Writing papers for school is rarely fun, but it can be a lot more interesting if they’re on a topic that interests you. Since you’re visiting this site, I can only assume that you’re interested in Tolkien or one of his works. And if you’re reading this article, you’re probably on the verge of writing a paper somehow related to the man or his novels. Read on to get some tips on how to get started.

Most important tip

Start doing your research early. You can write your paper the night before if you want (though I wouldn’t recommend it), but you can’t do any decent research the night before a paper is due. Trust me on this. A lot of the resources that are needed to write a paper on Tolkien are NOT available online, and so you’re going to have to give yourself some time to get your hands on these items. Which leads me to…

Not everything is on the Internet

Only a tiny, tiny percentage of the world’s knowledge is freely available on the Internet. Why? Because information is not free. People want to make money off of their creative thought and work. And so they’re not going to slap up all their hard work and scholarly expertise on the web for free so that you can use it in your paper. 95% of the free online information that students find and use in their papers is sheer and utter crap. For your papers, you need to use reviewed sources of material that are written by someone knowledgeable in the field, seen by an editor, have footnotes or some form of attribution, and are of a scholarly level – not “Joe-Bob’s Webpage of Middle-Earth Info.” And yes, this does refer to most of the information found on this site as well – the people who run this site are intelligent, hard-working fans – not academics or scholars, and as such, most of the material found here is not suitable for citation in a paper. For a list of free online articles that are suitable for use in a paper, check out this page. Resign yourself, though, to the idea that you will have to do some real research in a (gasp!) library if you want to get good material for your paper. Of course, if you want to just write a crap paper, then you can stick to Joe-Bob’s Webpage – I wouldn’t recommend it, though.

Deciding on a topic

There are a few basic ways to get a paper topic to write about:

1) Your professor/teacher assigns you a specific topic to write about. This is good in one way, because you don’t have to think too hard about what you’re going to write on. It’s not so great, though, because it limits what you can write about.

2) You come up with a topic, and then go out and research it. Cast your mind around. What questions have you asked when reading Lord of the Rings? Do you see any kinds of symbolism in the books? This way of getting a paper topic good because you get to write on exactly what you want to write on – the problem may be that no one else has ever written on it either, and so you may have a hard time finding secondary resources to back up your thesis. It also requires some thought and effort on your part to think about what you want to write about.

3) Another way is to take a look at what research has already been done, and build your topic off of that. There’s a list of print journal articles here, loosely grouped by major topics. Scanning through that will give you some ideas on what has been written in the past, as well as the amount of material you will have available to use to back up your paper.

4) You can also take a look at some of the non-scholarly articles (not suitable for citing in your paper) and credible internet articles (acceptable to cite) available online, and see if some of them spark your interest. These may give you some ideas that you can start researching.

About Your Thesis

Most teachers and professors want you to have an argument to your paper. There should be a point to your paper, that you back up with evidence – usually from the primary source (i.e. Lord of the Rings), and through secondary sources (other books and articles that talk about the primary source). For example, there is a world of difference between the following two paper topics:

1) A paper that details J.R.R. Tolkien’s life. A biographical sketch, in other words.
2) A paper that examines other works that may have inspired the Lord of the Rings, such as the Kalavala, and contrasts and compares the two.

The first one leaves little room for argument – all you would be doing is laying out the facts of Tolkien’s life. There’s nothing wrong with the topic, but if your professor is expecting you to write a paper based on an argumentative thesis, then you may have problems. The second topic allows you to come up with a thesis that can be argued with evidence, that you hopefully got through a) closely examining the source material, and b) doing some thorough research. It’s important that you find out what your professor/teacher is looking for from you, and if they are looking for an argumentative thesis, that you come up with one that can be argued with evidence from both primary and secondary sources.

In addition, be sure to keep your topic small or narrow enough so that you don’t have enough information to write an entire book. For example, writing a paper on hero imagery in LotR might be too broad for a 5 page paper. If you narrow it down a little to something like the use of hero imagery as seen in the character of Aragorn, then you have a more manageable topic. On the other hand, if your topic is too narrow, then you run into the problem of not having enough to say in your paper.

How to do research

First off, please don’t just go to google or yahoo and type in your paper topic! As stated above, most of what is freely available on the Internet is not suitable for school papers. What you need to do is get some scholarly resources. The library is the place to find such things, and most of the time, you’re going to have to sit down and learn how to use some of it’s resources. It’s really not that scary! You’re lucky, though: I’ve done some of the baby steps for you already:

bibliography of useful books
bibliography of print journal articles
bibliography of suitable online articles

So what do you do with the above? Well, you print them out and take them to your school or college library, and see if they carry any of the above. Chances are, they won’t carry most of them, but it never hurts to try.

But don’t lose heart — let me tell you about a little secret: all the public and academic libraries in the world are interconnected in this special program called Inter-Library Loan. What that means is, if your library doesn’t carry the journal or book that you need, they can contact another library anywhere in the world, and have it sent to your library so you can use it. No fooling. Most high school libraries aren’t involved in this program, but you can try asking. Your local public library, though, is almost sure to be involved in this program, and so any articles or books listed on those bibliographies above that you want, they can get for you. BUT, here’s where it pays to start doing your research early. It can take a couple of weeks for some items to come through Inter-Library Loan, so give yourself time for them to arrive. Also, some public libraries charge a small fee for this service, just to warn you.

If you live near a large academic institution, there’s also a strong possibility that they will carry a good portion of the material listed on the bibliographies. If you’re not a student there, then you won’t be able to check out the items, but you will be able to make photocopies.

Finally, a word about journal articles – some of the items in the print journal articles bibliography may be available online. To access them, though, you would have to be in a school, academic, or public library that subscribes to a special database that has full-text access to these articles. Which brings me to…

Librarians are your friends

Get that image of the old lady with her hair in a bun out of your head. Not all librarians are old (heck, I’m proof of that, right?), and even the old scabby ones are useful. They know things about how to find information that you couldn’t even imagine, and you’re probably going to need their help to access the information in the previously mentioned bibliographies. And they may be able to help you find a lot more information that is not listed in the bibliographies, because those bibliographies are just a starting point for research. There is a ton of information out there about Tolkien and his work – the problem is finding it all. Librarians are your key to help you find that information – we went to school to learn all this stuff, and want to help you. So suck it up, get over any shyness you may have, and ask them for help. That’s what they’re there for!

Other research tips

– Learn how to use your library’s catalog. The catalog lists what books and journals the library owns, and most of the time, it’s in computer form (no more card catalogs!). You’ll need to know how to use it to find the books in the book bibliography. You can also use the catalog to do searches on Tolkien or Lord of the Rings to see what other books your library may carry that are not on the bibliography.

– Look at the bibliographies/footnotes of the articles/books you use. If you find an article/book that is perfect for your topic, look at the footnotes of that item to see what the author used to write it. Chances are, you’ll find some other sources that are perfect for your topic as well!

– Get familiar with the idea of databases. As mentioned already, scholarly articles are not freely available on the internet — instead, your library probably subscribes to several databases that collect a bunch of articles together in one place. You have to go to the library, and search those databases to access the articles–sometimes the full-text is in the database, and sometimes it just gives you the citation, and you have to go get it off the shelf and photocopy it. Databases like this are great, because you can plug in a word or two from your thesis and find some great articles that perfectly match what you’re doing — you just have to get off your behind and go find them 😉

Other useful sites on how to do research and write papers:

Research and Writing
A Student’s Guide to Research with the WWW
Research Help
Citing Sources (Citation Guide Links)