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Teacher Tips and Answers

Prewriting for Literary Research Papers

American novelist Zora Neale Hurston once wrote, "Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose." So, the start of a successful literary research paper is choosing a topic that really sparks your curiosity. If you want to find out about a specific book or author or genre or movement, your curiosity will make it easy to gather sources and discover what they have to offer. If you aren't interested in your topic, research can be a long, bleak slog. The activities that follow will help you find a great topic and discover excellent sources of information about it.

Prewriting to Select a Topic

Your research paper can focus on anything literary, such as the development of comic books or the South American movement of Magical Realism or the psychology of J. K. Rowling. You need to choose a literary topic that truly interests you so that you can eagerly seek information about it. Answering questions can suggest possibilities.

  1. What is your favorite literary work?

    The Lord of the Rings

  2. What writer do you find most fascinating?

    Langston Hughes

  3. What is your favorite genre of story (such as mystery, science fiction, horror, western, romance, historical fiction)?

    Gothic horror

  4. What author do you already know a lot about?

    Harper Lee

  5. If you could have dinner with one author, who would it be and why?

    Anne Frank; I would try to rescue her.

  6. If you could live in one fictional place, what place would you choose?

    The Shire

Select a research topic.

Answer the following questions to think about possible literary topics that you could analyze in a research paper. Afterward, review your answers and pick the topic you would most like to analyze. Make a copy of this Google doc or download a Word template.

  1. What is your favorite literary work?

     

  2. What writer do you find most fascinating?

     

  3. What is your favorite genre of story (such as mystery, science fiction, horror, western, romance, historical fiction)?

     

  4. What author do you already know a lot about?

     

  5. If you could have dinner with one author, who would it be and why?

     

  6. If you could live in one fictional place, what place would you choose?

     

Prewriting to Find Sources

An effective research paper draws from a variety of sources. As you search for information about your topic, consider three types of sources:

  • Primary sources connect directly to the subject. A work of literature itself is a primary source, allowing you first-hand experience with the topic. Letters, journal entries, and interviews are other primary sources. You should try to include a few primary source documents in your research.

    Novels, short stories, letters, essays, journal entries, interviews, performances, historical documents, artifacts, significant locations

  • Secondary sources are two-times removed from their subject. They are articles that draw from original documents, so they refer to first-hand information and provide a perspective and context for it. You'll want to consult a number of secondary sources to find out what knowledgeable people think about the topic, and you'll need to cite these sources in text and on your works-cited page.
  • Reviews written by critics, analyses of works of literature, synopses of novels, articles in magazines and scholarly journals, nonfiction books

  • Tertiary sources are three-times removed from their subject. They are articles drawn from other sources about original documents, so they can provide a broad survey of information but don't get at the topic very directly. Tertiary sources provide good starting points for research, and they often include bibliographies of more in-depth material, but you won't want to cite them in your paper because they are too far removed from their topic.
  • Wikipedia articles, textbook chapters, dictionaries, encyclopedias, almanacs, reference works

As you begin your research, you can record sources of information in a chart, making sure you have plenty of primary and secondary sources. Also list tertiary sources that you consult, but do not include them in your in-text citations or on your works-cited page.

Primary Sources

Tolkien, J. R. R. "Dear Mrs. Mitchinson." The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Humphrey Carpenter, ed., HarperCollins, 2016.

Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy Stories.” Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson, eds., HarperCollins, 2014.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1986.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit. Ballantine Books, 1966.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Silmarillion. George Allen and Unwin, 1977.

Secondary Sources

Bulfinch, Thomas. Mythology. Grammercy Books, 1979.

Doughan, David. “J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biographical Sketch.” The Tolkien Society. 30 Apr. 2018. https://www.tolkiensociety.org/author/biography/.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Dir. Peter Jackson, extended edition DVD, New Line Cinema, 2001.

Tertiary Sources

Manguel, Alberto, and Gianni Guadalupi. "Middle-earth." The Dictionary of Imaginary Places. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.

"The Lord of the Rings." Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lord_of_the_Rings. Accessed 17 Apr. 2018.

Gather sources of information.

In your classroom and library and online, search for sources of information about your topic. Make sure to include trustworthy primary and secondary sources. Write down the key information for each source, and get access to them by checking them out, downloading and printing, or reviewing online. Make a copy of this Google doc or download a Word template.

Teaching Tip

If students are having difficulty separating trustworthy sources (biographies, literary reviews) from untrustworthy ones (parody sites, fan fiction), have them evaluate sources using the chart from the warm-up activity. They can rate each source based on different traits of trustworthiness. Make a copy of this Google doc or download a Word template.

Prewriting to Research Your Topic

Now that you've discovered a number of trustworthy sources of information about your topic, you need to engage those sources. Immerse yourself in them. It's okay that you don't know where you are going at the start. As the rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun once said, "Research is what I'm doing when I don't know what I'm doing." Give yourself time to learn, to discover, to make connections. As you go, you'll want to keep track of what you find using whatever strategy works best for you:

  • Engaging the material means reading, viewing, listening, or otherwise interacting with it, paying close attention and fully experiencing the ideas in it.
  • Note taking lets you write down the key points from sources, including the page numbers or URLs where the information appears.
  • Annotating means marking up a source (if it belongs to you) by underlining key passages, writing notes in the margins, highlighting, and jotting down questions.
  • Summarizing the material helps you capture the main point and key details in your own words and in a shortened form, remembering it more clearly.
  • Clustering refers to exploring connections in a source or between sources by writing a topic and circling it and then connecting to it a web of related ideas.
  • Freewriting is writing nonstop about an idea, pouring out everything you know about it in order to reflect on it or even create a (very) rough first draft.

Conduct research.

Engage your research materials, using whatever strategies above are most helpful. Give yourself time to go from not knowing what you are doing to having a pretty clear sense of your focus, main points, and details.

Prewriting to Create a Thesis Statement

After you have fully engaged your sources, you'll have all sorts of details and ideas floating around in your head. You need to find a specific focus among them, a central thesis that will organize your paper. Ask yourself "What is the most fascinating thing I discovered about my topic? What central idea do I want to convey to readers?" Then you should write a sentence or two that captures this central idea in a working thesis statement.

Write a thesis statement.

Write down the topic that you are researching, and then write down a central concept (thought, realization, or feeling) about the topic. Finally, combine the topic and the central concept into one or two sentences that express the thesis of your research paper. Make a copy of this Google doc or download a Word template.

Topic

+

Central Concept

=

Thesis Statement

Tolkien and fantasy literature

 

sub-creator of a Secondary World

 

For Tolkien, the successful writer of fantasy functions as a sub-creator, fashioning a Secondary World that is sufficiently consistent and wonderful to cast a spell on the reader and let the person live a second life within it.

Prewriting to Develop an Outline

Your instructor may require an outline, or you may find one helpful to organize your thinking. Your working thesis statement gives you a starting point. Write it out in full. Underneath it, list main points that support your thesis. Under each main point, you can also list supporting details. Your outline can be a simple list or can go into great depth, whichever is most helpful to you.

If you use different levels of detail, you should use different levels of numbering.

  • Main points begin with Roman numerals (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, etc.)
  • Supporting details begin with capital letters (A, B, C, D, etc.)
  • Specific details begin with Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.)
  • Granular information begins with lowercase letters (a, b, c, d, etc.)

For Tolkien, the successful writer of fantasy functions as a sub-creator, fashioning a Secondary World that is sufficiently consistent and wonderful to cast a spell on the reader and let the person live a second life within it.

I. Fantasy is "fantastical" but not delusion.

     A. Not Wonderland or Gulliver

     B. Secondary World in clear contrast to Primary World

          1. "Morbid Delusion" quotation from "Faerie Stories"

          2. Not "willing suspension of disbelief"

II. Language as the "magic" that casts the spell of fantasy.

     A. Adjective as linguistic magic

     B. Tolkien's invented languages: Elvish, Dwarvish, Orcish

     C. Language's creation of mythology: "Soup"

          1. "History became legend" quotation from Fellowship film

          2. Myth is bigger than mythmakers

III. Why create fantasy? . . .

Develop an outline.

Write your working thesis statement. List main supporting points after Roman numerals, supporting details indented after capital letters, and so on.

This lesson is a part of the Writing Literary Research Papers unit.

Click the title to view more information about this unit and a full list of lessons that are included.

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