So today I’m going to talk a bit about writing an essay. In particular, I’ll be talking about the thesis: what it is and what it is not. This is going to be in relation to theses on literature, though, so if you’re trying to figure out your psychology thesis, I’m probably not going to be much help to you (although my expertise in psychology theses is so limited that I can’t actually be sure).

If you’re anything like me, the hardest part of writing an essay is the thesis. Throughout my literature classes, I had the continual issue of not knowing if my thesis was going to be strong enough for my teacher, but once I had one, it was usually easy enough to find the evidence to make a strong argument.

Your entire paper is going to revolve around proving that your thesis makes sense. If you don’t have a strong thesis, or even a strong idea of what it should be, your paper is likely going to be confusing and rambling and in general, not very good.

So then, a thesis is: an argument about a piece of literature.

In a smaller paper (let’s say up to five pages or so) your thesis is most likely going to be a single sentence. My guess is that most of the people trying to figure out how to write a thesis are going to be looking for the small one – you probably didn’t get to multi-sentence thesis level (late Bachelor’s degree and on, probably) without knowing what a thesis is to begin with.

Depending on the style of essay you’ve been instructed to write, a teacher is probably going to look for your thesis near the end of the introduction paragraph. I’ll probably talk more about introductions and the like later, but for now, try to keep in mind that you don’t want your thesis to come out of the blue – try to build up to it so it’s nice and cohesive in that introduction.

Now, back to that definition. A thesis needs to be an argument, and that means that somebody needs to be able to argue back against it. You need to make a claim about what you’ve read, and then back that claim up with evidence. It something that you figure out from the book that is usually not obviously stated. You’re arguing what you think the piece is arguing. You are claiming that the literature you are discussing means a certain thing, or is doing a certain thing.

 

A thesis is therefore NOT summary or description of the piece. Here are a few examples or theses vs not-theses.

NOT A THESIS: Harry Potter is an orphan who goes to a school for wizards.

Because: This is just a fact. You can include it in your essay as some kind of groundwork for what you plan to argue, but it isn’t going to be your thesis.

ALSO NOT A THESIS: Harry Potter is young woman with the ability to talk to birds.

Because: This is obviously not true. Yes, someone can disagree with it, but it is going to be extremely difficult (probably impossible?) to back this up with evidence in the rest of your essay. Also, this is a bit surface-level.

STILL NOT REALLY A THESIS: Harry Potter’s experiences at Hogwarts are actually a coma/fever dream/coping mechanism for child abuse.

Because: Alright, so this one is actually an argument, and that’s a great start. The problem with this statement is that it’s not making a claim about what the piece of literature is arguing. Instead, it’s tackling a surface-level issue (setting, basically) and claiming that the setting is actually a metaphor for a different setting. Interesting and worth discussion? Yes. A thesis? Not really.

A THESIS: Harry Potter’s experiences at Hogwarts are actually a coma dream, suggesting that the most powerful experiences are the ones that happen in the mind.

Because: That second part is where the magic happens, because now the statement is claiming that a particular aspect of the piece (in this case, the coma dream metaphor) creates the overall argument that the most powerful experiences are mental ones.

ALSO A THESIS: Harry Potter ultimately demonstrates that the struggles of the physical are secondary to the imaginative triumphs of the mind.

Because: This is basically that other thesis again, but now it’s a little more general. This might be better, if you want to gather a whole slew of various types of evidence. This thesis also narrows in more neatly on the actual argument, instead of sticking it at the end of the statement as a dependent clause. This thesis is probably better, unless your goal is to specifically zero in on the way a very particular mechanic of your piece is functioning to serve the argument.

Now that you’ve had a few examples, I’m going to give you…a few more examples. These ones are not going to be wizard-related, though, so if you’re not interested in that, these might be more helpful or relatable.

NOT A THESIS: Romeo and Juliet is about a pair of star-crossed lovers.

Because: This is summary again. Everyone already knows this.

A RATHER BASIC THESIS: Romeo and Juliet shows us that even the trust love can be torn apart by hatred and refusal to change.

Because: This one makes a claim about what the narrative action means. I’m not saying this is a particularly good thesis (kind of foolish of me to try to use anything Shakespeare as an example, really) but hopefully it gives you an idea.

This example maybe suggests spoilers for John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, so if you don’t want that, wander your attention away for a bit.

NOT A THESIS: Cancer is a troublesome and heartbreaking disease that we need to find a cure for.

Because: There are a few problems here. First, the piece that the thesis is about is not even mentioned at all, so the statement would have a hard time referring to the argument of the novel. Second, this is both vague and rather obvious. Third, again, pretty much everyone already knows this.

A THESIS: Hazel’s relationship with Augustus demonstrates that love can be flawed, agonizing, and uncertain, and that even in light of those things, it is still love.

Because: Arguing happens here. The main issue I have with this one is that it is a bit vague and broad; I would probably spend more time tightening it up if I was going to write an essay around it.

 

So I don’t think that I actually ended up spoiling much up there, but just in case: Spoilers end here.

 

So, if I’ve done everything right, you now have a solid idea as to what a thesis is! Use your new powers wisely.

This was the first of what will probably be a small series about essays and their components. If you liked it or found it helpful or are procrastinating actually writing an essay, please come on back to get more lessons/more procrastination!

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