How to Write a Research Paper in Literature

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Date Submitted: 11/24/2010 08:59 AM

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How to Write a Research Paper in Literature

The difference between a research paper and a paper for which no research is done is both simple

(in that one uses research, while the other doesn’t) and complex. A non-research paper is about a

text and you, the writer, and your skills as a reader of a text. A research paper, on the other hand,

can be about that and something larger. Critic Kenneth Burke describes it as an engagement in a

conversation that may stretch back thousands of years and include any number of other scholarly

voices. You contribute to that conversation by making yourself an informed participant in it. You

become not just a careful reader of the text in question, but a historian of that text’s life. You

know when it was born, who its friends and enemies were, what it accomplished for better or for

worse, and how it has been remembered by those who came after it. In knowing those things and

contributing to the conversation about the text, you keep it alive—not just the text, but the

conversation, which is probably even more important. This conversation is never really just

about the text. It’s also always about what we read, how we read, why we read, and what we


Let me admit, right off the bat, that I love researching and writing papers, especially when things

go smoothly. Below is a list of lessons I’ve learned—some of them the hard way—about how to

make the process of writing a research paper as trouble-free and enjoyable as possible. If I seem

to have frequent recourse to the vocabulary of empirical science, it’s because I believe that, at

many levels, research in literature can and should partake of the sort of diligent, systematic hard

work that takes place in a laboratory. We tend to mystify the process of critical writing and think

of it as the product of genius rather than labor, but it often uses some of the same processes as

hard science: forming a hypothesis, collecting data, testing those data against the...