Writing about Literature
The Research Essay
The Research Process
Once you’ve acquired the books and articles you determine to be most credible and potentially useful, it’s a good idea to skim each one. (In the case of a book, concentrate on the introduction and on the chapter that seems most relevant.) Focus at this point on assessing the relevance of each source to your topic. Or, if you’re working your way toward a topic, look for things that spark your interest. Either way, try to get a rough sense of the overall conversation—of the issues and topics that come up again and again across the various sources.
After identifying the sources most pertinent to your argument, begin reading more carefully and taking notes. Again, some researchers find it easier to organize (and reorganize) notes by using notecards, creating one card for each key point. (If you use this method, make sure that each card clearly indicates the source author and short title because cards have a tendency to get jumbled.) Today, however, most researchers take notes on the computer, creating a separate document or file for each source.
Regardless of their form, your notes should be as thorough and accurate as possible. Be thorough because memory is a treacherous thing; it’s best not to rely too heavily on it. Be accurate to avoid a range of serious problems, including plagiarism (see Using Sources Responsibly).
Your notes for each source should include four things: summary, paraphrase, and quotation, as well as your own comments and thoughts. It’s crucial to visually discriminate among these by, for instance, always recording your own comments and thoughts in a separate computer document or file or on a separate set of clearly labeled or differently colored notecards.
Whenever you write down, type out, or paste in more than two consecutive words from a source, you should:
- place these words in quotation marks so that you will later recognize them as quotations;
- make sure to quote with absolute accuracy every word and punctuation mark;
- record the page where the quotation is found (in the case of print sources).
Keep such quotations to a minimum, recording only the most vivid or telling.
In lieu of extensive quotations, try to summarize and paraphrase as much as possible. You can’t decide how to use the source or whether you agree with its argument unless you’ve first understood it, and you can best understand and test your understanding through summary and paraphrase. Start with a two-or three-sentence summary of the author’s overall argument. Then summarize each of the relevant major subsections of the argument. Paraphrase especially important points, making sure to note the page on which each appears.
You may want to try putting your notes in the form of an outline. Again, start with a brief general summary. Then paraphrase each of the major relevant sub-claims, incorporating summaries and quotations where appropriate.
Especially if you’re dealing with literary criticism, it can be useful to complete the note-taking process by writing a summary that covers all of your sources. Your goal is to show how all the arguments fit together to form one coherent conversation. Doing so will require that you both define the main questions at issue in the conversation and indicate what stance each source takes on each question— where and how their opinions coincide and differ. One might say, for example, that the main questions about Antigone that preoccupy various scholars are (1) What is the exact nature of the conflict between Creon and Antigone, or what two conflicting worldviews do they represent? and (2) How is that conflict resolved? Which, if any, character and worldview does the play as a whole endorse?
A synthetic summary of these sources would explain how each critic answers each question. This kind of summary can be especially helpful when you haven’t yet identified a specific essay topic or crafted a thesis because it may help you to see gaps in the conversation, places where you can enter and contribute.