Making the Transition from Casual Writing About Literature to Scholarly Writing about Literature

        I know it's sometimes hard to understand what kind of paper is supposed to come out of this process. Good, "A" or "B" level high school writing is easier to produce because it is usually treated as a private communication from student to teacher.  The teacher controls (secretly or openly) the reasons why it happens.  When you have more complete authority over what kind of thing you might say about one or more complex works of literature to readers who have read the works and know them well, the process which produces the paper will be  much more complex.  It will be strikingly similar to the rhetorical process that produced the product purchase recommendation, which suggested the best buy for a known commodity to reader who might need one for well-defined reasons.  Here are two good, clearly written questions from students trying to write the paper, and my attempt to write an equally clear response. Do the replies help? If not, keep asking me until I get it right for you.

Sent: Tuesday, February 23, 1999 11:03 PM
To: Arnie Sanders
Subject: Hawthorne paper

Should the Hawthorne paper be a comparison of two or more of the stories we read? Or can we simply analyze one story in a detailed manner? I feel like I have so much information to use in "Rappaccini's Daughter" that I may not need to compare it to another work. Let me know.

        That's a reasonable question to ask. Typical high-school-level writing assignments often tell students specifically to write about only one text, in isolation.  In the real world of literary scholarship, writers rarely understand their subjects in isolation, even if they mention no other works in the text of the paper, and they commonly do make such mentions in order to make helpful comparisons and contrasts.  Just like an astronomer studying a distant star might be silently comparing and contrasting it with many similar stars in order to understand its specific identifying qualities, the literary scholar looking at a Hawthorne short story would have in mind all the other Hawthorne short stories s/he had read, and the works of Hawthorne's contemporaries, as well.  You are just starting out as a Hawthorne scholar, though you may have read The Scarlet Letter or The House of Seven Gables already.  Other than "Young Goodman Brown," few of his short fictions are commonly read by high school students, though they are well known to American literature scholars as some of the first self-consciously professional, world-class literature written in America..  That was my main purpose in having you read a cluster of three--to give you some context within which to develop your insights.  For this paper, it appears you know "R'sD" better than the other two (if I understand what you mean by "have so much information to use"), and if your information is organized by a genuine insight about the tale (i.e., a non-obvious pattern of evidence that makes meaning, AKA "NEWS"), it would be entirely sufficient for this assignment (or any real-world scholarly article) to write a paper explaining that insight and why you believe it is true and important.  If your insight connects two stories, you also can write on two, or on all three, as long as you have time and keep a tight focus on your insight--no plot summary! Even if you work only on "R'sD," don't neglect to bring in comparable evidence from NH's earlier stories when you can. That helps your reader to believe you insight about "R'sD," on the principle that authors develop consistent personal styles over time, or that "if Hawthorne has done it elsewhere, he's likely to be doing it here, too." Just be careful to focus your discussion on the strongest patterns you're seeing, the ones most important to the tale, least obvious, most clearly supported by unmistakable evidence. Don't feel like you have to account for everything you see in the tale.

Sent: Tuesday, February 23, 1999 3:50 PM
To: Arnie Sanders
Subject: Rough Draft

Prof. Sanders,

I'm a little confused about what exactly it is that we are writing on. Is the paper supposed to be on those thesis ideas that we e-mailed you earlier, and do you want us to do research on what critics think about Hawthorne's work? I'm a little confused about the actual topic/assignment.

        Good question.  Making the transition from amateur to professional thinking takes time, and you have to unlearn some habits that were taught you in high school.  Yes, the paper should arise from one or more of the ideas you emailed me, or at least from something that develops out of them.  At its core, each scholarly paper has to have an original insight about the evidence which is your real purpose for writing and your readers' purpose for reading.  The secondary sources, "what critics think," should fit into your discussion of your insight in many ways. 

        The mechanical process you go through to produce such a paper will have more steps than a typical high school paper, too.  If you are just "reporting" on a work, you might have done no more than summarize its plot or assert the presence of a "theme" or "symbol" in it, thus proving to your high-school teacher that you had read and understood the work.  That is an important precondition for having something coherent and original to add to the scholarly debate about Hawthorne's writing, but it not yet the same thing as a college-level scholarly paper on Hawthorne.  You also might have assembled a list of wise things previous scholars had published about the work, stacking them in the body of a "research paper" that showed the high-school teachers you can use the library, read secondary scholarship, and quote or paraphrase correctly.  Those are important sub-skills for scholarship, but they're not the reason scholars write.  You need to have a clear, personalized reading of your primary source that has generated an insight based on a pattern of evidence that makes meaning, and you ought to use scholarly sources in one of the typical ways scholars use each other's work.  For instance, you might use them in the introduction to establish what recent thinking has been published on the work or aspect of the work you are discussing, or to define the terms of a scholarly disagreement about it, if one exists and is relevant to your insight.  You might use them in the introduction or body of the paper to fill in details on Hawthorne's life from a scholarly biography when those details might be relevant to your insight.  You might use them in the introduction, body or conclusion to provide an insight about a pattern like the one you see, but which they see only in another of Hawthorne's works or in the works of another author NH might have known.  You also might use them in the body of the paper or the conclusion to draw our attention to a pattern in the primary source evidence which is relevant to your insight but which the critic does not connect to your insight.  Those all would be "major" uses of secondary scholarly works, but you also might use them quickly, here and there, to solve many other kinds of problems that might arise (e.g., dating the work's period of composition, telling us what Melville or Poe thought about the work, defining "American Romanticism" or explaining its links to German Romanticism via Emerson and Coleridge as a source of themes and techniques Hawthorne uses, etc.).

        Here's the way the process of reporting scholarly discoveries usually proceeds:
1) You have some "lab" experience of the thing, itself--you read the story, see the painting, hear the music, dissect the frog, run the reaction, etc.
2) You seek the pattern(s) in the thing that make it meaningful
3) You attempt to arrive at an insight about how the pattern in the story/painting/music/frog/reaction works, or why it works that way by examining the patterns you've found--which should be in the emailed thesis ideas you sent me.
4) You seek contextual background about the thing in history, etc. (though this could come before #1 if you have time!)--which should arise from the biography project.
5) You seek the works of other scholars who have studied the thing to see what they are saying about it (though as you become more expert in the field, you'll already know what they've been saying and go to #1 to get a fresh point of view on the patterns)--which should be discovered in our bibliographic research training at the library.
6) You might design an experiment to see if you can detect the thing's origins or effects on other things to better understand what it is and does, and how and why it does those things (perhaps optional in some cases).  Since dissecting authors is illegal (and impossible if they're long dead), you might look at Hawthorne's notebooks or letters around the time he was writing these stories, or read another of the stories, perhaps suggested to you by something another scholar has written.  Pieces of your pattern of evidence might turn up there, too!
7) You write a paper that argues the pattern you have found is important to understanding the thing, drawing on the evidence you gathered in the steps above to support your thesis.

        When you're just starting out in a field, it's important to have 1, 2, and 3 before you start listening to the works of published experts. Otherwise, you've got no grounds for your own authority and reading a published work on the story you're trying to understand tends to blast creative thought from your mind.. But afterward, the paper you write must listen to those other critics (scientists, etc.) and join in their conversation.

        I'll give you some examples if you want, but if you read the scholarly articles' introductions attentively, you will see that they all do exactly the same thing.  They must establish that the authors are worth listening to because they know the state of the critical discussion on their topics and refer to its participants' ideas, but they also must make clear exactly what new insight they bring to the discussion, usually in a clearly articulated thesis statement near the beginning or end of the introduction.  That pattern is so predictable that most teachers can tell if you have mastered the art of writing the whole scholarly paper just by reading the introduction.