Surviving Seminar Paper Season

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This post is not about how to write a good seminar paper. That’s fodder for more than a single blog post. This is about how to maintain your sanity while writing.

Plan Ahead

I guess this ship has possibly sailed for this semester, but planning your research and writing schedule well in advance helps make seminar papers 1000% more manageable (science!). When I first started my MA, I frequently found that due dates snuck up on me, particularly because of the awkward placement of Pacing and Thanksgiving Breaks. So I developed a system:

  1. Choose a topic (text, provisional argument, whatever) by November 1
  2. Gather research and begin to read criticism by Thanksgiving Break
  3. Read everything over Thanksgiving Break; take notes.
  4. Outline during last week of class/first week of exams.
  5. Write and revise and write and revise and write and revise.
  6. Rinse and repeat next semester.


Of course, this assumes a linear writing pattern—if you are more inclined to read and write simultaneously instead of in stages, rework these steps. The point is to set yourself clear benchmarks to ensure that you aren’t blindsided when December rolls around.


Misery Loves Company


Avoid being Johnny Depp whenever possible. (Advice applicable to any situation, really)

Remember that your whole cohort is in it together. Writing can be isolating, so stay in contact with your classmates. Groups of people often end up writing together, too, whether at Saxby’s, Barnes and Noble, or just in the seminar room. Talk to other people and suggest working groups–writing three papers in, essentially, 2-3 weeks is incredibly intense, so take advantage of the atmosphere of collective productivity wafting through Drown (or neighboring coffee shops).


Don’t Forget to Eat

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It mat seem obvious, but a diet of coffee and gum will be insufficient. Give yourself permission to order pizza or get carryout or whatever indulgences you usually avoid. Or just con your post-coursework friends into bringing you food 😀


Choose Your Topic Thoughtfully

Whether you are still deciding on your scholarly interests or you came in obsessed with a particular period or author, we all take plenty of classes that aren’t exactly in our fields. This is the nature of an MA (exposure to a broad range of texts, authors, and periods), and the reality of a PhD in a small department. In either case, you can make the seminar paper form work for you. As you develop a sense of your scholarly self, you will notice common interests across your classes; look for places to connect topics, so that even if the class is outside your field your writing still advances your own work. For example, my second semester at Lehigh, I wrote a paper on depictions of marriage in Pfaff’s authors’ poetry (this was Ed W’s class, of course), alongside one on Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, an early modern nun-philosopher. I realized that semester that most of what I was writing was about either marriage or unmarried women. This helped me to realize my interest in spinsterhood in the eighteenth century as a field of inquiry, which is now the focus of my dissertation! But it means that throughout a variety of courses I managed to write papers on texts and time periods far outside my niche that still furthered my thinking about my overall interest in eighteenth-century female singleness.

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Keep it relevant to both your work and the course.

In other words, look for ways to make every paper work for you. By the same token, don’t write a seminar paper off just because it’s for a class “outside your field.” Just find a way to make it work for your interests.*


Further Reading:

“Writing Seminar Papers in the Humanities”

“Tips for Writing a Thesis in the Humanities”–> focused on an MA thesis, but much of the advice is smart for seminar papers, too!



*This is also good advice for choosing your classes; when Jenna taught Early Modern Gender and Catholicism a few years ago, it occurred to me that this meant a class basically on nuns… set in the period immediately preceding my work… what initially felt irrelevant (“I don’t write about pre-1700 and I don’t write about religion!”) was actually perfect.

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