First, you need to identify an interpretive question that you feel needs to be resolved. I don’t want a factual “report” on something; I want you to argue for a particular thesis that resolves a question. Some examples of possible interpretive questions: “Is the ghost in Hamlet a ‘spirit of health, or goblin damned’?” or, “Why did Shakespeare decide to modify the way his historical sources portray the character of Hotspur?” or, “Why is Antonio so melancholy at the opening of The Merchant of Venice?”
Then, you need to try to formulate an answer to that question. Write down lists of possibilities; brainstorm about possible explanations; write down the information you would need to find in order to answer the question. Then come up with a preliminary hypothesis that you can investigate.
You will need to reread the work or works you are investigating. Keep specific notes about evidence in the text that supports or undercuts your hypothesis, and on anything that would seem to help answer your question. Ask yourself: “Is there anything in the text that contradicts my hypothesis? Is the evidence sufficient to support my hypothesis? Is my hypothesis consistent with the cultural context of the era?” You should be able to support your hypothesis with primary source material (primarily the work you are analyzing, but often including other works of the era, historical documents, etc.).
You should now be able to write a preliminary outline of your argument, with notations of how the text will support your argument.
Secondary sources (works of interpretation and criticism) are used to test your hypothesis and expand your perspective. You should try to find what the accepted critical perspectives might be on the topic you are investigating. If you have picked your topic well, you will discover that there is disagreement about how to answer your question.
You will test your approach to answering the question against the ways other critics have answered that question or related questions. Remember that secondary source material cannot take the place of good primary source material. Secondary sources should be used to further an explanation, provide a contrasting perspective, confirm the legitimacy of your conclusion, etc.
Be sure to do a thorough search of the critical material to find what has been written about your topic. Don’t ignore the older sources. However, also realize that you should bring your critical research up to date–it’s not good when all your sources are pre-1980, for instance.
Look for the obvious–books that cover your topic that are available in our library. Look up the names of authors in your research in the Dictionary of National Biography.
The basic bibliography in literary studies is the MLA Bibliography. It is available on-line in EBSCO:
You will have to be thoughtful in selecting your search terms. If you need help, talk to the reference librarian or see your professor.
There are many additional specialty bibliographies that will extend your search. In Shakespeare studies, for instance, the source is the Shakespeare Quarterly bibliography, printed as the Winter issue each year.
As you use secondary material, don’t be afraid to challenge critics; be sure to include those who disagree with you as well as those who agree with you.
Once you have taken notes on all your secondary sources, you are ready to start putting together the final outline of your paper. Concentrate on structuring and supporting your own argument; use primary sources as your primary means of support; use secondary sources as a way of giving perspective. If you did a good job of taking notes (note cards, anyone?), you should be able to sort through your notes, put them in order, and use the note cards as the framework for your outline.
You will probably discover that you have modified many of your arguments as a result of reading secondary sources, and secondary sources might suggest certain primary source passages that you hadn’t considered before. All of this is normal. Think through your argument and write a carefully considered, unified, logical final outline.
Once you have the outline complete, the paper should be easy to draft.
You should not, however, expect to have an excellent paper on the first draft.┬á Take rough drafts to the Writing Center or (if permitted) to your professor and get feedback that will help you improve your writing and your argumentation. Also practice revising independently: see Editing and the Retrospective Outline for one revision technique that can help at this stage.