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Conducting Literary Research: Introduction

What is literary research?

When you conduct literary research and produce something from that research (a paper, a poster, or other project), you are adding to the conversation literary scholars have likely been having about a work (poem, short story, play, or novel) since it was first published. 

So what does that mean?

  • You are not reporting.
  • You are not simply summarizing; although you may have to summarize a bit in order to make your point.
  • You are saying something new about the work, expanding on what others have said...or you are saying something in a new or original way
  • You assert something (make a claim about the work...this is your thesis), and then support it with discussion using evidence from the work itself, evidence from other works, and/or evidence from "the conversation," i.e., what others have said. 
  • You very likely will not find "the perfect source" that says everything you need it to say. You'll need to use information from different sources, possibly even from other disciplines (such as history, psychology, anthropology, etc.) along with with evidence from the work itself to make the points that flesh out and support your thesis.

    Click on the Finding Sources tab of this guide for a list of suggested databases!

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How to Start

There are many ways to get started on literary research:

Your professor may have provided a list of topics from which to choose - these are usually a good option because there will definitely be something "there" when you get started. In other words, your professor likely would not have suggested a topic that leads to a dead end.  

It's possible, though, that none of the available choices appeal to you, and if your professor has said other topics are allowed (generally this would be with the condition of approval by him/her), consider pursuing the following strategies.  The upside here is that whenever possible, it's better, easier, and more fun to research something that truly interests or intrigues you.  To do research well, you have to spend a lot of time thinking, reading, and writing about the topic; most would agree that it's easier if it doesn't bore you to death. So, consider these options:

  • Explore further something from a class discussion
  • Explore something that made you think, feel, or react strongly as you were reading
  • Explore a connection you made while reading
    • To your own life or the life of someone you know
    • To something historical
    • To something current
    • To another work
  • Read what others have said and then expand or add to it

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