When senior English major Katie McLaughlin decided to write her capstone paper on collaborative Internet fiction, there was no official name for what she was writing about. So she made one up. She dubbed websites where people write, edit and read stories together “narrative communities,” and these narrative communities are what inspired her capstone paper, “‘Everybody Writes’: Re-imagining Reader, Writer, and Text in the Online Community.”

McLaughlin’s paper was awarded Southwestern’s second annual Rose Prize for Literary Criticism, and McLaughlin also received the Virginia A. Carwell and T. Walter Herbert Award for outstanding English student along with fellow senior Paige Duggins at the 2014 Honors Convocation.

Each English professor can submit one of their students’ papers from the past academic year for consideration for the Rose Prize, which comes with a $200 check. Other nominees for the prize included Duggins, David Boutte and Jacob Brown, who was selected as runner up for his paper titled “‘This picture of Spain as a nation of Others’: Matthew Lewis’ The Monk Performs The English Black Legend.”

McLaughlin’s paper was submitted by her capstone professor, Eileen Cleere.

“Katie’s paper was powerfully argued and beautifully written, like so many of the essays by English majors submitted for the 2013-14 Rose Prize in Literary Criticism,” Cleere said. “Yet the reason her paper was unanimously selected by the English faculty for this honor was that she successfully tackled a very new field of both literature and literary analysis, and successfully managed to invent a set of paradigms for exploring and investigating that new field.”

McLaughlin’s interest in narrative communities began with an interest in fan-fiction, which she first fell in love with when she watched the Syfy original movie “Dune” as a child.

“That was the first movie that I loved… and I wanted to be in it. So I wrote myself in it,” McLaughlin said. “I thought, oh, maybe other people have wanted to write their own stories, so I started reading fan fiction.

Although McLaughlin stopped writing fan fiction long ago, she continued to read it, and when she began taking Cleere’s capstone class in the fall, she searched for a way to combine her personal interests with the theory she was studying.

“I was worried I couldn’t write that long of a paper if I wasn’t interested in it, and then Dr. Cleere said something about technology, and I was like, ‘Oh! I can do that,’”

McLaughlin said. “I just started thinking about how there is a lack of critical theory for the Internet and the work that’s being done on the Internet. It’s really interesting because Internet fiction draws a lot from the community, and there wasn’t anything I could find that fit that, so I decided to write it.”

McLaughlin built on reader response criticism, which focuses on the reader’s role in giving a literary work meaning. On the Internet, readers can literally contribute to the meaning of a work by helping to write it.

“It’s working in tandem and building off each other, and everybody’s an editor and everybody’s a writer and everybody’s a reader, which is where the idea of the shifting boundaries between reader and writer came from,” McLaughlin said.

Her paper focused on three avenues of collaborative Internet writing: fanfiction, “narrative communities,” and TV Tropes, a site where participants investigate and engage with themes from TV shows, movies and other forms of media.

“While I was researching TV Tropes, I read about someone who was searching for the first trope, where all other tropes come from, and what he’s come up with so far is ‘People tell stories,’” Mclaughlin said. “That’s kind of where I come from. People tell stories and all the stories are worth listening to, even if the writing isn’t very good. The Internet lends itself to creating a community where we’re all linked together, and there’s no point in talking if we’re not talking to each other.”

McLaughlin plans to attend law school after taking a year off to apply and save money. Her sister will be attending Southwestern next year.

“I’m really interested in intellectual property, and ownership on the Internet… what copyright means. Fan fiction plays into fair use, but I’ve always been interested in the law and I never let myself think that I could do it,” McLaughlin said. “And then I thought − Why couldn’t I do it?”

McLaughlin’s name will be inscribed on a plaque on the wall of the English Department, along with past and future recipients of the Rose Prize. She is grateful for Cleere’s support during the capstone writing process, and grateful for the support she’s received from all her professors throughout her four years at Southwestern.

“I am very, very honored to have been nominated. I didn’t know that the prize existed, and it was a great surprise,” McLaughlin said. “I’ve come a very long way. I’m excited to graduate and I’m excited to go to law school, and I’m excited to be out in the world, but I’ll definitely miss this place.”

−Elizabeth Stewart ’14