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Literature and Literary Research

Researching literary works and/or biographical information on a particular author

What's a good topic?

Choosing a topic can be one of the hardest parts of writing a paper. There are so many possible things to write about, and even if you have a general idea, it can be hard to know whether your topic is a good one. 

Writing a literature paper is different from writing many other kinds of papers. In literary analysis, it's not the ideas of other people that matter as much as your own interpretation of the texts you're reading. The bulk of your paper will be made up of your analysis of the text: the use of language, imagery, rhythm and repetition, word choice, the structure of the plot, or the representations of characters, emotions, events, or places. Your job is to analyze these elements of the text and through your analysis to assert an idea, or a claim, about the text, the author, or the context in which the text was written.

So what makes a good topic? A good topic is a theme that you think is represented in the text you're reading. But how do you get from a good topic to a good research question? 

What's a good research question?

Once you recognize a theme in a text or texts, your next step is to determine what you think the texts are saying about that theme. Read the text again, paying particular attention to your theme. What does your interpretation lead you think about the theme or idea? This is your claim, and your paper is structured around using analysis of the text or texts to support your claim. 

For example, you may be interested in looking at community or society in Thoreau's "Walden." You may have read the text and noticed a contradiction between Thoreau's claims of self-reliance and his interaction with society. You would then re-read the text, asking yourself as you read "What is the representation of society and Thoreau's relationship to it in 'Walden'?" After reading the text closely and paying special attention to these aspects of "Walden," you may be ready to make the claim that while Thoreau believed he was self-reliant, in truth he was still part of a network of people, and still part of his society and community. Or you may discover that your initial thought was wrong, and that Thoreau really did separate himself from his community in the way he wrote about. 

Types of Sources

There are a lot of different kinds of sources that you can use in your analysis. This guide will show you how to find and use these by type. 

Primary Sources are the main pieces of evidence you will use to make your claim. The texts you are reading are a primary source; they are the most important primary source you're working with. Other examples are newspaper and magazine articles, diaries and letters, photographs, maps, and reviews written or created at the same time as your text. These sources can help you put your subject into context. 

Reference Sources give you a broad overview of a person, place, event, or idea. They provide commonly known facts. Reference sources are not cited in your paper, but can be very useful for grounding you in your subject and ensuring that you have solid background information. Literary biographies are a form of reference material, and give you lots of information about authors, with an emphasis on how their lives are related to their writing. 

Secondary Sources are also sometimes referred to as criticism. These are books and articles that scholars have written about a particular work of literature, movement, or author. Criticism can help you get a sense of the themes that other scholars read in a particular text. They may help inform your own understanding of a text, either because they reinforce your interpretation, or differ from it. Criticism is usually published in books or as articles in scholarly journals. 

So how do I use sources?

Primary sources are the evidence that we use to support our claims. They aren't the articles that other scholars and researchers have written, but original source material that we can use to better understand our topic. Primary sources in literary research include the text or texts that you're analyzing, but might also include additional material like letters written by the author, photographs, reviews written when the text was published, newspapers articles. Many different kinds of things can be used as primary sources, depending on your subject. 

For example, if you're studying Thoreau's relationships with others, you may want to find out more about Thoreau's role in his community by reading primary source material (letters that he wrote to friends and colleagues, newspaper articles about him or about his community) or by reading more about the context of his life in Massachusetts (the political and artistic movements of which he was part, the actual location of his cabin in relation to the town of Concord). These additional sources are used to support your interpretation of the text you're analyzing. 

You may want to use secondary sources to discuss other scholars' ideas and interpretations of the topic and text you're writing about, especially if you don't agree with their interpretations. Pay especially close attention to aspects of your topic that scholars don't agree about, and to different interpretations or ideas about a text. If there are major debates about the authors or texts you're studying, you'll want to reference them in the paper to help inform your reader and provide context to your own interpretation.