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English: Choose a Topic / Review the Literature

guide for affiliates of The College of New Jersey (TCNJ)

Initial Steps

brain storming graphicThere are several ways to approach choosing a manageable research topic. The following techniques have been shown to help students move from having no topic or only a very broad topic to a manageable research question.

  • Personal Interest: It might seem obvious, but concentrate your efforts on a topic that interests you personally. Research shows that personal interest increases motivation, which in turn often predicts academic success.
  • Brainstorm: Identify synonyms for major research topics and themes. Example "literary theory" = "critical theory". Mind maps use visual cues such as color and shape to structure and link ideas. Check out this brief video (YouTube) before downloading one of the many mind-mapping applications available for iOS or Android. At minimum, take a few minutes to brainstorm for concepts, which then become your search terms, before diving into our catalog or abstracting and indexing databases such as the MLA International Bibliography.
  • Citation (or Footnote) Chasing: This is a popular technique among literary scholars. Footnote chasing occurs when the bibliographies of works already located in a literature search, or that have been assigned by the professor, are examined for additional sources containing further relevant information. Literary monographs (books), journal articles, and other scholarly secondary sources nearly always incorporate bibliographies, the more recently published the better. Although favored by most scholars, footnote chasing is not the only or even the most comprehensive method of reviewing the literature. Still, footnote chasing is only moderately time consuming and tends to pay huge dividends to the researcher.
  • Browse the Secondary Literature: Browse for possible research topics in the latest issue of a peer-reviewed literary journal. Though time consuming, browsing journals can be a great way to uncover timely scholarly debates. Key English journals, most of which are accessible online through Gitenstein Library, are listed in the Journals tab of this guide.
  • Consult an Expert: English majors, of course, must engage with literary criticism. What have scholars written about a particular author, genre, literary period or movement? Why not begin with an expert who already knows that literature or can help you to identify it? The professor and/or librarian will suggest readings relevant to your research topic. This technique is perfectly legitimate. It's not cheating to consult an expert!

Next Steps

bookish cartoon man from 1920sNow, as your research begins to take shape, consult reference (or tertiary) works. Reference works are sources that list, index, or in some other way facilitate access to and the understanding of books, book chapters, and journal articles cited by students in research papers. Reference works are based on the secondary literature, thus the "tertiary" moniker.

  • Abstracting and Indexing (A&I) databases consist of bibliographic citations and/or abstracts of the secondary literature of a discipline. In literary studies the most important A&I database is the MLA International Bibliography. Access other important A&I databases from the Find Articles: Core Databases page of this research guide.
  • A bibliography is a systematic list of sources written about a literary topic (e.g. Hispanic American women's literature), or that share one or more common characteristics of language, genre/form, literary period (e.g. English Romanticism), place of publication, or author (e.g. Whitman). Bibliographies range in length from one or two pages to full-length books. Search our catalog and/or WorldCat to find book-length bibliographies on your topic. Use the "keyword" (or search term) <bibliography> in combination with a second topical keyword. Restrict keywords to the Subject field. Example: drama AND bibliography.
  • Our library's catalog—today more accurately described as a "web-scale discovery service"—offers descriptions of books, journals and many other source types. WorldCat is a "union catalog" that describes tens of millions of books held by thousands of U.S. libraries. Many of those books can be borrowed by affiliates of TCNJ via the library's interlibrary loan (or ILL).
  • Consult a scholarly encyclopedia to quickly and efficiently familiarize yourself with the state of the field, significant literary works and accompanying secondary criticism. For example, browsing and/or keyword searching Oxford Reference Online—another reference database—can help students to choose a research topic or narrow down an already chosen topic to a manageable size and scope.

Source for definitions: ODLIS: Online Dictionary of Library and Information Science