27 Sep

Writing A "Big Paper"

Posted in DIY MFA, Literature

Sooner or later you’ll have read enough books in your area of expertise that you’ll be able to write a “Big Paper.”  In most MFA programs, your standard literature class will require a final paper (somewhere in the area of 20 pages).  Some MFA programs, like the one I attended, even require a literature thesis in addition to your creative thesis.  In any case, writing a “Big Paper” about multiple books is an important part of gaining a deeper understanding of the literature.

For the purposes of DIY MFA, I’m not advocating you all write 20+ page papers so go ahead, breath a sigh of relief.  🙂  Instead, think about what goes into a “Big Paper” and plan one out.  Eventually, you can make use of the material either as a series of posts for your blog or an analytical essay you could submit to a literary magazine.  You never know when that material could come in handy.  For example, the “Big Paper” I wrote as my literature thesis is in the process of becoming a writing class that I can pitch to various writing programs.

I’m sure you’re wondering: what does “Big Paper” actually mean?  As I see it, there are two ways you can approach a body of literature: you can do it either thematically or based around one particular author’s body of work.  In other words, you can do a thematic study of the literature or an author study.  In either case, however, the most important element of this paper is the argument, the thing you want to prove about the literature.

Rather than trying to describe how to write a “Big Paper” in one post, I’ll be blogging weekly after Commencement with a step-by-step guide to planning and putting together a “Big Paper.”  Whether you eventually write said paper is up to you (and as I said previously, it doesn’t have to be in traditional paper form.)  But I think it’s important in any sort of MFA program–even DIY MFA–for writers to think broadly about the literature so even if you just outline the paper, it can already give you a lot of insight into the literature and sharpen your analysis skills.

“Big Paper” Step One: Decide if you want to write a thematic study or an author study.  For a thematic study, you should choose a minimum of 3 books that share a common theme but are by different authors.  For an author study, you should choose a minimum of 3 books by the same author (not in the same series… so no, Harry Potter doesn’t count).

For the thematic study: Choose your books and your topic.
For the author study: Choose your author and your books.

That is all.  Now go run, read, write, and be smart.


Comments on this post

  1. salarsenッ says:

    This is a great idea. I've actually done something similar before. It wasn't works from the same author but different authors from the same genre. I literally studied each scene, dissected each on index cards, and copied–studying plot, pace, character arch… Hey, I never thought about doing a series of posts about it. Thank you.

    1. Piedmont Writer says:

      The college I went to was big on "Big Papers" even though I wasn't in the MFA so I got used to writing them. I might be able to again, it's been a long time, and it might just be fun. Or maybe I should jsut do an MFA somewhere.

      1. Kerryn Angell says:

        I'm really interested in taking apart an author's work scene by scene to see what makes it tick. Both the author and thematic approach appeals to me but it's the author approach which instantly springs to mind.

        Deborah Challinor is an author of New Zealand historical fiction. The books I'd choose would be: Tamar, White Feathers & Blue Smoke (trilogy); Fire; Union Belle; Kitty. I have read them all before, they are all set during different periods of NZ history and I'd love to study in more depth the use of NZ history within the stories as well as their general structure.

        I'd like to do a thematic study too but deciding on my topic will take a bit more thought. I'm looking forward to your posts in October!

        1. Najela says:

          I'm definitely going to bookmark this series. I don't have to write a big paper for my undergrad, but I probably will for an MFA program (2 years from now). I think I'd do a thematic study to encompass a series of different books. I like to see how different themes are played out in different situations and how they are conveyed through different writing styles.

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