Doing Research and Writing Papers

How do I start? A Guide to Finding Content

This guide is not meant to be a comprehensive look at how to do careful and responsible research.  Instead, it is a “quick and dirty” guide.  That is, it’s a brief look at the basic process of doing research in the Humanities.

1) Come up with a topic:

  • There are many ways to choose a topic.  You might think about what in the class has seemed interesting to you, or what you would like to learn more about.  You might also think about what made you angry, what seemed wrong, or what just seemed strange.  The point is to find a topic that engages and motivates you.
  • You might, for example, want to write on “armor in Homer’s Iliad“.

2) Consider a  question that interests you:

  • Once you have a topic, you need to think about what specifically you’d like to write on.  This means refining a topic — which will be too broad for a class paper — to a question that you can address.  What is it about the topic that you want to investigate?
  • In our example, we might refine the topic into a question:  “How do the warriors in the Iliad use their armor?”
  • There is a good chance your question will be either too broad or too narrow, but you might not be able to determine that at this point; you just know basically what you want to look into next.

3) Do a quick JSTOR search:

  • Go to JSTOR through the library website and do a thoughtful search on your topic
  • A thoughtful search means limiting the databases (in this case to Classics) and thinking carefully about search terms (here, we might try “armor” and “Iliad”, but we’d also do another search with “armor” and “Homer”)
  • Skim through at least the first few pages of article titles and open in a separate tab any article that looks like it might apply.
  • Don’t skip book reviews!  They will point you not only to useful books but also to which chapters of those books you should look at.
  • This process should give you a pretty good idea of whether your question is too broad or too narrow, but before you make any rash decisions, move on to step 4.

4) Do a quick Library Catalogue Search:

  • Repeat the process of step 3, but with the library’s online catalogue.
  • This will be a much quicker search, but as you’re looking at titles, notice if they all tend to have very similar call numbers (in our case, lots  in the PA 4030 area).  Keep this in mind:  you may want to go to the library physically and look at this shelf, because there are often excellent books on your topic/question that don’t come up in a search.

5) Firm up your question:

  • After you have skimmed or read through your items, you will now have a much clearer idea of what question you can reasonably investigate.  It’s worth remembering that it’s not enough to have a genuinely intriguing and original question:  you have to have the resources (access to sources and time) to work through the question.  So you may need to tweak or entirely rewrite your question into something that you are able to address.
  • In our case, we might refine our question to ask “How does the exchange of armor in the Iliad reveal social standing and illuminate the context in which the armor is exchanged?”
  • Note that the question may or may not be the actual thesis.  In this case, we don’t immediately know the answer to our question, and we won’t know it until we have done our readings and thought through the text, so we can’t write a thesis yet:  that is, we don’t know what we’re going to end up showing or proving, only what we are investigating.

6) Read your articles, books, and book chapters carefully:

  • Take notes about how they address your question:  what are their methods, their backgrounds, their insights, their blindspots?  Nearly every article and book, no matter how objectionable, has good, solid points that can strengthen your understanding of the question at hand.  What are they?  Remember to consider arguments in the best possible light; otherwise, you will miss an opportunity to learn and grow.  Nearly every article and book, no matter how excellent, has blindspots and errors that could be filled in or improved upon.  Remember to consider arguments critically, or you will miss an opportunity to improve.

7)  What do YOU think about the question:

  • Where do you agree, where do you disagree, and why?
  • Scholarly articles and books are not divinely inspired.  It is healthy to disagree if you can explain your disagreement clearly and support it with evidence.
  • Take some time to work and write out what you think before you move on.

8) Build your bibliography:

  • Look at bibliographies of items you have read.  You will find many, many more works that did not come up in your initial searches.  What looks like you need to read it, too?
  • Make a short list of the most important looking items and request them via Interlibrary Loan.

9) Incorporate points of view of new materials:

  • How do they change your thoughts on your question?  How do you respond to new arguments that you disagree with or that disagree with points you want to make?  What do you add to the argument that isn’t already there?

1o) Repeat steps 8 and 9:

  • Repeat until you have mastery of the bibliography; but caution:  it is easy to get sidetracked at this stage and not progress beyond it.  At the point where you feel you might have 70-80% of the bibliography, you probably have enough for your take on the question to be solidified.  You may want to continue looking for bibliography for completeness’s sake, but what you find isn’t likely to change your views, since if it offered a significantly different take, you would likely already have run across it.
  • Don’t let the search for bibliography prevent you from moving forward.  What does this mean practically for your course work?  As a rough estimate (always ask your professor!) a research paper that is the term paper for a course ought to have 10-15 (or more) bibliographical items (i.e., articles and books).  An annotated bibliography as a separate assignment ought to have  20+ items.  A Capstone ought to have 40+ items.

11) Bibliography

  • You will never have mastery of the bibliography:  there’s always room for growth, and there’s always something more that you didn’t find, couldn’t access, couldn’t get from Interlibrary Loan, or was in a language you could not read.  Don’t feel bad about this:  it’s in the nature of our profession.  Knowledge is unbounded, and so are viewpoints.

What Now? A Guide to the Mechanics of Paper Writing

For doing research, see “How Do I Start–A Quick and Dirty Guide”.  This guide is intended to be a quick introduction to the mechanics of the writing process itself.  It is a definitive guide, but help with the anatomy of the paper and a way to get started.


  • The Introduction
  • A Sample Introduction analyzed
  • The Body Paragraph
  • The Conclusion
  • Prospective Outlines
  • Retrospective Outlines
  • The Annotated Bibliography
  • Book Reviews

The Introduction:
Every introduction, whether you’re writing a term paper, an academic article, a book, or indeed, most kinds of narrative, has the same basic structure:  the background, the problem, and the response.

  1. The Background:  How to begin a paper is often the most difficult part for any author.  The introduction should begin with the background, i.e., what does the reader need to know in order for the rest of the paper to make sense?  Depending on the field for which you are writing, the background can vary immensely from quite long (especially in literary fields) to quite short (especially in the experimental sciences).
  2. The Problem:  Something disrupts or unsettles the commonly held opinions, viewpoints, or beliefs that you have outlined in the background.  This might be a new piece of scientific knowledge, a new historical document, a new way of looking at a literary text, etc.  The problem almost always begins with some contrast word:  “but”, “although”, “however”, “yet”, and so on.
  3. The  Response:  Commonly called the “thesis”, a response is the writer’s suggestion about how to resolve the problem. It is your claim that you will be discussing throughout the paper.


Consider the following example, drawn from Kenneth C. M. Sills, “The Teaching of Virgil”, The Classical Journal 5:3 (January 1910) 111-117.

  • Virgil is not simply the poet of the Aeneid; he is also the poet of the Eclogues and the Georgics.  Virgil is not simply the poet of the Roman; he is that “poet whose verse has had the most power in the world, the poet who has been more than any other poet a part of the intellectual life, both of Europe and America, alike by length of sway and by the multitude of minds he has touched in all generations.”*  But it is not the fascinating problem of the position of Virgil in literature which is to occupy our attention in this paper; it is the important problem of the position of Virgil in our Maine schools.  We are to be concerned not with the Eclogues and the Georgics, but with the Aeneid and with the whole Aeneid.  For it is a one-sided and narrowing interpretation which limits the study of Virgil to the first six books of his poem.  Indeed, it is the primary intention of this paper to reclaim for high-school study the last six books of the Aeneid and to suggest for discussion some ways by which the Aeneid as a complete poem may be presented for study. (p. 111) * quotation from George Edward Woodberry, essay on Virgil
    • Background:  Virgil is not simply the poet of the Aeneid; he is also the poet of the Eclogues and the Georgics.  Virgil is not simply the poet of the Roman; he is that “poet whose verse has had the most power in the world, the poet who has been more than any other poet a part of the intellectual life, both of Europe and America, alike by length of sway and by the multitude of minds he has touched in all generations.”
    • Problem:  But it is not the fascinating problem of the position of Virgil in literature which is to occupy our attention in this paper; it is the important problem of the position of Virgil in our Maine schools.  We are to be concerned not with the Eclogues and the Georgics, but with the Aeneid and with the whole Aeneid.  For it is a one-sided and narrowing interpretation which limits the study of Virgil to the first six books of his poem.
    • Response:  Indeed, it is the primary intention of this paper to reclaim for high-school study the last six books of the Aeneid and to suggest for discussion some ways by which the Aeneid as a complete poem may be presented for study.

The Body Paragraph:

Body paragraphs are the meat of your paper; they are the places where you will make your argument, expanding on and explaining your Response to the Problem identified in your introduction.  Body paragraphs follow a basic patter:  CLAIM, EVIDENCE, EXPLANATION.

  1. Claim:  This is the “topic sentence” to your body paragraph.  A Claim will make an assertion that supports your Response (Thesis).
  2. Evidence:  Evidence can take many forms, but most often it is one or more quotations from the text about which you are writing.  The evidence must support your claim.  That is, you must select quotations that directly display whatever trait you are asserting for the text.
  3. Explanation:  Once you have set up your quotation, you need to explain (1) how it in fact shows what your claim asserts, and (2) how that relates back to your thesis.

The Conclusion:

No part of a critical paper has suffers more from superficial attention than the conclusion.  Pay close attention to the following guidelines:

  1. A Conclusion is NOT:
    • A simple restatement of the thesis.  This tells the reader nothing new and implicitly says that the reader has learned nothing since the introduction.
    • A simple summary of the argument.  A summary (and nothing more) assumes that either the reader hasn’t been paying attention, or the argument was not clear enough to follow easily.
  2. A conclusion IS:
    • reflective restatement of the thesis.  What have we learned in the process of the essay?  How has the thesis been refined (or the response been investigated/filled out/explained) or recast into a genuinely better understanding of the topic?
    • synthesis of the argument. You might summarize the main points, but don’t just restate them from the topic sentences of your body paragraphs.  Instead, show your reader how they all fit together and work together with the examples you used.  All the parts of the paper should come together into a whole.
    • A jumping off point.  Your paper is not the first word on the topic and it will not be the last.  You might propose further areas of study, inquiry, or thought on the matter.  You might also suggest some applications of your conclusions/findings to understanding something about some other topic or about life.
      • CAVEAT: beware of over-generalizations and of introducing random or loosely-attached new topics.


The Prospective and Retrospective Outlines are really quite different, but both can be useful tools when writing a paper.  The Prospective Outline helps you arrange your thoughts and beak them down into manageable steps before writing the paper, whir the Retrospective Outline will show whether you have clearly communicated your thoughts and if they are logically arranged.

  • The Prospective Outline:  Before beginning your paper, you outline the content and argument.
    • In its simplest form, the Prospective Outline is just a thesis, followed by the main claims of each of the body paragraphs.
    • Once you have the simplest version, you can use it as a skeleton to help build the rest of the paper:  add your supporting evidence and quotations to claims under each body paragraph; add a few words about how those quotations or the evidence supports your claims; double-check that the order of the body paragraphs makes good sense.
    • Now you’re ready to write up the paper.  Follow this method, and the paper will write itself.
  • The Retrospective Outline:  After you have written your paper, you outline what is in front of you in order to make sure the paper actually says and does what you think it does.  For this step to work, you need some distance from the paper, whether you wait a day or ask a friend to do this for you.
    • Does the introduction have a background, problem, and response/thesis?  What are they? (They may not be what the you, the author, intended them to be, or they may not be as clearly separated as you thought they were.)
    • Does each body paragraph make a claim that directly supports the thesis?
    • Is each body claim supported by one or more citations or other pieces of evidence?
    • Are the citations/evidence explained and related back to the body claim?
    • Does the conclusion pick up the original thesis? (I.e., can you tell what the paper was about just from the conclusion?)
    • Has the thesis been refined or modified, or has it just been restated?  (We want to refine, not restate.)
    • Does the conclusion make a statement about why the thesis matters, why it’s important?


The annotated bibliography can be a useful tool in writing any paper, but it becomes absolutely necessary in longer, research papers.  In brief, it’s a bibliography which also includes a description of the contents of each source.  Follow these steps:

  1. Identify relevant sources for your topic/question.
  2. Read a source and take notes on:
    • a summary of the contents;
    • how the source seems like it does or not fit your topic.
  3. Ideally, your annotations will be brief:  only 3-5 sentences for an article, slightly longer for a book.
  4. You want to write them in such a way that they will be helpful to you not just now but six weeks from now when you are finishing up your paper, or even six months from now when decide to come back to the paper and touch it up as a writing sample for graduate or professional school.


  • When trying to work through a large number of sources, several of which are books, book reviews are your friend.  They exist to give the broader scholarly community (and that includes you) a fair idea of the contents of a book, its quality, its real contributions, and its failings.
  • Whenever possible, read more than one review of a book.  Usually you can find two to three reviews easily, and while they may agree with one another, they may also reveal radically different assumptions and biases on the part of the reviewers.
    • You can find book reviews in many journals.  If you search JSTOR, there is a “review” check-box that allows you to include or exclude book reviews.
    • Bryn Mawr Classical Review is a free, online collection of up-to-date and archived reviews.

What are "Sources," Really? What Counts?


The scholarly community mainly uses two different nomenclatures to talk about sources.  You’ll remember hearing about “primary” and “secondary” sources in high school, which is the most common way to classify sources.  There is also the BEAM method, which can significantly help to clarify how you can best use a source.

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

  • Primary Sources are those sources about which you are writing.  If you are writing a paper on Moby Dick, then Moby Dick is your primary source.  A paper could have one or many primary sources.  For example, a paper on Shakespeare’s tragedies, would have HamletMacbethKing Lear, etc. all as primary sources.
  • Secondary Sources are those writings by other scholars, critics, journalists, etc. that have addressed the same topic or question you are writing about.  You read and cite these secondary sources as a way to learn more about your primary source(s), learn what other people think and say about the topic of your paper, and position your contribution.  For example, articles on Moby Dick might open up possible ways to read the text that had never occurred to you (whale as allegory, for example).  You might then respond to other scholars’ readings by agreeing, disagreeing, expanding, correcting, re-imagining, etc.
  • Tertiary Sources are handbooks, manuals, encyclopedias and the like that summarize the discussions that occur in secondary sources but do not add new thoughts.

This can be a useful system, but it does have one big problem:  what counts as a primary or secondary source depends on the topic of your paper.  For a paper on King Lear, for example, King Lear is the primary source and scholarly articles are secondary sources.  For paper on how Englishmen of the 1800s read King Lear, then articles from the 1800s would be  your primary sources, and the play King Lear would be background information, but not a source at all!  This can be very confusing for students new to paper-writing.

The BEAM Method

  • Developed by Joseph Bizup, “BEAM: A Rhetorical Vocabulary for Teaching Research-Based Writing,” Rhetoric Review 27.1 (2008) (article free online).
  • The BEAM method reclassifies sources into four groups based on how you use them.  This eliminates the problem we run into when classifying “primary” and “secondary” sources.
  • B  = Background E  = Exhibit A  = Argument M = Method
    These sources provide the necessary background to the paper, that is, they provide the “facts” that the writer and reader will assume to be true.  In our example of a paper on how Englishmen of the 1800s read King Lear, a background source might be a book about London in the 1800s and the culture of 1800s England generally.
    These are the sources about which you are actually writing.  The Exhibit source is very similar to what we might call a “primary” source, but remember, it can be anything:  a novel, a poem, artwork, videos, etc.  Whatever “text” you are bringing forward to discuss in your paper is your Exhibit.
    These are the sources with which you are arguing.  The Argument source is very similar to what we might call a “secondary” source.  Other scholars, critics, etc. have written about the same Exhibit you’re interested in, and you are responding to what they have written, whether to agree, disagree, refine, explain, expand, refute, etc.
    These are the sources that help you find a way to approach your paper.  They give you a framework or a model for structuring your argument.  In our example of a paper on how Englishmen of the 1800s read King Lear, a few method sources might be an article on how Englishmen of the 1800s read Macbeth and another article on how Frenchmen of the 1700s read King Lear, or even a book on how 20th century women read the plays of Molière.  These sources show you a way to write about your topic: they may show you a format, a structure, an approach, or give you the vocabulary you need, even though they do not address your topic directly.

Doing Research Online. What Can the Internet Do for Me?

The following is a list of useful online databases for doing research in Classics.  This is not meant to be a complete list, but it is an excellent place to start.  Consider also speaking with your professor.


  • Standing for “Journal Storage”, JSTOR is an aggregator for a number of journals in a wide array of disciplines.  It’s a great way to do a quick search on a topic, but it is in no way complete.  NOTE:  very many journals are not included in JSTOR, and JSTOR does not provide access to the most recent several years’ of articles.  So while it is an excellent source, it has many important blind-spots.


  • Like JSTOR, EBSCO provides access to articles from a wide variety of journals.  The same limitations apply.


  • Another database like JSTOR and EBSCO.  The same limitations apply.


  • Interlibrary Loan.  If you know of an article or book that you would like to have but our library does not have a copy, you can request that the library obtain a copy by borrowing it from another university.  Articles or book chapters will be scanned uploaded online so that you can access them directly, while entire books can be checked out in your name and shipped to you to pick up at the PLU library.
  • Use ILL when you have a big project or when must-have items just aren’t available otherwise.  The PLU library staff goes above and beyond to get requests filled and filled quickly.  Expect it to take several days to a week, however, especially you request a rare book.


  • As its name implies, World Cat is a world-wide library catalogue.  You can search here for books on your topic, see if PLU has a copy, and likewise see what libraries in the area have a copy.  If, for example, University of Puget Sound has a copy, you could go there and look at that the same day rather than request it by ILL and have to wait.
  • In order to use World Cat, click on the link above, or after you have made a search in the PLU online catalogue, you will see a very small menu directly underneath the search bar with the label “Libraries to Search”.  Change from “Pacific Lutheran University” to “Libraries Worldwide”, hit “search” again, and you’re in business.
  • Using World Cat will also make requesting a book by ILL much easier.  It will provide you with both the OCLC and ISBN for the book you want, which, if you put them in your ILL request, will help the librarians locate the book at a nearby library.
  • Pay attention, too, to what libraries World Cat tells you own the book you want.  If there’s only one library in the world, and it’s in the Netherlands, chances are the library won’t be able to obtain it for you.  But on the same note, chances are you don’t really need it for research at the level that is being asked of you.


  • “Table of Contents of Journals of Interest to Classicists”.  This is a bibliography site.  It covers journal publications primarily since 1992, occasionally providing abstracts or even full text articles.  Its main function is to make you aware of bibliography so that you can obtain items from your library, Interlibrary Loan, or other sources.

Library Holdings: For When You Can't Beat a Book!

The list below is a brief guide to some excellent reference material you can use to begin learning about a topic you’re interested in.  Each of these reference books includes a short bibliography of the most important scholarly works treating each entry.


Albin Lesky, A History of Greek Literature

  • Lesky gives a rather full history of Greek literature in a narrative format.  Go here to find out the basics (and often more than the basics) about an author, the author’s work, and how they fit into Greek history and culture.



Gian Biagio Conte, Latin Literature: A History

  • This tome summarizes the lives, works, and impacts of nearly every Roman author from the beginning of Latin literature to around 500 CE.  Each entry includes a lengthy bibliography.



Oxford Classical Dictionary

  • The Oxford Classical Dictionary is a brief encyclopedia covering the most important people, places, things, and ideas from Greco-Roman antiquity.  It is an excellent first place to go when you want to learn the background on a topic and get a short (usually about 3-5 items) bibliography.  Start here!

Paulys Realencyclopaedie

  • The Pauly-Wissowa Realencyclopaedie is a truly massive encyclopedia in 81 volumes covering every person, place, and thing known to exist from antiquity.  It is excellent if you want to find out about a person or place (or similar) that is very obscure or if you want to know definitively what the evidence is for the life of a particular person.  Be forewarned:  this encyclopedia is written in German!  But see the next entry:  Brill’s New Pauly.

Brill’s New Pauly

  • The publisher Brill has come out with a revised and abridged edition of Paulys Realencyclopaedie that is in English.  Brill’s New Pauly consists of 28 volumes, so the most obscure entries have been omitted, and many of the remaining entries have been shortened.  It remains an excellent place to go for information on topics that are not available in the Oxford Classical Dictionary.

Cambridge Ancient History

  • A detailed and definitive look at many facets of ancient history, the Cambridge Ancient History is arranged in multiple volumes, with each volume dedicated to a particular geographical area.  Within the volume, you will find a series of articles/chapters arranged chronologically and covering the history and politics of that time and place.

Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World

Cambridge Companions to the Ancient World

PLU Library Research Guide:

  • The PLU library also hosts a research guide for each discipline.  Check it out for more tips and resources.

Doing Research With Faculty

Kelmer Roe

What is Kelmer Roe?

  • The Kelmer Roe Fellowship funds a student to work with a Humanities faculty on a joint scholarly project that “bring[s] the wisdom of the Humanities disciplines to bear on enduring human questions and the contemporary problems of our time.”
  • The Fellowship may cover the summer or work over a regular academic year, but in either case, the student can expect to work an equivalent of eight full-time (40-hour) weeks.
  • The Fellowship covers travel, research expenses, and includes a $3,000 stipend.

Who is Eligible?

  • Continuing students (i.e., not graduating seniors) who have declared a major in Humanities:  English, Languages and Literatures, Philosophy, Religion, Scandinavian Studies, Classics, and Chinese Studies.

A Kelmer Roe Fellowship is an excellent way to delve more deeply into the research your faculty does, to make a real and lasting contribution to knowledge, and to build your own CV or resume. For more information, talk to a professor!