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Writing Sample Crisis - discovered a paper just like mine


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Hey, 

I'd really appreciate some advice from you guys on my writing sample. So, I'm tightening up an essay that I wrote for an MFA last year — it deconstructs the exploration of mortality in a contemporary collection of poetry (a well known, important text, not something super obscure) via theory, historical context, close reading, etc etc. Anyway, during my second round of research I stumbled across a paper online that I must have somehow missed when I first wrote my paper, and, bafflingly, it is incredibly similar to mine. 

By which I mean it explores the same theme in the same text, uses the same theory, produces similar arguments... the difference is that this paper (which I discovered on some .edu website, but I can't work out if it's published in a journal or anything) is LONG, thesis-length, and it's probably a better piece of writing than mine. But I mean, they're not EXACTLY the same, I do look at different things in my paper, we do go in different directions. It's just, at the foundation, there are some huge similarities. 

So my question is, how damaging is this? I'm both worried that it will look like I've just copied ideas from this other paper, and that I have no original thought in my writing sample. I've come up in the UK education system, so the application process to US programs has been difficult for me to navigate - and this has made it all the more complicated. Are US programs likely to question this? Will they even notice? Urgh. Should I just use another sample altogether (which would be an issue - I have a more 'traditional' paper that discusses formulations of the self in the work of a 20th C poet, but I don't use theory at all...)?

Anyway, I've been shadowing these forums for a couple of weeks now, and you all seem like a great bunch - this is a great, informative site, and hopefully I'll be able to contribute to some conversations too. 

Thanks. 

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I had something similar happen to me.

1. Unless your sample will be read by a person specializing in this exact poet, and unless the criticism you found is well-known, no, people are unlikely to notice. There is such a volume of critical texts around that one barely has time to read everything to do with one's speciality, much less somebody's PhD thesis on something well known but tangential or irrelevant. Moreover, if you are indeed working with something well-known, it is likely to have been explored in detail by many others. As long as you show an interesting and different thesis, you should be fine.

2. At the same time, that you look at the same theme using the same theory is not good. In order to find the degree to which it is not good, one would need to read both papers, therefore we can't help you here. If you can cite the majority of your paper's argument as coming from this published paper, that is probably a dangerous degree of not good (exceptions apply). If that is the case, I would look into condensing that part of the argument, acknowledging the paper you read, and expanding on the novelties you say you bring to the table. A fundamental skill in literary scholarship is being able to synthesize the scholarship that comes before you and rework it, value added, into a new narrative, and this skill, to my mind, is rarer in PhD applicants than close reading or application of theory or whatever (I don't sit on committees, I just look at other people's papers, so what do I know?). Remember, however, that your paper doesn't need to be publishable, so the originality bar is a little lower.

I would not use a paper that doesn't engage with critical theory though.

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Hey, 

Thanks so much for your helpful and detailed response. 

It's a tricky one for sure. I think part of my panic is coming from some kind of denial — I've been working on and re-writing this paper for so long now, and, just when it looked like it was finished, I stumble across this other paper that throws it all into flux again, and I'd rather it not be. 

I think you're right on your second point. I suppose a big difference between the two papers is that, on the surface, the other paper sets out to achieve something different, to explore a highly specific aspect that is tied up with the theory and the text. Mine, on the other hand, is perhaps a broader examination of a theme, using the theory as an analytical tool. It just happens that, along the way, we've interpreted the text via the theory in very similar ways... 

I think probably my best option is to keep working on it until I have a finish product that I'm happy with, and then I can compare the two papers again — I don't want to linger on his paper for too long, in case it actually starts influencing mine. Better to wait and then edit/change accordingly... I guess. 
 

Anyway, thanks so much again. 

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Just a thought: drop in a couple of citations to the other paper? In the off chance that someone, somewhere says "hey, I remember reading something by X about that...", you'd at least show that you've read and utilized some of the similar paper. Again, it depends on how similar the two papers are. I suspect they're not as similar as you suggest, but if they are, then yes, I would consider using another sample.

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Hey, 

Thanks for your input. The citation thing does seem like a smart idea; better to acknowledge and adapt. But man alive am I getting sick of reworking this paper... at least I started on it early, so I've still got a decent(ish) amount of time until the application deadlines. Although, I should get used to the idea of having to rework and rework and rework papers!

Thanks. 

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Get familiar with the phrase "Similar arguments have been made about X by Y (citation) and Z (citation)..." as it's an important part of scholarship. You will come up with ideas and then later find them in the literature. That's fine. What you have to do in your writing and through careful reference to the other text is show that you came up with this argument independently and it's definitely a good one since other scholars have independently reached that argument/conclusion too.

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Hey—great advice, I appreciate it. 

I feel like I'm in a weird zone where I'm not quite sure what US programs are looking for in the writing samples; it's so different in the UK (at least, it seems to me) and I feel like I'm navigating this whole process blind (except for this incredibly valuable site and all the helpful people here). Because UK programs don't have those 2 years in the lead up to the PhD, they expect you to be immediately ready to do hefty research, to produce your thesis. I assume this means that, in the writing sample, they want to see high levels of original thought.

I prefer the US model, where you have those 2 years to build on, explore, and refine your area of interest (which, of course, you will already have a pretty set idea of before you apply). I'm guessing this means, as mentioned earlier, that they don't expect such a high level of original thought in your writing sample. 

I suppose what I'm getting at is that I know what a good final year UK undergrad paper looks like, and I know what a good UK MA paper looks like, but I don't know what a good US paper (undergrad or MA) looks like. 

Anyway, half-non-sensical rant over with, it's probably a topic for a different thread anyway. 

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I suppose what I'm getting at is that I know what a good final year UK undergrad paper looks like, and I know what a good UK MA paper looks like, but I don't know what a good US paper (undergrad or MA) looks like. 

Anyway, half-non-sensical rant over with, it's probably a topic for a different thread anyway. 

 

It's an interesting topic, though! I can't imagine what the substantive differences between a UK and US paper would be, and my gut would be to say that the things I've heard a writing sample is supposed to show in the US--that you can make, research, and support a sustained and lengthy argument, and that you can engage with the critical dialogues in your subfield--are applicable everywhere. My guess is that if you're writing what seems to you a "good paper" in a UK context, you'll be just fine.

 

I'd say I'd be willing to share the writing sample I used in my applications (and to be clear: I definitely am) but I'm in a very different field, so I'm not sure how helpful that'd really be!

Edited by unræd
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I mean, what tier are you applying to? At the top schools, "originality" is necessary in admissions, but "originality" here actually means the ability to create readings of texts that are interesting and thoughtful, things that show you are trying to go beyond the established scholarship in your field. No one will dock you points for accidentally writing something somewhat similar to a PhD thesis.

 

My area is 20th century poetry, so feel free to PM me if you want to talk about your essay in particular. 

Also, i'd reiterate unræd's point--if you wrote a good essay, you wrote a good essay. Unless you are doing something very idiosyncratic to your university, I wouldn't be worried. 

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Some of these comments remind me of a paper I wrote awhile back, in which I was using two recent critical essays that covered much of the same territory. They were literally about the exact same aspect of the exact same Shakespeare play, but they simply had different opinions about some of the nuances. The core of my paper revolved around finding a third avenue between the two arguably narrow critical opinions, and I cited both liberally...just as the latter of the two articles cited the former quite liberally (even though it wasn't exactly a "response"). What I'm getting at is that, like Echo, Unraed, and others have said, a well-written paper that has a lot of critical overlap with others is perfectly fine, so long as it is done in an interesting and thoughtful manner.

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Hey, I appreciate all your thoughts echo449, Unraed, and Wyatt's Torch — all invaluable and comforting points. And Unraed, I may PM you about that paper, and echo449, I may very well PM you with a couple of questions at some point, thanks to both of you for offering! To answer echo449's question, I guess I'm applying to a broad range of top and slightly-less-than-top tier programs. 

Likely what's happening here is that I'm just freaking out, possibly irrationally, about my writing sample. I've got much else out of the way (I've bagged decent references, taught myself a decent level of Latin to assist with the language requirements, sat and done well on the GRE—though not the Subject, yet—and am well on my way to finalising my choices and getting hyped about them) and the writing sample is just another great big hurdle, one that carries so much of the application's weight. But you're all right, I should trust my capabilities, and I know, at heart, what makes a good essay. 

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Sure thing; let me know! And I know the feeling you describe--I spent pretty much all of my time last year between August and the end of January "freaking out, possibly irrationally, about X," as did/does/will do everyone who goes through this process.

 

Which is another way of saying: Welcome to the fora!

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