text.  

1. Following each quotation (note) from the text, you will want to have the page reference and your comment about the material’s significance. 

C. Your comments—whether as marginal notes or as comments on note cards—will help you remember how you may want to use the material when the time comes.  It may also provide explanation if you use that material in your paper.

D. If you can’t find support for your thesis, you will have to change your thesis.


6. Follow the standard procedure for writing a paper using sources.

A.  Have an introduction that gets the readers’ attention in your paper as well as presents the thesis.

B. The body of the paper contains the textual evidence and explains to your reader how your thesis applies to the work. 

1. It is not enough to say that your evidence or quotation is an example of a particular point. 

2. You must explain how it is an example.

C. Have a conclusion that summarizes your main points and keeps the readers interested.


7. Begin your paragraphs with good topic sentences that directly reflect the idea of your thesis and repeat key ideas and words from the thesis. 


8. Make sure you do not summarize the plot of the work. References to plot should only occur when you are backing up a topic sentence that makes a point about your thesis.


9. The content of your essay should be complete. 

A. Provide enough explanation so that your readers can understand your thesis. 

B. Your paper should explain itself without making readers feel the need to ask you for additional information to understand your point.

C. For example, in a paper based on Sinclair Ross’s As For Me and My House, the writer is examining how a character’s attitudes toward the landscape, his work, and his wife illustrate his inability to relate to people. 

D. The thesis for the paper is “Philip Bentley’s inability to relate to people can be seen in his attitude toward his environment, his congregations, or his own wife.”

E. A sample paragraph from that paper:


            Philip’s drawings of the small towns represent his incapacity for seeing beyond the building and to the people who occupy them. For example, when Philip is making a drawing of Horizon, he shows it as bleak and lifeless:

A cold, hopeless little thing— . . . The solitary street lamp, pitted feebly and uselessly against the over-hanging darkness. A little false-fronted store, still and blank and white—another—another—in retreating, steplike sequence—a stairway into the night. The insolent patch of the store is unabashed by the loom of darkness over it.  The dark windows are like sockets of unlidded eyes, letting more of the night gape through. (218)

The picture is what Philip sees with his mental eye, as well as his physical eye. He weakens the light from the street lamp and accentuates the darkness because that is the way he sees life in Horizon. He lacks the ability to connect with people to the extent that he can’t add life and warmth to the picture and to the town as a whole.


10. In the above paragraph, notice how the writer makes a point about the thesis in the topic sentence. 

A. Then she follows that topic sentence with a lead-in to a specific quote from the book to illustrate how Philip’s drawings are bleak. 

B. Finally, she explains that quote by describing how the drawings show that Philip doesn’t connect to people.


11. Use present tense when writing about literature.

A. In the above paragraph and in the sample papers, notice how writers use present tense verbs when referring to the works.

B. However, do not change the tense in quotes.


12. Punctuate titles correctly.

A. Titles of novels or longer works are italicized. 

B. Titles of short stories, poems, and essays are put in quotation marks.


13. Use direct quotations properly. 

A. Remember that anything that appears in quotation marks in the work will produce a quote within a quote in your paper.

B. Quotations longer than 4-typed lines should be set off as long direct quotations. 

1) Remember not to put quotation marks around long direct quotations unless they represent a quote within a quote.

2) Remember to indent long, direct quotations 10 spaces from the left margin only.

C. In a 5-7 page paper, try to use no more than two long, direct quotations


14. Cite all direct quotations and paraphrases with a parenthetical citation that contains the page number from which the material came.


15. Have a works cited page that lists all sources used in writing the paper.


16. Some possible general topics for your 5-7 page paper:


1) Use one of the thesis statements from point 4 of this handout.


2) Explain how Twain’s or Howells’s or James’s works fit into the realistic definition of literature.


3) Explain how a Native American writer’s works are distinctively related to the Native American culture.


4) Using African-American writers, explain how their works reflect the experience of African-Americans in the time period in which the writer is working.


5) Explain how authors or an author describe the influence of materialism on American society.


6) Explain how a particular writer uses rhetorical devices to get readers to see a subject as she or he sees it.


7) Describe Robert Frost's attitude toward death.


8) Describe how the Depression is reflected in the writings of John Steinbeck or William Faulkner.


9) Using a particular author, explain how her or his life is reflected in her or his writing.


10) Compare the works of any two authors.


11) Explain how loneliness is a major theme in twentieth century American literature.


12) Explain how nature becomes a character in Hamlin Garland’s (or some other naturalist’s) works.


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