Writing about Literature

The Research Essay

The Research Process

Identifying and Locating Sources

Regardless of your author, text, or topic, you will almost certainly find a wealth of sources to consult. Your first impulse may be to head straight for the library catalog. But the conversation about literature occurs in periodicals as well as books, and not all contributions to that conversation are equally credible or relevant. For all these reasons, consider starting with one of the reference works or bibliographies described in this section. Then you can head to the catalog armed with a clear sense of what you’re looking for.

Once you find one good secondary source, you can use its bibliography to refine your own. Checking the footnotes and bibliographies of several (especially recent) sources will give you a good sense of what other sources are available and which ones experts consider the most significant.


Your library will contain many reference works that can be helpful starting points, and some may be accessible via the library’s Web page. Here are six especially useful ones.

Literature Resource Center (LRC)

One online source to which your library may subscribe is Gale’s Literature Resource Center. Designed with undergraduate researchers in mind, it’s an excellent place to start. Here you can access and search:

  • all the material in two of the reference works described below (Dictionary of Literary Biography and Contemporary Authors) and in both Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature and Gale’s For Students series (Novels for Students, Literature of Developing Nations for Students, etc.);

  • much (though not all) of the material contained in Gale’s Literary Criticism series (another of the reference works described below);

  • selected full-text critical essays (or articles) from more than 250 literary journals.

Depending upon your library’s subscription arrangement, LRC may also give you access to the MLA Bibliography (from 1963) and/or to the Twayne’s Authors series (both described below).

You can search the database in numerous ways, but you should probably start with an author search. Results will appear as a list of sources divided into four files: Biographies; Literary Criticism, Articles, and Work Overviews; Bibliographies (of works by and about the author); Additional Resources (such as author-focused Web sites). You can access each file or list by simply clicking on the appropriate tab. (There will be a good deal of overlap among the files.) You can then click any item on the list in order to open and read it. Once an item is open, you can also print or e-mail it by clicking on the appropriate icons and following the directions.

If your library doesn’t subscribe to LRC, consider starting with the printed reference works listed below. Because each is a multivolume work, you will need to consult its cumulative index to find out which volumes contain entries on your author. None of these series can keep up to the minute with the literary critical conversation about a particular author or work, and all offer only selective bibliographies. Such selectivity is both the greatest strength and the greatest limitation of these reference works.

Dictionary of Literary Biography (DLB)

One of the most important and authoritative reference works for students of literature, the Dictionary of Literary Biography covers primarily British and American authors, both living and dead. Each volume focuses on writers working in a particular genre and period. (Volume 152, 4th series, for example, covers American Novelists since World War II.) Written by a scholar in the field, each entry includes a photo or sketch of the author, a list of his or her publications, a bibliography of selected secondary sources, and an overview of the author’s life and work. The overviews are often very thorough, incorporating brief quotations from letters, interviews, reviews, and so on. You will find multiple entries on any major author, each focusing on a particular portion of his or her canon. The volume titles will give you a good sense of which entry will be most relevant to you. Entries on W. B. Yeats, for example, appear in volume 10, Modern British Dramatists, 1900–1945; volume 19, British Poets, 1880–1914; volume 98, Modern British Essayists, First Series; and volume 156, British Short-Fiction Writers, 1880–1914: The Romantic Tradition.

Contemporary Authors: A Biobibliographical Guide to Current Authors and Their Works (CA)
Gale’s Contemporary Authors focuses on twentieth-and twenty-first-century writers from around the world and in a range of fields (including the social and natural sciences). In terms of content, its entries closely resemble those in the DLB (see above). But CA entries tend to be much shorter.

Literary Criticism (LC)

Also published by Gale, the Literary Criticism series is, in effect, a series of series, each of which covers a particular historical period. (See below for individual series titles, as well as information about the periods covered by each one.) Each entry includes a very brief overview of the author’s life and work. (There is often overlap between these overviews and those in CA.) But there are two key differences between the LC series and both the DLB and CA. First, the LC series includes entries devoted entirely to some individual works, as well as entries on an author’s entire canon. (For example, Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism contains both a general entry on Charlotte Brontë and one devoted exclusively to Jane Eyre.) Second, the bulk of each entry is devoted to excerpts (often lengthy) from some of the most important reviews and literary criticism on an author and/or work, and coverage extends from the author’s day up to the time when the LC entry was written. Each entry concludes with a bibliography of additional secondary sources. The LC series will thus give a lot of guidance in identifying authoritative sources, as well as access to excerpts from sources that your library doesn’t own.

Here are the titles of the five series, along with information about the period each one covers. To identify the appropriate series, you will need to know the year in which your author died.

  • Contemporary Literary Criticism (living authors and those who died from 1960 on)

  • Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism (authors who died 1900–1959)

  • Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism (authors who died 1800–1899)

  • Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800 (authors [except Shakespeare] who died 1400–1799)

  • Shakespearean Criticism

The Critical Heritage

For some major authors, you can find information and excerpts like those offered by LC within the individual volumes of the Critical Heritage series. Unlike the reference works described above, this series is a collection of discrete publications such as The Bronte¨s: The Critical Heritage. Each will be held not in the reference department, but in the section of the stacks devoted to scholarship on a specific author. You will thus need to search your library’s catalog to find it. These volumes are not regularly updated, so each will give a good sense of your author’s reception only up to the time it was published.

Twayne’s Authors

The Twayne’s Authors series incorporates three distinct series: Twayne’s United States Authors, Twayne’s English Authors, and Twayne’s World Authors. Each volume in each series is a distinct book focusing on one author and typically offering both biographical information and interpretation of major works. All aim to be generally accessible and introductory. (As the publishers themselves put it, "The intent of each volume in these series is to present a critical-analytical study of the works of the writer; to include biographical and historical material that may be necessary for understanding, appreciation, and critical appraisal of the writer; and to present all material in clear, concise English.") Yet because each volume is the work of an individual specialist, it represents that scholar’s particular point of view (or opinion), and volumes differ a good deal in terms of organization, approach, and level of difficulty.

Each volume will be held not in the reference department, but in the section of the stacks devoted to scholarship on a specific author. To find it, you will need to search the catalog.


For much more thorough, up-to-date lists of secondary sources—especially periodical articles—you should consult scholarly bibliographies. In terms of literary criticism, the most comprehensive and useful general bibliography is The MLA International Bibliography of Books and Articles on the Modern Languages and Literatures. Since 1969, the MLA Bibliography has aimed to provide a comprehensive list of all scholarship published anywhere in the world on literature and modern languages, including books, dissertations, book chapters, and articles in over two thousand periodicals. Though it doesn’t quite live up to that aim, it comes closer than any other reference work. (The Bibliography in fact began in 1922 but initially included only American scholarship; international coverage began in 1956, but the range of publications remained limited until 1969.) Updated annually, the bibliography is available in print, CD-ROM, and online versions, so what the bibliography encompasses, how many years it covers, and how you use it will depend on the version you consult.

In the print version, each volume lists articles and books published in a specific year, so you should start with the most recent volume and then work your way backward through earlier volumes. Each volume is arranged by nationality or language, then by period, then by author and title.

The CD-ROM and online versions allow you to do topic or keyword searches to find all relevant publications, regardless of the year of publication. Ask a librarian for help with accessing and searching the database.


Your library’s catalog will guide you to books about the author’s work. However, the title of a potentially useful book may be too general to indicate whether it covers the text and topic in which you’re interested. If your library’s catalog is online, use keyword searches to limit the number and range of books that the computer finds. For example, if you’re writing about William Faulkner’s "A Rose for Emily," first limit the search to items that include both "Faulkner" and "A Rose for Emily." If you find few matches or none, broaden the search to include all books about William Faulkner.

The books that you find through a catalog search will lead you to a section of the library where other books on your subject are held (because each will have a similar Library of Congress call number). Even if you locate the books you were looking for right away, take a moment to browse. Books shelved nearby probably cover similar topics, and they may prove even more useful than the ones you originally sought. You can also do this kind of browsing online because most online catalogs offer the option of moving from the record of one book to the records of those that appear just before and after it in the catalog.


With its innumerable links and pathways, the Internet seems the perfect resource for research of any kind. And in fact some excellent online resources are available to students of literature. Bartleby.com is a good, general information site. Here you can access and search several reference works, including the Columbia Encyclopedia, the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, and the eighteen-volume Cambridge History of English and American Literature, as well as full-text versions of numerous poems and works of fiction and nonfiction.

There are also many scholarly sites dedicated to specific authors, works, and literary periods. Most sites provide links to others. One site especially useful as a gateway to thousands of more specific sites is The Voice of the Shuttle <http:// vos.ucsb.edu/>.

If you don’t find an appropriate link on The Voice of the Shuttle, you will probably want to conduct a search using one of the commonly available search engines. Searches using keywords such as "Chekhov" or "poetry" will lead you to thousands of possible matches, however, so you should limit your search by creating search strings longer than one word. Read onscreen directions carefully to make sure that the search engine treats the search string as a unit and doesn’t find every mention of each individual word.

Despite the obvious benefits of the Internet, you should be cautious in your use of online sources for two reasons. First, although many sites provide solid information and informed opinion, many more offer misinformation or unsubstantiated opinion. Unlike journal articles and books, which are rigorously reviewed by experts before they are accepted for publication, many Internet sources are posted without any sort of review process, and authorship is often difficult to pin down. As a result, you need to be especially careful to identify and evaluate the ultimate source of the information and opinions you find in cyberspace. (For more on evaluating sources, see Evaluating Sources.)

Second, because the Internet enables you to jump easily from one site to another and to copy whole pages of text merely by cutting and pasting, you may lose your place and be unable to provide readers with precise citations. More serious, you may lose track of where your own words end and those of your source begin, thereby putting yourself at risk of plagiarizing (see Using Sources Responsibly). In addition, the Internet is itself constantly mutating; what’s there today may not be there tomorrow. All this makes it difficult to achieve the goal of all citation: to enable readers to retrace your steps and check your sources. When you find sites that seem potentially useful, bookmark them if you can. If not, make sure that you accurately write down (or, better, copy directly into a document) the URL of each, as well as the other information you will need for your list of works cited: the author’s name, if available; the site or page title; the date the site was last revised or originally published; and the date you accessed it. If the material on the site has been taken from a printed source, note all of the particulars about this source as well.

As a general rule, Internet sources should supplement print sources, not substitute for them.

Next >>