Writing an English Paper

Resources to Use When Writing an English Paper

English classes are often one of the first places that students are asked to write a research paper. After all, you've spent years learning to write essays about everything from novels to short stories to plays, so the obvious next step is to research what other critics have to say about the text you're reading. But how can you find these quality sources?

Types of Resources

When you're writing for an English class, you're going to be concerned with two very difference types of sources, primary and secondary, and knowing the difference is an important part of any research paper.

Primary sources

Primary sources are the original work that your paper is about. In English class this will usually be a novel, short story, play, or poem, although it may also be a movie or some other form of visual art. The thing to remember is that your primary source or sources are the works you're being asked read closely and analyze. If you're prompt says something like "Explain how imagery is used in Wordsworth's I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" or "Compare and contrast two characters in The Great Gatsby," then the subject of your essay-the poem or novel-is the primary source. Often in English classes you'll write essays that include only your analysis of a primary source.

Secondary sources

Some research papers will ask you to go deeper into your topic and provide not only an analysis of a primary source but also an analysis of other people's opinions about your topic. These opinions are what's known as secondary sources-articles, books, or other materials in which someone comments on or analyzes a primary source. If you're writing about The Great Gatsby for example, you might find an article written by a scholar who argues that the character of Gatsby is more like Tom than he'd like to admit, and use that person's argument to back up your own analysis.

Where to Start

Doing research for an English paper always starts with reading the primary source text. You might think you can get by if you just skim a summary or read secondary materials, but you won't be able to understand the secondary materials you read or organize a sound argument if you haven't read the novel, play, or poem you're supposed to be talking about. When you don't read the original text carefully, you're likely to make mistakes like misattributing dialogue, not understanding character motivations, or simply being wrong about the plot.
So, start your research off by doing a close reading of your primary source or sources. Be sure to annotate the text or take notes so that you can quickly and easily go back and find important sections or quotes. Also note interesting passages that relate to your topic and pivotal scenes that you'll need to discuss in your paper.

Where to Find Resources

Once you've read the primary source, it's time to start looking for secondary sources. When it comes to doing research, most of the hard work will involve tracking down good secondary source material. This can be challenging if you're haven't looked for English resources before, but there are a number of good places you can find what you need both online and in the real world.

Journal articles

As in all academic disciplines, the gold standard for research sources is the peer-reviewed journal. The articles published in these journals will have been vetted by professional scholars and editors for relevance and originality. This doesn't mean that what's in these papers will necessarily be correct or 100% accurate, but it does mean that you can confidently quote from these sources and know that your work will stand up to criticism. When searching these journals you'll find a variety of types of articles that may be of use, including critical essays, book reviews, author biographies, and plot summaries.
There are hundreds of journals out there dedicated to various niches within the world of literature. If you're not sure where exactly to start, it's always good to begin with a database that allows you to search lots of journals at once.
Journal databases:
  • JSTOR is one of the best databases for those working in the humanities. It will allow you to search hundreds of journals on language and literature as well as those in related fields like classical, women's, and religious studies. Unlike the databases listed below, JSTOR has many articles available for free, but it also doesn't include recently published material.
  • Literature Online is a searchable database of literature and literary criticism.
  • Ebsco Literary Reference Center is another good database that includes hundreds of journals, books, and other resources on a broad range of topics.
  • Gale Cengage Literature Resource Center is a research database similar to the three listed above.
  • Questia is a database geared to high school and college students that also includes helpful tools like reference management and research tutorials.
Note that all of the databases listed above are available through subscription only. You may have access to one or more of these through your school or a public library. If not, you can try a search engine like scholar.google.com, which searches for articles available online and will often turn up free material.

Books

While you may not like taking the time to head down to your library, it's still worth your while to look for books on your research topic. The same scholars who write in peer-reviewed journals also publish books that expand and elaborate on their ideas. So, when doing research, take a few minutes to look through your library's online catalogue to look for informative secondary sources.

Other sources

Obviously the internet is full of other material that can be of use when you're writing an English paper, but once you move outside the realm of academic publishing, you need to be careful about what you choose to cite. Below are a few websites that can help you get started with your research, but remember to use them sparingly in your work. All the sites listed below have free public access.
  • Wikipedia and SparkNotes are good places to look for basic information, but unless your teacher as expressly allowed it, you should never cite them as a source. Instead, use them as a launching point to find other materials (Wikipedia entries will often have good sources listed at the bottom).
  • The Modern Language Association maintains the MLA International Bibliography, which catalogues articles and books on languages, linguistics, and literature.
  • The website for Poets & Writers magazine allows you to search hundreds of literary magazines by genre for original works along with critical essays.
  • The website for the Oxford African American Studies Center is a great place to look for biographies and encyclopedic information.
  • The World Shakespeare Bibliography Online is a searchable database of scholarship and theatrical productions of Shakespeare.
  • The World Public Library has a collection of free ebooks including original works of fiction, essay collections, and literary criticism.
  • Project Gutenberg is another website with access to lots of free ebooks.

What to Avoid

Writing for an English class is similar to writing for any other discipline in that you should be careful about the sources you use. Citing personal blogs or website articles that don't have listed authors will hurt your credibility as a writer and lower the quality of your work. Always keep in mind that your paper is only as good as your sources. Even if your arguments are sound, when you back them up with shoddy research your grade will suffer.
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