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Essential Resources for English Majors

This guide will also be helpful to English Minors, Graduate Students, and Faculty

Tips for Choosing topics

Tips for Choosing Literary Topics

Whether undergraduate literary research is easy or hard very often has to do with the topic or literary work you have chosen to write about. The process does not have to be nerve-wracking and take forever. Here are some tips regarding topic selection which are offered by an experienced reference librarian to help make the research process as stress-free as possible.


Tip One

It is easier to find criticism on works of authors from the past than on works by contemporary authors. It takes time for a body of critical writing about an author or literary work to grow.

Tip Two

It is easier, obviously, to find criticism on works by well-known authors than on works by those not so famous.

Tip Three

Larger works, like novels and plays, seem to attract more critical attention than individual short stories, essays, or poems.

Tip Four

Don't finalize your topic too soon. Consider two or three works of literature, do some quick, preliminary searching for each title in the tools introduced in this research guide, and choose the one on which you can find the most information most quickly.  

Tip Five

Unless, of course, an obsure work or work by a contemporary author is something you are passionately interested in. Then ignore Tips One through Four, and choose it. Reference librarians are available to help you.

strategies for Literary Research

Strategies for Literary Research


  1. Always start a research project by looking up the author you are dealing with, and/or the work you are dealing with, and/or the theme you are dealing with in appropriate reference works. Get an overview of these things, and basic facts, to inform your research.
  2. When researching newer authors, don’t expect to find much. For newer authors, it is not uncommon to find no scholarly sources on them or their work. So we have to take what we can get from popular sources. Since there will probably be no scholarly journal articles, you will need to be satisfied with book reviews (which are not scholarly) and other popular sources.
  3. In searching for newer authors, doing a keyword search for their name, or their name and the name of a work, is probably sufficient to find what little is there to be found.
  4. For secondary sources on more well-known works, searching by author name and title of work will bring up all there is on the work. You might then just scan the result list for relevant articles. If there is too much material to scan the result, adding a theme (and synonyms for the theme) will give a more precise result.
  5. When you want to research the way an author treated a theme throughout the whole body of their work, search for their name and the theme (and synonyms for the theme)
  6. Sometimes you might want to compare the treatments of two authors on the same theme. You might then search for both author names and the theme (and synonyms for the theme). Or if you wanted to compare the authors’ treatments of a theme in two specific works, you would add the names of the works to the author names and theme.

Literary Criticism: Database Searching Tips

Tips for Searching Literature Databases


  1. In searching a database, whether the online catalog or a journal database, putting a phrase (or title of a work) in double quotation marks will force the search engine to search for your exact phrase (or title).
  2. If you are searching for a work of literature with a unique title, like Dylan Thomas’ sonnet sequence “Altarwise by Owl Light,” just entering the title in a keyword search will be enough to bring up all articles containing that title. The articles will not necessarily all be on that work of literature, but the title will be contained in each one.
  3. In the case of a work of literature with a common title, like William Blake’s poem “The Lamb,” adding the author’s name to a search will be necessary to limit your search to articles on Blake’s poem.
  4. Sometimes a search using just the title of a work, say Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, will bring up an overwhelming number of articles. In this case, you should add to your search other keywords or phrases describing the particular theme, or themes, of the work you want to explore. If you are interested, for example, in the treatment of the theme of the “American Dream” in Miller’s play, you might enter a search like “death of a salesman” AND “American dream” to narrow the number of results to only those on the theme you are interested in.
  5. Search for books, essays, or articles about characters from the work in question. For certain characters with more unusual names, just using the name (Willy Loman, Hester Prynne) in a literary database will be enough to find relevant materials. In the case of a character with a more common name, you may need to include the title of the literary work you are dealing with (“john Watson” AND “a study in scarlet”). In the case of a very well-known character, you may need to als0 include the theme you are interested in along with the character name (“lady Macbeth” AND “guilt”) to reduce the number of results to only those meeting your needs.