Tips for Writing Your Humanities Paper
Writing an effective dissertation or term paper in the humanities can be particularly challenging. This is because the goal of writing is very different from the goal of writing in most other disciplines. Journalists are writing to report the facts of a story. Scientists are writing in order to provide a specific answer. But you are probably addressing a topic that has been addressed hundreds if not thousands of times before. Thousands of papers have been written about the Mona Lisa, and thousands of papers that been written about “The Catcher in the Rye.” How can one possibly develop an effective thesis about such a subject, given the fact that the subject has already been addressed countless times?
The thing to remember is this: term papers in the humanities are not meant to provide “the answer” to a specific question but rather to provide “a unique perspective” on a specific issue. If you keep this in mind when developing your paper it will make it that much easier for you to take the most important steps in the process, the first of which is to make a comprehensive outline of your discourse that identifies clearly what you are going to say in your introduction. And while it is true that these papers tend to focus a bit more on the writing style and rhetorical development that do papers in the sciences and social sciences, it is very important not to get carried away with the writing at the expense of the point you are trying to make. Beautiful writing and long sentences are all well and good, but they must be in the service of an argument that is clear and easily understood. When they are, your dissertation can offer the best of both worlds.
There are many different approaches to a humanities essay. You can adopt a sociological approach, which looks at the era in history or the societal influences that are evident in a particular work of art, pointing to other works of criticism that have cited these influences in how the work came about. You can also use a biographical approach, talking about how an artist’s life and times have influenced the work at issue. The important thing to keep in mind is that you are not writing a review; you are developing an original piece of work that is offering a perspective (not “the answer”) on a given work of art. The type of art that you are describing (e.g. text, fine art, film) will determine the level of description that your paper requires when it comes to describing a work of art to the reader.