In a private email, I was asked about the steps one needs to take to write a research article or essay on a work of literature. I have decided to share my procedure here. Of course, everybody has their own procedure but I invented this one when I was an undergrad and, since then, I have published 13 articles (+ 2 submitted for publication) and a book using this method. So the method has been proven to work. If people want to share their own procedures in the comments, I will be very interested in reading them.
1. First, choose a work of literature that when you read it disturbed you in some way. When you read a book and it stays with you, making you think about it, wondering, needing to discuss it with people, when a book left you with unanswered questions, this means you have found the primary source for your project.
2. Then you go back to the book, reread it, and underline everything that bothers you. The parts you underline are the ones that you feel are important. You don’t need to be able to articulate just yet why they are important. These parts should be like itches that you scratch by underlining them.
3. After you finish your second reading, look at the parts you underlined. What do they have in common? Is there a single question that unites them? This will be the question that your essay will answer. Write it out on a cue card and place where you can see it the entire time you will be writing. Every sentence in your essay should lead to answering this specific question and none other.
4. Now keep going over the quotes you have gathered from your primary source, looking for an answer to your question in them. At this point, abstain from consulting any external sources of information (called secondary sources.) It is still too early for them. Everything you need right now is located inside your primary source.
5. After you have found your answer, write it down in one complete sentence.
6. Now create a plan of how you will construct the argument leading from your question to your answer. Each point in the plan should be supported by some of the quotes you have found. Remember, every reading of a text has a right to exist if it fulfills the following requirements:
a) It is based on the totality of textual evidence (meaning that you cannot pretend not to notice inconvenient quotes);
b) It is logically consistent;
c) You can support it with specific textual evidence.
7. Now is the time to see what other people have been saying about this book. Consult the MLA bibliography, WorldCat and JSTOR databases. Look at the most recent scholarship on the subject first.
8. If what you were going to say about the book has been said already, don’t panic. This only means you need to take your analysis one step further. Try to take your idea and turn it around. If everybody has been saying, for instance, that this is a novel that discusses religious intolerance, try to argue that it is not about religious intolerance (this was what I did in my first article, and it has been wildly successful.)
9. Remember that quotes from secondary sources only exist to support your argument or for you to argue with them.
10. Adjust your essay plan to include the secondary sources.
11. And now you are ready to write.