Special thanks to Professors Elisabeth Gruner, Monika Siebert, and Daryl Dance of the English department for their helpful contributions.
(printable version here)
Below are the reflections of a few faculty members from the English department on specific issues regarding the English research paper. Each teacher typically possesses a more refined set of expectations which a student can gather from the points he or she stresses within the classroom setting or even by explicitly questioning a teacher both in and outside of the classroom. The faculty advice listed below provides a helpful guide of common mistakes, professor pet peeves, and advice for novice writers. It may be additionally beneficial to approach your teacher in order to gain a clearer understanding of what his or her unique expectations may be for a specific assignment.
Mistakes commonly made by novices when writing English research papers:
Assuming that if one critic has said something it can be taken as given (trusting the criticism too much).
- Assuming that if one critic has said something the student can't make a similar argument (trying too hard to be original).
- Not being fully aware of the criticism and thus painstakingly "proving" something that is already well established (not trying hard enough to be original).
- Not fully understanding that in writing a research paper one is entering a conversation--this leads to a lack of subtlety in how criticism is deployed.
- Failing to draw up a clear and focused thesis.
- Providing plot summaries rather than posing an argument about an aspect of the text.
- Identifying and writing about the protagonist of a literary text as if he or she is a real person rather than a fictitious character invented to serve a narrative purpose.
- Offering opinions and beliefs rather than reasoned arguments.
Professor pet peeves particular to research paper writing for the English discipline:
- Being overly schematic: Trying too hard to make everything "fit" one limited thesis.
- Lacking a central claim: Too often novice research papers take an idea found in one article and apply it rather schematically to a different text with little sense of the original author's true intentions.
- Resistance to doing the necessary amount of research required and basing research off "encyclopedia-type" articles (i.e. using inappropriate sources).
- Failure to extrapolate on introductory claims in the concluding paragraph.
Recommendations to students writing an English research paper:
- Start early.
- Read lots of criticism to get a sense of the kinds of interpretations out there (i.e. specific interpretations and topics frequently considered by other scholars).
- Be willing to change your thesis several times before you finish the paper.
- Read the directions carefully.
- Do the necessary reading and research.
- Write and rewrite until you have received that satisfied feeling of having done a good job.
- Put the paper aside for a day and then come back to review it.
- Read a lot of good literary scholarship to become familiar with the research paper form; if you encounter an academic argument that appeals to you and convinces you, utilize it as a study model. In simpler terms, in order to become a good writer yourself, read and study the form and how other writers accomplish good writing.
- Assume that writers write books and artists create art in order to change the world. Focus on figuring out the literary means by which they attempt to do so.
- Remain mindful that it is always much easier and more interesting to study and write about literature and art when you believe that they truly matter.
- After you believe you have finished your paper, ask yourself "so what?", or why should anyone care about the claims I just made in this paper; why is this knowledge important? Then, in response to this question, write yet another concluding paragraph.
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