Writing about Literature

The Research Essay

Research and The Writing Process

Using Research to Generate Topic and Thesis

You may consult secondary sources very early in the writing process, using them to help generate your essay topic and thesis (or several potential ones from which you will need to choose). This approach has three advantages. First, you approach the research with a thoroughly open mind and formulate your own opinion about the text(s) only after having considered the range of opinions and information that the sources offer. Second, as you investigate others’ opinions, you may find yourself disagreeing, thereby discovering that your mind isn’t nearly as open as you’d thought—that you do, indeed, have an opinion of which you weren’t fully aware. (Since you’ve discovered this by disagreeing with a published opinion, you’re well on your way to having a motive as well as a thesis.) Third, because you begin by informing yourself about what others have already said, you may be in less danger of simply repeating or reporting.

The potential disadvantage is that you may become overwhelmed by the sheer number of sources or by the amount and diversity of information and opinion they offer. You may agree with everyone, being unable to discriminate among others’ opinions or to formulate your own. Or you may find that the conversation seems so exhaustive that you despair of finding anything new to add. If you take this approach, you should maximize the advantages and minimize the disadvantages by keeping in mind a set of clearly defined motive-related questions.

If your sources are works of literary criticism, your goal is to answer two general questions: What’s the conversation about? How can I contribute to it? To answer those questions, it helps to recall the various motives described in section Source-Related Motives. Turn them into questions that you can pose about each source:

  • Do the critics tend to disagree about a particular issue? Might I take one side or another in this debate? Might I offer an alternative?

  • Do any critics make a claim that I think deserves to be challenged or clarified?

  • Do the critics ignore a particular element or aspect of the text that I think needs to be investigated? Do any of the critics make a claim that they don’t really develop? Or do they make a claim about one text that I might apply to another?

If your sources are historical or biographical, you will instead need to ask questions such as:

  • Is there information here that might help readers understand some aspect of the literary work in a new way?

  • Does any of this information challenge or complicate my previous interpretation of the text, or an interpretation that I think other readers might adopt if they weren’t aware of these facts?

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