Start Writing a Thesis Statement, With or Without a Prompt

I probably should have published this before the “Complete and Incomplete Thesis Statement(s)” post, but I wanted to share some strategies on how to begin writing a thesis. This strategy comes to us from Leah Fry, another grad student in the English Department, and I think you’ll find the process very clear and helpful (especially for those of you who feel a bit lost when starting out).

If you have a professor’s prompts at hand, take a look at them and choose one you think you find the most interesting–that’s the one you will have the most to say about, and the most compelling and original arguments will come from it. If the prompt is in the form of a series of questions, you are rarely expected to address everything (and most of the time, very much discouraged from doing so); the string of questions is really just there to get you thinking about a topic. Focus on one (or two, if they are closely interrelated).

If you don’t have a prompt, don’t stress–the open-ended nature of this kind of assignment allows you to create an argument that you think is stimulating, and frees you to follow your instinct as a reader about what is important and/or problematic in a text.

Now, to the process:

First, read the passage or poem, circling words and phrases that you think are important, or that interest you. Even if you’re working with the same passage or poem as others, chances are you will find different words interesting/important, and have different reasons for doing why you circled a particular word or phrase. Be sure to look up any words you are unsure of, or you suspect may have multiple applicable meanings.

Next, take a step back and make sure that you understand what is going on in the text. You should be able to paraphrase any action that occurs, and follow the text’s logic and the progression of ideas and/or events. It is important to understand what is going on in a text, and how what is going on changes as the text progresses, so that you can talk about why the “important” words you chose are, indeed, important. This is purely an observational stage, however; your next task will be to move into interpretation.

Look back at the words you circled, this time in relation to the passage, and to the text as a whole. Does a theme emerge? What can you say about the language and how it is at work? Don’t feel pressured to account for everything that is going on–it is much better to stay on one focused strain of thought than to try to include everything. Also, don’t feel the need to explain the “meaning” of the whole text, or give an irrefutable “answer” to it; this often simply turns into summary, because you close yourself off from making a contestable argument. Instead, focus on one aspect, and really dig into it, looking at the language, literary devices, and the relation of this passage to the whole text (or, as mentioned previously, how the idea you’re focusing on develops or progresses as you move through the text).

Finally, when you notice a pattern or problem that interests you, try to make an argument about it. You have to move beyond the observational step, and take on the role of interpreter. What do you think the author doing, and is s/he successful in this? Does the text contradict itself, or is there a “wrinkle” you can spot in it? Is there something going on in the text beyond what it claims to be “about”? These are simply some questions to consider while formulating your argument–remember, it isn’t a thesis unless it is debatable.


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