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7.9: Writing in the Humanities

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    "All great literature addresses directly or indirectly two questions: What kind of world is this? and How should we live in it?"

    --Christopher Clausen

    Writing in the humanities includes posing questions dealing with human values. The ultimate goal in writing in the humanities is to explain/share the human experience, to use writing as a tool to reflect upon life, and to tell how life should, or should not, be lived. "Humanities" as a discipline includes not only literature, but also philosophy, ethics, performing arts, fine arts, history, aspects of anthropology and cultural studies, foreign languages, linguistics, jurisprudence, political science, and sociology. In a humanities class, you might be asked to attempt the analysis of a poem, a performance or a play, a painting, a film or even a musical performance.

    There is often a difference in feel between writing in the Sciences and writing in the Humanities. Writing in the Sciences is often convergent (meaning oriented toward finding or articulating a specific answer to a specific question). Writing in the Humanities is often divergent (meaning oriented toward exploration of multiple answers to multiple questions).

    Categories of Humanities Writing

    Writing in the Humanities falls into three categories: theoretical writing, creative writing, and interpretive and analytical writing. Term papers and research papers are included in this discipline of writing when their topics pertain to the field of humanities.

    Theoretical Writing

    Theoretical writing involves writing on a topic from a theoretical perspective. In physics, for example, there is a theory on how the galaxy operates called the "string theory." A physics paper centered around the string theory would be considered a theoretical paper.

    Creative Writing

    Creative writing attempts to achieve, or create, an affect in the minds of the readers. The intended affect differs depending on the goals of the writer. The intention may be to expound on the grieving process (catharsis), or to make a person laugh or cry. The potential results are unlimited. Creative writing can also be used as an outlet for people to get their thoughts and feelings out and onto paper. Many people enjoy creative writing but prefer not to share it. Creative writing can take place in a variety of forms. Poems, short stories, novels, and even song lyrics are all examples of creative writing. Viewpoints regarding what exactly is encompassed under the term creative writing differ. To some, non-fiction can be considered creative writing because it is done from the author's point of view and may be written in an individual style that engages the reader. In fact, many universities offer courses in "Creative non-fiction." Others like to separate non-fiction from creative writing because it deals with details that actually took place, even if viewed subjectively. Regardless, the outlook of the writer is what matters, and whether something is considered creative writing or not is less important than producing a product that you can be proud of.


    A narrator is the voice or person who tells the story. One must never assume that a narrator of a story is related to the author in any way. Even if we, as an audience, are aware that the author of the story once had a similar experience to that of the narrator, we cannot make assumptions that there is any truth to the text. When writing or discussing criticism, the intent of the author is also off limits because regardless of the author intent, the value of a text is determined by reader response alone. An example of an author having a similar experience to the narrator of a story she'd written, is Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story The Yellow Wallpaper. Because the author had released statements revealing that she'd had a smilar medical treatment in her life to the narrator of her story, we still cannot assume that the narrator and Gilman are one in the same person.

    First-Person narrator is when one person narrates the story. Thus, a reader will recognize a first-person narrator because the pro-nouns "I" and "my" will be used. Because the story is narrated by one person, we are limited to the thoughts and observations of that person. There are many reasons that an author may choose to use a first-person narrator, but the reason is mainly to demonstrate the changes within one particular character, and also to build suspense. For example, if an author were to suddenly switch a first-person novel to a third-person narrator, the "who-done-it" aspect of the story would be ruined because we would suddenly be able to dive into the minds of multiple characters.

    There is also Third-person limited and Third-person omniscient. Third-person limited is when the narrator is limited to the thoughts of one particular character, but there is a little more freedom than with a first-person narrator because the narrator can more easily observe the behavior of others. Finally, a third-person omniscient narrator is when the lens of the storyteller is pulled back even further, but we are able to dive into the minds of any and all characters. Therefore, a third-person omniscient narrater is rather God-like in that it enables us to know absolutely anything and everything that is happening in the novel. This may sound like the most enjoyable way to compose, but as stated earlier, there are drawbacks to this kind of narrator in that it may be harder to create an element of surprise for the reader.

    Literary Periods

    Deconstructionism is an approach to literature which suggests that literary works do not yield a single, fixed meaning because we can never say what we truly mean in language.

    Early Modern Era Period extending from about 1500 to 1800, marked by the advent of colonialism and capitalism.

    Modernism Writing and art roughly made in at the start of WWI (1914) through the end of WWII (1945).

    Postmodernism is a literary and artistic movement that flourished in the late twentieth century, partly in response to Modernism. A common theme in this kind of work is self-reflexiveness.[1]

    Interpretive and Analytical Writing

    Interpretive Writing

    • An interpretation involves the discovery of meaning in a text (or film or painting, etc.) or the production of meaning in the process of reading a text. Therefore, interpretive writing must address many questions. It tries to assist the reader in understanding specific events (literary, cultural, or otherwise) rather than just engaging in summary. For example, a student writing an interpretive paper about a specific book may try to explain the author's attitudes or views on a specific subject matter. The writer of the paper then uses the evidence found in that book to back up his or her claims. A poor example of interpretive writing is a book report. A good example of interpretive writing is a scholarly article about another text.

    Writing might ask questions such as, "Why did these events happen?" or "What was the significance of these events to the author or main character?" as opposed to, "What happened" or "How did these events come about?" The former questions encourage writers to explore their own thoughts or to delve into the mind of the writer of the text, or even attempt to put himself in the shoes of the protagonist. The latter is less challenging, as the book or piece of literature will plainly lay this type of information out for the reader.

    Analytical Writing

    • Analytical writing examines the components of a text. Writers of analytical essays or articles consider information, break it apart, and reconstruct it in order to describe the information so another reader can make sense of it. Writers must make sense of a work before they can begin to describe its constituent parts.
    • Analytical writing focuses on the words "how" and "why." A writer often uses each of these two terms to give proof of their current analogies. By using these strong terms, a reader can feel that the writer is confident in their work and know "how" and "why" they should react.
    • Analytical writing happens in four steps. The first step is to clearly identify the problem, the question, or the issue. The second step is to define the issue. The third step is the actual analysis of the topic. Finally, the fourth step defines the relationship between the issue and the analysis of that issue.

    Analyzing and Interpreting Literature

    • There is a lot of overlap in the processes of analysis and interpretation, especially when writing about literature. Writing about literature (poems, short stories, plays, etcs) often involves making an argument that can be backed up with specific examples from the text. When interpreting a poem the writer should expect that they will have to include specific references to the lines, words, or phrases to which they are referring. A writer analyzing the main character in The Great Gatsby should include specific references that explain why they have reached a particular conclusion.
    • An essay dealing with literature should not be a summary of the text. It doesn't always hurt to give a few background examples, but the writer should focus on talking about the portions of the text that emphasize their points, not summarizing the entire piece for the reader. If the reader isn't familiar with the primary text, they can go back and read it themselves. The interpreter's job isn't to recap, but to make an argument, and hopefully provide some sort of illumination of the work.
    • A piece of literature should always be referred to in the present tense. 
    • Take a look at this sample essay on the play A Midsummer Night's Dream

    Sample Essay

    Fairies, Duality, and Conflict

    It’s hard to read A Midsummer Night’s Dream without noticing at least some duality within the play. While it’s relatively easy to spot in the “lamentable comedy” performed by the mechanicals, there are also more nuanced examples that are introduced in Act 2, Scene 1. This scene reveals some of the play’s duality, specifically in regards to the fairies, as it continues to build on Act 1’s theme of conflict between lovers.

    The start of this scene opens with Puck talking with another fairy. This is the first appearance of any fairies and it adds a fantasy, or dream-like, element to the play. The unnamed fairy announces that, “I serve the Fairy Queen, / To dew her orb upon the green” (2.1.8-9). This fits the idea that many people have of fairies; they are pleasant folk associated with nature. Nothing about this fairy is threatening or even mischievous. This is directly at odds with the character of Puck. Puck spends his time pretending to be footstools that women can sit on, “Then I slip from her bum, down topples she, / And ‘Tailor’ cries, and falls into a cough” (2.1.53-54). He “frights the maidens of the villagery” (2.1.35) and does things like, “mislead might wanderers, laughing at their harm?” (2.1.39). While the unnamed fairy is out spreading dew upon blades of grass, Puck is out spreading mischief. The unnamed fairy represents the good within fairy-kind, while Puck represents the potentially threatening. An examination of Puck’s name adds to this. According to the unnamed fairy, Puck is also known as Robin Goodfellow (2.1.34); but, he doesn’t go by that name, he goes by Puck. If Puck were a more good-natured fairy, he might prefer to go by the name Robin Goodfellow. However, his decision to play a darker role than the other fairies mirrors his decision to go by a less pleasant sounding moniker. Puck is more of an imp than a fairy. He has a trickster mentality that isn’t present in the other fairies.

    Puck and the unnamed fairy are representative of two larger factions, which are each headed by a more powerful fairy. At the beginning of the scene the unnamed fairy says she serves the fairy queen, and Puck later reveals who he serves by saying, “I jest to Oberon and make him smile” (2.1.44). Later in this scene Oberon will ask Puck to run an errand for him, and the sensitivity of the errand suggests that Oberon wouldn’t trust just anyone with it. In addition to being Oberon’s jester, Puck is also his confidant.

    Oberon’s entrance into the scene matches the more threatening demeanor that Puck embodies. Puck notes that, “Oberon is passing fell and wrath, / Because that she as her attendant hath / A lovely boy, stolen from an Indian king” (2.1.20-22). Oberon and all he represents is at odds with Titania and all that she represents. Oberon and Titania’s conflict is in addition to the other conflicts in the play between couples: Theseus and Hippolyta and the Lysander/Hermia/Demetrius/Helena quartet. It’s also fitting that Oberon and Titania are arguing over a human boy. The human world has created conflict in the fairy world, just as the fairy world will later on intensify the conflict of the human world of the four lovers.

    Oberon and Titania are shown in this scene as having emotions like any ordinary human. This reinforces the bond between the two worlds in the play; the world of fantasy and the more concrete world that the humans live in. Oberon and Titania both have other lovers. Titania notes that Oberon has been spending time with Phillida and Hippolyta (2.1.66-71), while Oberon counters that Hippolyta has been intimate with Theseus (2.1.76-80). They argue over infidelity like any humans would in a similar relationship. The fact that they both appear to have cheated on one another may not entirely add up since Titania appears to represent a kinder, gentler fairy demographic, as opposed to Oberon’s more threatening one. But Titania says why she cheated. She calls her infidelities, “the forgeries of jealousy” (2.1.81). Titania is arguing that she only cheated because Oberon drove her to it. Perhaps, she needed more attention than Oberon was willing to give. Perhaps, she was trying to hurt Oberon like he had hurt her. These are very human reactions and impulses.

    Yet, these are not mere humans, but fairies: not just fairies, but fairy royalty. Because of this wrinkle, their actions, and their discord, has a marked effect on the world around them. Once Oberon started cheating on Titania,

             The winds, piping to us in vain,
             As in revenge, have sucked up from the sea
             Contagious fogs which, falling in the land,
             Hath every pelting river made so proud
             That they have overborne their continents.  (2.1.88-92)

    In addition to the floods there are also droughts, famine and a host of other issues (2.1.93-114). The relationship of these two is clearly the reason for the disturbance in nature. This is shown when Titania says, “And this same progeny of evils comes / from our debate, from our dissension. / We are their parents and original” (2.1.115-117). The trouble that has overtaken the natural world is at odds with the preparations concerning the festival that are taking place within Athens. Much as the forest world is a different place than the stone walls of Athens. Yet, despite their differences, nature and the civilized world will interact. It’s impossible to keep them completely apart despite their separate natures.

    It’s also worth noting how the relationship between Oberon and Titania was prior to their discord,

             Met we on hill, in dale, forest, or mead,
             By paved fountain or by rushy brook,
             Or in the beached margent of the sea,
             To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind.  (2.1.83-86)

    They were like two young lovers, who met everywhere and couldn’t get enough of each other before Oberon ruins things. Titania says to him, “But with thy brawls thou hast disturbed our sport” (2.1.87). Certainly, many relationships encounter problems after an initial period of bliss; but, it should also be noted that abusive people often appear to be sweet and caring before their true colors show. Oberon may just be that cruel. He only wants the Indian boy because Titania has him; perhaps, specifically because Titania loves him. After all, Oberon wants the boy to be a, “Knight of his train, to trace the forests wild” (2.1.25). As the fairy king Oberon must have plenty of others whom he could get to fill that type of position. Titania, on the other hand, genuinely cares for him. We know this because she, “Crowns him with flowers, and makes him all her joy” (2.1.27). Oberon can’t quite comprehend why Titania shouldn’t do what he says and he says so, “Why should Titania cross her Oberon?” (2.1.119). Because Oberon can’t comprehend why Titania would cross him, he sends Puck to get him a juice that will allow him to force Titania into submission (2.1.169-174). Oberon’s unwillingness to allow Titania’s free spirit to go unpunished is a perfect example of the cruel and threatening demeanor of his. The element of fantasy that the fairies add can be dreamlike, but dreams can become nightmares, and Oberon is a darker personality to counter Titania’s light.

    This scene also has Demetrius and Helena in it, and provides us great insight into their characters. Demetrius is brushing off Helena and she says,

             I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius,
             The more you beat me I will fawn on you.
             Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me,
             Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,
             Unworthy as I am, to follow you.  (2.1.203-207)

    This works on a variety of levels. For one, it brings into the play a darker, more masochistic, idea of love that is at odds with the pure notion of love that the audience may assume that Lysander and Hermia share. It also reveals Helena as a woman who acts the opposite of Titania. Titania handles her abusive relationship by seeking love in another’s arms, by spending time with the people who care for her, and by devoting her time to a boy. She separates herself from her abuser, Oberon, rather than seeking his company. Hermia seeks the abuse out. She views any attention, no matter how negative, as positive simply because it’s some sort of attention. If Demetrius gave her positive attention, perhaps she wouldn’t be happy for long. Demetrius, on the other hand, tells Helena that looking at her makes him sick (2.1.213). He talks to her as if he hates her, and it takes a hard-heart to look so cruelly on someone so pathetic. Oberon happens to witness the exchange between these two and he sends Puck to put Demetrius under the same spell that he wants Titania put under (2.1.259-266). It’s this part of the scene that sets into motion the rest of the play, as Titania is put under the spell’s effects, and Puck inadvertently finds Lysander instead of Demetrius.

    In addition to setting the stage for the action that will come afterward, this scene reveals much about the characters within it. It introduces the fairies and their duality, and it builds up a darker aspect of the play through the continuation of conflict that acts to counteract some of the lightheartedness of the play.

    Here the writer has chosen to focus on one specific scene in the play, and how it fits their argument about the duality and conflict present within the play. Notice that throughout the entire essay there are numerous examples from within the text. Had the author not included these, or had they just summarized everything briefly, the essay wouldn't be as strong as it currently is. Here the reader can see exactly what lines make the writer think the way they do. Also, notice that the paper isn't a summary of what happens in the scene. When the writer gives details about what happens in the scene, it is because these details relate directly to the topic of their paper.

    Research Papers and Term Papers

    Term papers have a variety of elements that make them stand out from other papers. They carry three distinct characteristics. First, there is a large amount of research that goes into a term paper. The research contains various findings such as: facts, statistics, interviews, quotes, etc. Researching and gathering data must include understanding that information once it is compiled. The second characteristic is the amount of preparation it takes in gathering, compiling, analyzing, and sorting through everything in order to create a draft of your data. Finally, the third characteristic involves knowing the rules that must be followed when writing a specific term paper in the humanities discipline. These rules will generally be conveyed by your instructor.

    Writing the research paper involves a bit of detective work. While there is much reading to be done on the chosen topic, reading is not the only pathway to gain information. As a writer in the humanities, you can also conduct interviews, surveys, polls, and observation clinics. You should research and discover as much information as you can about the given topic so you can form a coherent and valid opinion.

    Elements of the Humanities Paper

    Many styles of documentation are used when writing the humanities paper. Choosing the style depends on the subject being addressed in the paper and the style your instructor may prefer you use.

    When it comes down to actually writing your paper, be sure to include the following elements: an introduction, a thesis statement, the body of the paper (which should include quotations, and, of course, the citations), and the conclusion.


    Like most papers and essays, an introduction is absolutely necessary when writing in the humanities. There can be some confusion as to which should come first; the introduction or the thesis statement. This decision could probably be clarified by asking your instructor. Many writers include the thesis statement in their introduction. Generally speaking, however, the introduction usually comes before the thesis statement.

    The introduction should grab your reader and make them interested in continuing to read your paper. Ask a question, say something powerful, or say something controversial. Be specific, not vague. Say something interesting, not mundane. Relay something the reader may not know, not something that is public knowledge. The idea is to get the reader's attention, and keep it.

    A good intro may go something like this:

    "Imagine yourself walking out of class feeling refreshed and relaxed because your day is almost done. You race down the stairs and out the doors just to take in the amazing scent of fresh outside air when suddenly you smell something completely wretched. You notice something that resembles a small grey cloud coming out of a fellow student's mouth. Then your throat begins to feel clogged and just when you can't take it any longer, your lungs give in and you feel as if you can no longer breathe. You think to yourself, 'What's happening to me? Am I dying?' No, not exactly. Your lungs and the rest of your body have just been affected by what is commonly known as passive smoking, which is becoming one of the leading causes of death in the United States."

    After the introduction has been written, you can then go into your thesis statement. Many people regard the thesis statement as a continuation of the introduction, only in the next paragraph.

    Thesis Statement

    The thesis statement should come at the beginning of the paper. It will introduce the reader to the topic you intend to address, and gives them a hint of what to expect in the pages that follow. Thesis statements should avoid words and phrases such as, "In my opinion..." or "I think that..." Start your thesis by taking a stand immediately; be firm in your statement, but not pushy. You'll either be given your topic for your paper or you will choose it yourself. In either case, after the topic is chosen, write a thesis statement that clearly outlines the argument you intend to address in the paper. The thesis statement will be the center of your paper. It should address one main issue. Throughout the paper, whatever you write will be focused on the thesis statement. As your paper develops, you may find you will want to, or need to, revise your thesis statement to better outline your paper. As your paper evolves, so does your thesis. In other words, when writing your thesis statement, keep your paper in mind, and when writing your paper, keep your thesis statement in mind. Your paper will defend your thesis, so write your paper accordingly.

    For example, if the topic is "Analyzing Mark Twain's 'Huckleberry Finn,'" your thesis statement might address the social implications or meanings behind the characters chosen for the story. Keeping the thesis statement in mind, you would then write your paper about the characters in the story. Let's say you are writing a philosophy paper. Your thesis statement might include two opposing arguments, with the hint that you intend to argue or prove one side of the argument. Many thesis statements are written in such a way as to try to prove an argument or point of view, but challenge yourself; make your thesis statement a statement of how you plan to disprove an argument. Maybe you want to attempt to show your readers why a specific point of view does not work.

    Your thesis statement should address one main issue. It takes a point of view or an argument, and the paper is the development of this argument. If your thesis statement is too simple, obvious, or vague, then you need to work on it a little more. You should try to write it in a way that will catch your reader's attention, making it interesting and thought-provoking. It should be specific in nature, and address the theme of the entire paper. The thesis statement may be written to try to convince the reader of a specific issue or point of view. It may also address an issue to which there is no simple solution or easy answers; remember, make it thought-provoking. Many thesis statements invite the reader to disagree.

    Don't be alarmed if you find yourself midway through your paper and wanting to change your thesis statement. This will happen. Sometimes a writer will start out thinking they know exactly the point they want to make in their paper, only to find halfway through that they've taken a slightly different direction. Don't be afraid to modify your thesis statement. But a word of caution; if you modify your thesis statement, be sure to double check your paper to ensure that it is supported by the thesis. If you have changed your thesis statement, it would be wise, even advisable, to have a third party read your paper to be sure that the paper supports the thesis and the revised thesis describes the paper.


    The "body" of your paper contains the evidence, analysis, and reasoning that support your thesis. Often the topic of the paper is divided into subtopics. Typically, each subtopic is discussed in a separate paragraph, but there is nothing wrong with continuing a subtopic throughout multiple paragraphs. It is good practice to begin each paragraph with a topic sentence that introduces the subject of the new paragraph and helps transition between paragraphs. A topic sentence will help keep you focused while writing the paragraph, and it will keep your reader focused while reading it.


    The purpose of a conclusion is to "wrap up" the discussion of your paper. Especially if the paper is a long one, it is a good idea to "re-cap" the main ideas presented in your paper. If your paper is argumentative, you'd likely want to re-enforce the standpoint introduced in your thesis statement; however, rather than repeating your thesis, offer closing statements that make use of all the information you've presented to support your thesis. Try to "echo" your thesis so that your reader understands that you have fulfilled the "promise" a thesis statement implies, but give your reader a sense of closure rather than simply restating everything you said above just ending it.

    Here are some strategies for closing your discussion:

    After summing up your main points/thesis you might

    • Comment on the significance of the topic in general: why should your reader care?
    • Look to the future: Is there more work to be done on the topic? Are there predictions you can make about your topic?
    • Ask something of your reader: Is there something your reader can do? Should do?

    Argumentative Research Papers

    One of the main things that differentiates a college level research paper from research papers below the college level is they almost always will be argumentative; that is, they will be taking a stance. The research is then used to back up the argument of the writer, or to put their argument into context. Students new to college will often attempt to simply provide information that makes the research paper becoming stale and unnecessary. If all the paper is doing is repackaging old information, why not just go back to the original source? Papers that just provide information risk unintentional plagiarism. If none of the information provided contains your own insights, then failing to cite everything means that it is plagiarized. Yet, most students would be reluctant to cite the entirety of their paper.


    Plagiarism results from including non-trivial information (ideas, facts, etc) from another source without acknowledging its source. Plagiarism is one of the most serious offenses that can be committed in academia and it involves varying degrees. Plagiarism at its most blatant includes handing in an entire paper that is not one's own; it also includes failing to document one's sources. When writing a research paper, avoid unintentional plagiarism. Because almost no knowledge other than eye-witness accounts is truly original, be sure to find sources for all non-trivial information. Plagiarism can be grounds for failing a paper or the course as a whole.

    Resources To Use

    The humanities category offers many good sources from which to gather information. The Internet is quickly becoming an important source of information for humanities writing. There are many history sites, journalism and news sites, sites focusing on the history of film, sites dedicated to women's issues, and so on. More traditional physical resources include dictionaries, encyclopedias, biographies, indexes, abstracts, and periodicals, and our old friend, the library.

    As you can see, there are many resources from which to choose when writing your paper. Start at the most basic level and progress from there. For example, if you are writing about a specific work of a famous author, the obvious place to begin is with a careful reading of the work in question. Once you are done, try to articulate what you know to be true, what you think is probably true, and what is open to question: that is, what you might need to find out. It is helpful to actually go through the physical process of writing out two or three key questions that you would like to focus on.

    At that point, you may want begin your further researches with a search through an encyclopedia, or do an online search for available resources, including interviews. After you have found the information you need there, you might then search a through a card catalog in a library for specific books. You may find that while searching for one specific book you will stumble upon many other useful books on the same subject. You can then begin to look through book reviews for information on your subject. Book reviews can be especially informative in that they will often will identify important themes, raise new questions, and broaden your sense of what is at stake in the text. Next, you may want to try searching for articles in periodicals, and even abstracts of articles, which will provide a summary of the content of the potential article.


    1.  The Bedford Anthology of World Literature

    7.9: Writing in the Humanities is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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