ON SEMINAR PAPERS
FOR MY ENGLISH-LITERATURE SEMINARS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF BASEL
with thanks for inspiration to Thomas Basbøll
A seminar paper is supposed to be 6000 words long. At approximately 200 words per paragraph, that comes to about 30 paragraphs. A basic approach to those paragraphs would entail 2-4 paragraphs of introduction, around 24 paragraphs of discussion, and 2-4 paragraphs of conclusion.
Those 24 paragraphs of discussion need to be organized on the basis of the material at hand. Generally, each paragraph should be built around some evidence, usually a citation from your primary text (or one of your primary texts), but sometimes a citation from secondary literature. So one part of researching your paper is that you have to choose 24-30 quotations that you are going to work with.
In addition, each of your paragraphs will make one main claim, so the paper as a whole involves making 30 claims. These claims do not all have the same value, so you have to create a hierarchy of claims: the main claim of the whole paper, as well as the main claims of sets of paragraphs within the paper, and the claims of each paragraph.
This consideration of how a paper works makes an assumption: you may begin with an overall idea that you want to work on, but in the working out of the paper, you will move from the examples you choose to your ideas (and not from ideas to examples). Further, this approach assumes that your paper will present the results of your thought process (the "drama of ideas") and not a narrative of your thought process (the "drama of experience").
With a selection of 24-30 quotations in hand, you can write paragraphs. If each paragraph takes 30 minutes to write (and in that time, you should be able to write a very polished paragraph), then it will take you about 15 hours in all to write a very good first draft that then needs only some cleaning up to fit everything together (or adapt paragraphs written earlier to the development of your ideas in the writing process). So the actual writing of a draft can take anywhere from 2 days (at 8 hours a day) to 30 days (at 1 paragraph per day).
Once you have a first complete version, you need to read it through twice: first to revise (now that you have a complete overview), then to proofread (run a spellcheck, but then read it again). You might think that now is the time to write your bibliography, but you should have been writing it carefully all along. So all you should need to do with it now is proofread it (making sure that the citations fit the style sheet you are working with). And then you can hand your paper in.
The basic approach outlined above (2-4 paragraphs of introduction, 24 or so paragraphs of discussion, 2-4 paragraphs of conclusion) should be presentable without sections as one continuous series of paragraphs. Perhaps you'll find it useful to put an extra line of white space after the introduction or before the conclusion, or to give each part a number: intro as section 1; discussion as section 2; conclusion as section 3. Or perhaps you'll find that your discussion works best with further sections; if so, they will usually work best if they are roughly the same length: two sections of about twelve paragraphs each; three of about eight each; four of about six each.
But even if you use sections, it is worth writing the paper so that it could be printed without the sections and would still flow clearly from paragraph to paragraph. That is, don't use sections to replace transitions.
Alternatively, you could approach the paper as follows: begin with a carefully chosen exemplary passage from a work you are studying (whether primary or secondary), and use an interpretation of that passage to set up your main claim. In this case, your introduction might be a bit longer, and the body of the paper will develop the ideas exemplified by that opening passage. Such an approach can provide an excellent sense of closure when you return to that passage at the end of the paper and discuss it again in terms of what you have discussed in the body of the paper.
This approach can also be used with a more "theoretical" paper. You begin with a passage from a theoretical text you are focusing on; this sets up the ideas you will address in the paper as a whole. At some point, you turn from theory to specific works you want to use to exemplify or problematize the theory, and in your conclusion, you return again to the text you began with.
This brief set of suggestions about how to approach the outline of your 30 paragraphs is by no means exhaustive. Some papers will end up with quite different shapes, but the basic idea remains: you need to find around 25-30 pieces of evidence and make around 30 claims in all (that is, write 30 paragraphs in all). And along with that basic structure comes the writing time needed: 15 hours of writing in all.