Research Essay

Essay: The major writing assignment for this course is a 8-10 page research essay, due at the conclusion of the semester. This essay will involve significant work with one of the texts we are reading in common, along with substantial use of secondary critical sources. The essay will be completed in stages. Due dates are tentative.

  • Prospectus (Due April 11, 2012): In your prospectus, you will identify which of the primary texts you will write about and briefly sketch out – in a paragraph or two – the argument you propose to make. This document should be approximately 250 words.
  • Annotated Bibliography (Due April 18, 2012): In the annotated bibliography, you will survey the secondary literature on the text you have chosen to write about. You will briefly summarize the argument of a number of critical sources.
  • Final Draft (Due May 2, 2012)

Final Research Essay Components

Annotated Bibliography Due: 21 April (10% of final grade)

Having already submitted your prospectus, you must now create an annotated bibliography of five secondary critical sources. In the annotated bibliography, you will give correct MLA bibliographical citations of the sources, followed by brief, one-paragraph summaries of each source (100-150 words). These summaries should encapsulate the argument of the source, along with its potential value to your own critical thinking on the text. Including direct quotes (with pages cited) is always a good idea. You may use ONE critical text we read in common, but the other four must be new. Should you be interested in a historicist reading, you could include up to TWO contextual sources (essays or books from the period in question). Historical books and journal articles are also good sources for context, but these should also be peer-reviewed. In addition to the MLA International Bibliography, the database America: History and Life might also be helpful. Also remember the useful resources we discussed earlier in the semester: Cornell University’s Making of America database, Google Books, and (see links here for others). No “tertiary” sources (encyclopedias, textbooks) and no online-only sources. If you have questions about the viability of a source, don’t hesitate to email me. Use Interlibrary Loan early and often!


Keep in mind that your essay may incorporate more sources (if you happen to come across useful ones), but that your annotated bibliography only needs FIVE secondary sources.

Sample annotated bibliography on William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959)

Harris, Oliver. William Burroughs and the secret of fascination. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press, 2003. Print.

Grounds his analysis of Burroughs first in the fascination of others with him (i.e. in his representation in other Beat works), then in the Burroughs as seen behind the “Belles Lettristic Curtain” (i.e. his letters to Ginsberg). Harris, who also edited Burroughs’ letters, locates the origin of different “routines” in NL in the letters and reinterprets them through this lens, though admitting that the fascination with Burroughs is precisely the fact that “I can never quite grasp even the truth that I can never quite grasp it” and that “there can be no satisfactory resolution of a text whose meanings are not ambiguous but antagonistic.”


Lyndenburg, Robin. Word Cultures: Radical Theory and Practice in William S. Burroughs’ Fiction. Urbana, Ill: University of Illinois Press, 1987. Print.

Argues that Burroughs’ work should not be read according to conventional structures of metaphor or morality – in fact, that NL is designed to smash binary oppositions (mind/body, good/evil, etc.). Also engages in a critical “cut-up,” mixing selections of Burroughs’ writing with post-structuralists (Derrida, Kristeva, Barthes, etc.)

Mottram, Eric. William Burroughs: the Algebra of Need. London: Marion Boyers, 1977. Print.

Mottram’s study is the first major critical evaluation of Burroughs. He argues that NL “presents a condition of advanced state bureaucracy operated through obscene and insane controls. The narrative resolves into a nightmare of repetitive fantasies…a gross hierarchy of dependences which reduce men to machine and animal helplessness, sexual and narcotic helplessness.” His political reading depends on the centrality of Interzone’s political parties and says Burroughs indicates that “[t]he cure for the human historical urge to addiction is anarchist self-regulation, an act of individuality” (i.e. writing).

Final Essay Due: 3 May @ 12 noon in Keezell 210 (30% of your final grade)

–       8-10 pages (2500-3000 words), plus bibliography

Important things to remember:

  • Title: Give your essay a title, but not the same title as the text you’re analyzing. In other words, if you’re writing on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, don’t title your essay “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” That title’s taken.
  • Avoid beginning a paragraph with a quotation. Your essay is about your interpretation; the text should serve your argument. In addition, you should rarely end a paragraph with a quotation. One generally solid model to follow in the “development” paragraphs of your essay (sometimes referred to as the “body” of the essay) is to open with your point about a passage (topic sentence), followed by a quote from the passage, followed by a more specific analysis of this quote.
  • Avoid unnecessary plot summary. I’ve read the book. You’re making an argument about it, not telling me what happened.
  • Always cite sources. Use MLA-style parenthetical citations and include a bibliography. If you are unsure of how to cite sources or create a bibliography, see the JMU library website or <>.
  • Learn the proper way to indicate a book (underlining or italics) and a chapter, short story, essay, or poem (quotation marks). Know the difference between a book (i.e., Deephaven, Ragged Dick, Mechanic Accents) and these other genres (“A Romance of Real Life,” “The Circus at Denby,” “Huckleberry Finn, or, Consequences,” etc. ).
  • Present tense. When writing about literature, use the present tense – the text “occurs” as we read it. Only use the past tense to refer to the past that is “past” in the text, i.e. the narrative’s backstory. When giving historical details, past tense is fine.

My pet peeves:

  • Contractions. Do NOT use contractions unless it is absolutely unavoidable. Contractions are too casual for a formal writing assignment. This does not apply to textual quotation, where you need to quote directly from the text, which may include contractions, slang, or other language that might be too informal for your own writing.
  • Unnecessary qualifying phrases. Making statements in the first person is totally acceptable in an interpretative essay. However, using phrases like “I think” or “I believe,” particularly in a thesis statement, weakens the force of your argument. We know this is what you think; you are the author of the essay. Generally, these phrases can be easily removed from any essay. Your essay should exhibit confidence in your ideas, not hesitancy about them.
  • Spelling. Make sure to proofread your essay. In particular, make sure you spell the author’s name, the characters’ names, and the book’s title correctly. Also, it would be fantastic if you spelled your professor’s name correctly!

Three quick tricks:

  • Review your topic sentences. If the topic sentence merely states a plot point, chances are you’ve followed it with a paragraph of plot summary. Make sure topic sentences are supporting your critical argument.
  • Review your parenthetical citations. Are your parenthetical citations from the primary text consistently ascending? If you’re citing passages in chronological order, you may have too much summary happening. Organize thematically, following your thesis.
  • Read for “to be” verbs. An overreliance on is/are/was/were/be/been probably means you’re overusing the passive voice. This gets repetitive and makes your prose flat and dull. Rewrite sentences to make them more active, and to make the use of a “to be” verb actually mean something!