Literary research papers are written to help students learn more about the books they read. Research papers are designed to force the student to read a novel critically and then to write about some point or argument of their choosing. For example, if you have read J. R. R. Tolkien’s novel “The Lord of the Rings” and you would like to argue that Gandalf the Gray’s sacrifice and subsequent change to Gandalf the White makes Gandalf a Christ figure, you have to back it up by reading the novel closely and by finding other sources to back you up.
Decide on a Topic or Argument
Research papers have to be center on a particular topic or argument. Deciding on a topic before completing a close reading of the book takes most of the work out of preparing to write the paper. As you read, highlight, or mark in some other way, passages that support the claim made by your argument. By setting these passages apart from the other text, you will not have to search through random passages trying to find the one you are looking for. This will save you a lot of time.
If you have difficulty coming up with a topic, or if you are writing about a book you have never read before, search the Internet for information about the novel you are reading. Though Wikipedia is not considered a good, reputable source, it is a great place to find enough springboard information to get your research started. Also, Google the book title and the author to find other literary web sites that that may help you with research ideas.
Research Reputable Sources
There are two places you can look to help you find great sources for your research: the library and the Internet. Many Universities have great libraries for doing literary research, and they are actually called research libraries. These libraries have extensive collections on every subject, not just literature. Use their computers to look up books that criticize the novel you are reading for your paper. For example, Brigham Young University’s Harold B. Lee Library has a good collection. When searching for J. R. R. Tolkien in their collection, two possible sources come up: “J. R. R. Tolkien: Six Decades of Criticism” by Judith Anne Johnson and “Shadows of Heaven: Religion and Fantasy in the Writing of C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and J. R. R. Tolkien” by Gunnar Urang. Before counting possible sources as actual sources, visit the library and look through the book to see it is will be of any value to your argument.
The Internet may not have many credible literary sources specific to your topic on it (but it does not hurt to look), but it may have bibliographies that that can point you to good sources. Also, academic libraries provide their students with electronic research sources for writing papers and for other purposes. One of the best sources for writing literary research papers is JSTOR. Also take a look at the MLA Periodical Index.
Formatting a Literary Research Paper
Literary research papers are formatted according to MLA standards and practices. There are many requirements to keep track of and it is a good idea to have an MLA style manual near by when writing the paper and completing the Works Cited page. Among the MLA requirements you will use are in-text citations, correct title formatting (there are different requirements for titles of books, plays, or works published singularly an for titles of poems, short stories, or works published in an anthology), and correct page formatting (one-inch margins on all sides of the finished paper). Other issues you have to format correctly include in-text poetry quotations (This is the first line of quoted poetry / This is the second line / And this is the third line), and multiple-line quotes of prose text (if you quote four or more lines of text, the text has to be tabbed in to the right twice to be off-set from the rest of the text, and you do not use quotation marks). If you have a problem finding how to format or cite text or information, ask your professor for help.
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