Sherlockian.Net: How to write a term paper

Essays and papers about Sherlock Holmes

I often receive questions that strongly suggest that someone is attempting to write a term paper or essay about Sherlock Holmes and doesn't know quite where to start. "I have a question about Sherlock Holmes," a brief e-mail message will say. "What were the characteristics of Holmes that made him a hero, and how is he different from modern heroes?"

That isn't a question that I can answer in a couple of sentences. It would take thought and imagination and time, which means it's a good question for a term paper. And the person who is supposed to be writing that term paper -- and learning something from it -- isn't me, it's the student who sent me the e-mail.

Very often, my reply is short and probably seems rude to the confused student who gets it. "Read the books," I will write. "I'm sorry, but I don't have time to do your homework for you."

I'm not the only scholar who takes this attitude, by the way. Margo Burns, a scholar of 17th century Americana, puts it very well in her FAQ page about the Salem witch trials and "The Crucible". The same attitude lies behind a web page explaining how to get an A writing about The Scarlet Letter.

Here are some slightly more extensive suggestions about how to approach a term paper or essay about Sherlock Holmes. They are particularly aimed at students in the final years of high school and the first year of university who may not previously have written a substantial paper in a humanities subject (literature or history).

I would be very grateful for any comments and suggestions from teachers or librarians who find themselves reading these paragraphs.

About term papers

I'll assume that the topic of your paper has been settled. (Lower on this page there is a list of some topics related to Sherlock Holmes that I think would make good term papers.) The instructor may have assigned the topic, or you, the student, may be writing about Holmes out of interest, and have negotiated a manageable topic with your teacher or professor. Now you have a question to answer in a few thousand words of clear and interesting prose. It may not be phrased as a question, but in reality that's what it is.

As you begin to plan your work, realize that you are being asked a question that doesn't have a single, factual right answer. A number of answers to the question are possible. You are being asked to choose the answer that in your opinion is most defensible, and to state it, explain it and defend it with evidence.

Here are two examples of the sort of question that might be addressed in a term paper.

A very important point

Sherlock Holmes is a literary character, created by Arthur Conan Doyle in four novels and 56 short stories published between 1887 and 1927. He is not a flesh-and-blood figure of history, and you will come to grief in your term paper if you assume that he really walked the rain-slicked streets of London at the turn of the the last century.

One complication is that if you have the opportunity to read much of what has been written about Holmes by enthusiasts over the past several decades, you will find many of the authors pretending that Holmes did in fact live. That's an enjoyable game, and I have often played it myself, but an academic term paper is not a suitable place for playing it.

Don't be confused by the customs of scholarly writing, the sort of thing you will find in academic books such as, for example, David S. Payne's very good book Myth and Modern Man in Sherlock Holmes. It is usual to write about literary characters in the present tense, saying, "Sherlock Holmes faces Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls." Even more confusing, Payne writes about Holmes as if he were in fact a human being with attitudes and thoughts:

Holmes is not un-Christian but non-Christian. Now and then he speaks of "the meaning of life" -- but in tones redolent of classical fatalism.
In your own writing about Holmes you will want to use the same tone, attributing ideas to Holmes (the character) but not making the mistake of assuming that Doyle (the author) shares Holmes's opinions.

Reading the stories of Sherlock Holmes

In preparation for writing a term paper about Sherlock Holmes, you will obviously need to read the original Sherlock Holmes stories. They are available on the Web, but it will probably be more comfortable to borrow The Complete Sherlock Holmes from the library and curl up with it.

Unless you are confident that your topic can be competently addressed on the basis of just a few stories (for example, if you have been asked to write a paper on the conflict between science and faith as demonstrated in The Hound of the Baskervilles), you would be wise to read all the stories, the four short novels and five books of short stories. In an emergency, you can probably say some sensible things about Holmes based on reading The Hound, The Sign of the Four, The Adventures and The Memoirs, but if you take that shortcut, be very, very careful in making generalizations about all of ACD's writings about Holmes.

In many cases, depending on your topic, you will also need to read other fiction, which might include stories by Doyle, writings by some of his contemporaries, or other detective stories from various eras. There is no denying that a great deal of the literature that was popular in Doyle's time is rightly forgotten a hundred years later. But some isn't. For light, popular and still readable, you might try Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson. For worthy and serious, there's always George Meredith. Do not fall into the trap of comparing Doyle with Dickens -- remember although they were both "Victorian", they lived two generations apart, in very different worlds.

In your reading you will probably be looking for general ideas about how some other character is similar to Sherlock Holmes or different from him, or how themes and techniques are the same or different in ACD's writings and in some other body of writing. You will need to make general statements about these similarities and differences and support your generalizations with specific details and facts in your essay.

Other material from the library

Finally, and most difficult, you will need to read "secondary sources": that is, books about ACD and his work, or about Sherlock Holmes in particular. Only a few such books will be easy to find, unless you have access to a large and well-stocked library, but it's certainly worth looking.

An evening with one of the better biographies of ACD (whether it's the very new one by Daniel Stashower or the fifty-year-old one by John Dickson Carr) is better than nothing for giving you some ideas about the meaning and shape of Doyle's work. There are several books of serious literary criticism about ACD, such as the one by David S. Payne that I have already mentioned; look for them. There are also books on the history of the mystery story, if that topic seems relevant to what you're writing about.

Here again, you are looking both for generalizations and for specific facts. Your factual statements are either right or wrong (yes, Doyle visited Canada in 1914; no, it would not be true to say that Abraham Lincoln was influenced by Sherlock Holmes, since he died before the stories were written). Your generalizations are good if you can provide evidence to support them, and bad if you cannot or do not do that.

(It would be a major mistake to look for the information you need only on the Web, ignoring books. Although there is starting to be some thoughtful, substantial literary history and criticism available on the Internet, it will be a good long while before the Web is a substitute for the products of thought and knowledge that appear in print on library shelves.)

Although I have referred to "books", you may find other kinds of library material useful as well. "Journals" are magazines of a scholarly kind that publish essays about literature (or other fields of study) and there are thousands of them. Only a few, however, typically publish articles that touch directly on Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle, or the mystery genre. And unless you have access to a large university research library, you may well be very limited in your access to those few. The most important one specifically dedicated to Holmes is the Baker Street Journal, which has a mixture of mock-serious "Holmes was a real person" articles and genuine, useful literary essays. Like hundreds of other journals on all branches of literature, the BSJ is indexed in the MLA International Bibliography, the most important index to literary writings, which any good-sized library will have available.

As early as possible in your research, you should visit the library and see what resources you will be able to find. The library I use most often, the one at the University of Waterloo, publishes a series of handy brief guides, including one about "Doing Research in English" which is available on the web as well as on paper. Of course it is directed specifically to people who have access to the resources of the library at UW; your local library very likely has something similar.

And you should not be hesitant to ask a librarian for advice -- but you will make better use of the librarian's time, and your own, if you explore a little first. At least, start out by seeing what books about ACD, or about other topics that may be useful to you, can be found on the shelves.

But can't you just send me the information?

No, I can't. What I am trying to make clear is that the "information" you thought you were asking for does not really exist. A term paper is not a recital of information. It's an assertion of your viewpoint, buttressed with examples and evidence.

Even if someone else had written a term paper or an academic essay on the exact topic you are now considering, that text wouldn't be "information", it would be a term paper. You might agree with what it said, or you might not. (If you should find such a paper and submit it under your own name, needless to say, that would be cheating -- "plagiarism" -- and put you in line for serious penalties.)

When you get to the stage of having your general ideas put together, and you find that you are lacking some crucial fact or piece of evidence to support your case, you are welcome to ask me for that detail. I will certainly help you if I can.

Possible topics for term papers

  • Does Sherlock Holmes meet the modern definition of "hero", or even "superhero"?
  • Is Holmes presented as an impartial defender of justice, or is he an ally of just one socioeconomic class?
  • What are the characteristics of Arthur Conan Doyle's writing that makes it so difficult for modern writers to imitate successfully?
  • What do the Holmes stories say about the changing position of women in English society between the 1880s and the 1920s?
  • Is the friendship of Watson essential to the success of Sherlock Holmes?
  • Are the later Holmes stories more grotesque and violent than the early ones, and if a change is apparent, is it an improvement or a deterioration?
  • How and why does Holmes differ from Arthur Conan Doyle in his attitude to the supernatural?

    Some general resources

    Here are five web sites with general information about researching and writing essays and term papers. And here is the single best book about how to write good English: The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, jr., and E. B. White.
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