Getting an A on an English Paper

Jack Lynch,
Rutgers University – Newark


In some papers, you can get an A by spinning ideas out of your head and giving your opinions. More often, though, you're expected to draw on others' thoughts, or to back up your own with outside reading. How much and what kind of research will vary from professor to professor, course to course, and even paper to paper, but some general principles are worth knowing.

Where to start?

Virtually everyone begins with the Internet these days. Don't. You might find some useful things there, but you'll also find mountains of rubbish, and it's hard to tell them apart. You can also spend more time browsing Web pages than it would take just to go to the library. It's much better to start with good old-fashioned books, and your professors will love you for it.

Reference Books

Reference books are the best place to begin. You can't go wrong with a good dictionary, even if you think you know the meaning of a word; and a serious encyclopedia will give you important background information. There are also specialized reference books, like chronologies (which list events year by year), biographical dictionaries (which provide short lives of important people), and bibliographies (which point you to other books). There are even entire reference works devoted to single periods, single authors, or even single works. You'll be amazed at what's in your library's reference section if you take the time to look. (Among my favorites are bibliographies of bibliographies.)

Other Books and Articles

When it's time to go beyond reference sources (which provide quick but superficial information) to more serious books — and that time will come — your library catalogue will help. Things have changed since computers pushed out the old index-cards-in-a-drawer catalogues into retirement. Different catalogues work different ways, but virtually all allow you to search by author, by book title, by subject, or by keyword.
(Pay attention to the difference between subject and keyword: subject headings are drawn from a standard list provided by the Library of Congress; keywords are just whatever words happen to be in the catalogue entry for the book. A librarian can explain the advantages of both.)
Library catalogues usually list only books, not shorter pieces like essays and articles. To find articles, you need specialized bibliographies, to which I've devoted a page.

Reference Librarians

If you've checked the obvious sources and haven't found what you're looking for, talk to a reference librarian. Reference librarians are the most wonderful people in the world: they know everything, and their job is to tell you where to find it. Get to know them, and take advantage of them whenever you can. They actually like it.

Research Papers

What to do with all these facts once you find them is tricky. It's always wise to talk to your instructor about what he or she wants, because it can be difficult to balance the facts with your argument. There's an entire genre called the research paper; the point is to get you to dig up facts (usually from multiple sources), perhaps worrying less than normal about having a thesis. But unless your instructor has specifically told you to produce a research paper without a thesis, be sure you have something specific to say. The idea is to use your research to prove your point, not just to rehash facts. (Your professor can find the facts as easily as you can; he or she wants to hear what you do with them.)


I assume — though perhaps it's assuming too much — that you know better than to steal from other sources. Every English instructor has seen mountains of papers that are simply copied, either word-for-word or with minor variations, from other books and articles. It's wrong, wrong, wrong, and it may be enough to make you fail the paper, fail the class, or even be expelled from the university. Take it seriously. I therefore give an entire section of this guide to one important principle: whenever you write up your research, be sure to cite everything fully.

from Jack Lynch's guide,
Getting an A on an English Paper

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