Writing About Literature (Pt. 2: Thesis)

When you’re writing a paper for a literature course, you need to do more than summarize the text. In other words, don’t just tell your professor what happens in a particular work of literature. Instead, make an argument about that work of literature. While you will certainly include a little bit of summary in your paper, your main job is to make a point about the text. You should make this point fairly early in your paper, usually in the first paragraph. More often than not, your thesis will appear at the end of your first paragraph.

There are several ways to develop a thesis. In some instances, your professor might pose a question in the instructions to an assignment; in its most basic form, the answer to this question will be your thesis. In other instances, your professor might pose challenging questions for discussion in the classroom or online; if you keep a record of these questions, you can use the one that interests you most as a basis for your thesis. Alternately, there’s a good chance that you’ll come up with your own questions while you’re reading a work of literature; when a question occurs to you, make a note of it so that you can use the question later as the basis for your thesis.

As the strategies above suggest, one way to think about a thesis is that it’s an answer to a question. Keep in mind, however, that your question needs to be big enough to meet the minimum page requirement of the assignment, yet focused enough to keep your project manageable. For example, a question like “When did Herman Melville write Moby Dick?” doesn’t leave much room for investigation, and a question like “What does Moby Dick reveal about the meaning of life?” is far too broad of a question for anything shorter than a multi-volume work. You might, however, produce a reasonably concise paper with a question like, “How does knowing about the transcendental movement of the nineteenth century help us to understand Ahab’s quest for the whale?”

One last thing to keep in mind is that your thesis isn’t simply a statement of opinion. Sticking with my previous example, “Moby Dick is a long and boring novel” would not make a good thesis. Neither, for that matter, would “Moby Dick is rightfully considered a classic work of American literature.” In fact, your paper should avoid heaping either praise or disparagement upon the text you are discussing. Rather, as discussed above, you should focus your efforts on making a point about the text in order to reveal something that is not apparent at first glance.

(Continued tomorrow.)

2 thoughts on “Writing About Literature (Pt. 2: Thesis)

  1. This is a great and simple way to explain writing a thesis. I’ve had surprising trouble getting students to write even simple theses effectively; for some reason, they just do not understand the whole process and still try to prove things which are already self-evident — “Moby Dick” is considered a classic work of American literature — or grandiosely aphoristic — “Moby Dick” is the greatest novel of all time.

    • Thanks! I’m glad you find it helpful. It’s taken me twelve years of teaching to come up with this explanation, and I’m still trying to get it right. Feel free to share this with your students if you think it will help.

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