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English (Writing About Literature)

Step 1. Interpreting the Assignment

Silhouette with cogs for brainA research paper for a literature class can feel unlike any other. You may be familiar with papers that center around a particular issue (such a climate change, or gentrification in a particular area), but literature research is quite a different animal. 

Here is an example. In a literature class, your instructor may ask you to think through a theme, or a character, and then ask you to apply a school of criticism or a literary theory to that theme/character. It may be hard to conduct a search on that alone. There may not be a source on that specific combination of ideas yet, or if there are sources, they may not have enough for the scope of your project. 

Consider how you might broaden or search adjacent to the topic to find supporting sources. 

Step 2. Translating the Assignment

Having read the assignment from your instructor, you may want to dive right into searching, but it may help to get more background information in your mind to help you in the search process. For example, if your assignment is to explore the character of Mary Hudson in the short story "The Laughing Man" from Nine Stories through feminist literary criticism, consider the following:

1. Would it help you to read more about the school of criticism or literary theory you have been assigned? It can help to read a few different sources on the criticism/theory, because there are many parts to them, and maybe a part OF the criticism is really what you will use to explore the topic in your paper. Perhaps you can search for that part of the theory/criticism, rather than it as a whole.

2. In our example, the instructor has asked us to consider the character Mary Hudson, and we very well may find sources to help us understand how we want to explain her, but would a source that discusses female characters in Salinger novels also be helpful? For example, there may be few sources on Mary Hudson in particular, but you may find many articles discussing female representation by Salinger.

The three main kinds of sources you will probably be looking for are: 

  • historical (context about the time period)
  • literary theory
  • literary criticism

Step 3. Brainstorm Search Words & Try Them in Different Combinations


  • exploring the literary concepts in a background resource (such as Credo), and
  • thinking through the scope of what you might do to answer the research prompt,

and, before:

  • searching

it's a good idea to:

  • write down words to help with the search.

Once you have the search words that might help find what you are looking for, you should:

  • try different combinations of search words in the CCSF Library OneSearch,
  • and then the open web. 

Use the tabs at the top of this box to see what they look like. 

The table below is an example on how to brainstorm related, synonymous, and adjacent terms that might help you find great sources! The words you use access different information from different communities. 

Search Word Brainstorm
main words Mary Hudson feminist literary criticism extra mind rambling
synonyms & alt terms

female, woman, women,

educated women, college and women

white women, caucasian women

feminist criticism

feminist theory and literature

Search Word Brainstorm
main words Mary Hudson feminist literary criticism extra

female, woman, women,

educated women, white women, 

caucasian women

feminist criticism

feminist theory and literature



Using our search word brainstorm in the CCSF Library OneSearch

Demo of advanced search for Salinger in OneSearch


See what this looks like in OneSearch.

Search Word Brainstorm
main words Mary Hudson feminist literary criticism extra

female, woman, women,

educated women, white women, 

caucasian women

feminist criticism

feminist theory and literature


How to combine some search words in Google: 


Google with one combined search string
See what this looks like in Google.

Step 4. Making Meaning Out of Search Results

By skimming your first page of results, you will get a sense of whether your combination of search words was helpful. If there is not one single helpful result on the page, go back to your word brainstorm and try a different word (or words).

Here are some things to consider when looking at the results of a search: 

Icon: looking at webpage with magnifier

  1. Skim the initial set of results and think, "Where are my search words coming up?"
    • In the title?
    • In the subjects?
    • When you click into the item, do you see any of your search words in the abstract?
  1. Look at the page length of the items you are turning up.
    • This is not to say that you don't want to use long items - there are some gems in there! But think about the length of the paper and the time you have to complete it. If an item is too long to use in it's entirety (such as an entire ebook), you may be able to use a section (such as a relevant chapter within an ebook). 
  2. Can you focus your search beyond the words you put in? In some library tools, you may see some check boxes to adjust your results.
    • If you are looking for academic literary criticism, checking the "Scholarly articles" box may help.
    • You may also want to adjust the date range of results. 

Step 5. Search in Layers

Instructors will often ask for a set number of sources for an assignment, and of course, you shall have them. However! Try to resist the urge of getting them all at the same time.

You may be wondering, "Why shouldn't I get all my sources all at once?" Especially if they all look good! Certainly, email yourself any items you think you may want to use, but what may be most helpful to your research process is to search in layers. That is,

  1. Refine your search with search words a few times to get a good result list, skim the list, and pick a couple items that you want to read deeply. [Email them to yourself so you don't have to locate them again!]
  2. Read the handful of sources you chose. As you read, make notes on the documents or elsewhere to provide hints to yourself later. The items your brain focuses on are very likely to be the angle you will take on your paper. ‚Äč

Magic Wand iconThis is very special! Only you think like you! Only your brain works the way that it does! As you read and make notes, your thoughts (fully informed by who you are and your lived experiences) will naturally gravitate to what interests you. This is what will be special about your research. Your interpretation is key.

  1. After reading, mine your notes to gauge your interest. Did you have any light bulb moments? Do your highlights and notes point to a particular interest you have about the topic?
  2. Run a new search with new search words. Your reading probably gave you new ideas to try, based on what you just learned and how your brain is pulling it all together. Select a few more results from the new search result list and read.
  3. Repeat the process as many times as needed! Let your brain work it's magic!

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