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The Thesis

The thesis statement is the single most important aspect of your paper; it
is, essentially, the justification for its very existence. A good thesis
sentence should contain:

1. Your basic argument

2. The blueprint for the organization of your supporting details

Developing the Argument

Topic versus statement - At the outset of your brainstorming, you will

likely first decide on a topic for your paper; namely, the particular subject
you plan to address in response to the assignment (in some cases, the
assignment will already include a specific topic). Your job in formulating a
thesis is to find a specific statement to make about that topic.

Examples of Topics: "Natural Imagery in Wordsworth and Coleridge";

"Plato's Treatment of Gender Roles in The Republic."

Examples of Statements: "In The Prelude, Wordsworth uses natural

imagery to reflect his increasing awareness of divinity, while in "This
Limetree Bower My Prison, Coleridge's treatment of nature serves to
establish his relationship with fellow human beings"; "In The Republic,
Plato's arguments for gender equality are characterized by sameness of
role, yet still subject to a male-dominated hierarchy."

Using your sources to find your argument - Rather than making an

opinion statement (one thing is "better" than another, etc.) your argument
must be pulled from textual evidence. Conversely, however, it cannot be a
restatement of what your source tells you, but must be an original thought
arising from some point of interest, contradiction, or vagary within the text.
Specificity - In writing your statement, be sure to say exactly what you're
arguing- do not make a broad generalization. Your reader should know
from your thesis what your specific arguments are, not just roughly what
they prove. Also, take into account the length you intend your paper to be.
In the space of six pages, for example, you can't thoroughly discuss the
effects of, say. World War II on America, but you might be able to analyze
one aspect of its impact on a specific industry or social group.

Too General: "There are many similarities between Madame Bovary and
Anna Karenina, but there are some differences as well."

More Specific: "Though both Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina pivot
around the tension between individual liberty and societal mores, Flaubert
concerns himself with the decadence of self-indulgence, while Tolstoy
focuses on the notion of feminine entrapment."

Tension - Perhaps most important, make sure that your argument can be
controversial. If you set out to prove something that is a given (like "the
1960s were an era of American cultural upheaval" or "Hamlet undergoes
numerous psychological changes") your paper is not only uninteresting,
but entirely pointless. When you think you've decided on a statement, see
if you can make a counterargument to refute it. Your job is to show how the
evidence of your sources should be interpreted in a particular light, but
crucial to its being worth reading is the fact that other interpretations are

The Thesis as a Blueprint

Framing your paper - In addition to stating your argument, your thesis

should give an indication of the particular components thereof. Though it is
not necessary for you to include the gist of each subsequent topic
sentence in your thesis, it is important that the basic prongs of your over-
arching idea be addressed.
Incomplete thesis: "In Moby Dick. Melville renders Ahab as a diabolical

Complete thesis: "In Moby Dick, Melville renders Ahab as a diabolical

figure through the contrasting Christ imagery of the Whale, omnipresent
Biblical mythology, and a psychological descent analogous to the Fall."

One more note: Contrary to popular belief, your thesis does not have to
be just one sentence. If you cannot construct an adequately complex
thesis without making a heinous run-on, by all means, break it up.

The Introduction

Once you've decided what your thesis is going to be, you must be able to
frame it in a manner that provides an effective entry into your work. No
matter how great your argument is, it will not do much good if no one is
enticed into reading it. The two most important functions of your
introduction are to serve as a grabber (a stylish, creative lead-up to what
youre trying to say) and as justification (an explanation of why your
argument is even important in the first place).

Some Basic Guidelines

DONT summarize - Though it might seem easy to preface your thesis

with only a synopsis of the texts youre writing about, this is a particularly
dull way to begin a paper.

DON'T keep reiterating your thesis - Your thesis should appear in your
intro as the culmination of the previous thoughts, not just something you
mention and then keep restating to fill up a paragraph.

DO ask yourself questions - Why is your thesis relevant? How is its

being proven important to the understanding of either text or fact? By
linking your argument to a larger issue, you will give your argument both
universality and interest.
DO be creative - Think about what aspect of your topic you find the most
interesting, and figure out why. Use this to make it interesting to your

Some Freebies

(The following are some pre-packaged introduction ideas. It is important,

however, not to just adopt one and use it for every paper, particularly for
the same instructor. This practice will become trite very quickly.)

The quotation - Find a quote from one of your sources or, even better,
from elsewhere that seems to get at the problem you're dealing with. State
it at the beginning of your intro and discuss how it relates to what you're
trying to prove.

The question - Throw out a broad question of universal interest, and

demonstrate how a possible answer can be related to your thesis
(Example: "What do women want? It's a question that's plagued mankind
since the dawn of history...the works of Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath
yield two different paradigms of feminine self-realization").

The anecdote - This works particularly well for a historical essay, and even
better if you have some ability at creative writing. Pick a specific incident
that represents the underlying conflict of your piece, and briefly narrate it
like a story. Explain afterwards how the instance reflects a problem you're
attempting to solve.

Topic Sentences

Each body paragraph of your paper builds towards proving one particular
aspect of your thesis, and each of these aspects should be crystallized into
a strong topic sentence.

If your paper is quite short, these sentences might represent the main
points you mentioned in the blueprint part of your thesis, but they might
each be more specific aspects of one of those points, particularly if your
paper is longer.
Defining your topics - First and foremost, a topic sentence is a piece of
analysis, NOT summary. Think of it in a similar manner to how you thought
of your thesis; in other words, an original interpretation based upon the
textual evidence of your source. The first of the following examples
illustrates a statement of fact, rather than an argumentative topic sentence.

Weak Topic Sentence: "Book Five of Paradise Lost concentrates on the

conversation between Adam and the archangel Raphael.

Strong Topic Sentence: "Throughout Book Five, Milton utilizes images of

gardening and nourishment to convey man's maturing relationship to the

Relationship of topics to thesis - Your topic statements should each

provide a solid area of analysis by which your thesis is true. They should,
however, be more specific than a mere restatement of part of it.

Thesis: "In Journey Through the Twelve Forests, David Haberman

apprehends the Ban-Yatra pilgrimage as a realization of the god Krishna's
omnipresence, through separate realizations of the journey's cyclical
nature, the externalization of the divine, and the relationship between
asceticism and pleasure."

Topic Sentence for Second Paragraph: "Throughout the narrative, the

physical relationship of the pilgrim to the natural landscape of Braj, as well
as worshipped images of Krishna and other deities, reflects the presence
of Krishna as an interactive externality, rather than the occupant of an
inaccessible sphere."

Building Your Argument Part One: Close Readings

Close reading is a term used to describe how you ought to be using your
sources. The most important element of close reading is questioning; it is
imperative that you actively engage the text in order to develop your own
ideas to use as arguments.
If at all possible, make your close reading your second reading of the
source. If you've read it once already, you will have a basic understanding
of the text, and you can focus on a more intensive questioning.

Use highlighters - Take note of any and all points of interest in the text. If
you've got a thesis in mind already, use several different colors of
highlighter, each for information relevant to a separate prong of your
argument. This will make your life much easier when you go back to
integrate your sources, particularly if you've got an extensive amount of
text to cover.

Look for patterns - Be aware of recurring techniques-both literary and

rhetorical-which the author uses to illustrate a concept. Specific sorts of
imagery, allusion, or dialogue, which seem to be similar or related
inevitably, reveal a larger intention that can be made into an argument.

Ask questions - In expository work, continually ask yourself "Is this true?
What evidence supports this statement? Can other conclusions be drawn
from the facts of this text?" By deciding whether or not you agree with the
arguments of your source, you'll begin to crystallize more subtle arguments
of your own. In literature, question the author's purpose in using particular
narrative structures. "Why is this metaphor used? What does the
comparison signify? Why do we learn this particular piece of information in
such a manner? Why is the setting dwelled on so much in this passage?
What is the relationship between setting and character? Write these
questions in the margins as you go along.

Get down to the details - One of the most sophisticated close reading
techniques you can incorporate into your work is an analysis of the multiple
connotations of a specific word. Be aware of every single word the author
uses. When you find one of particular interest, literally look it up in the
dictionary and consider how each and every definition might be applied to
the text. Even if the author uses it with one literal definition in mind, see if
the connotations of the other definitions can be applied to your idea (This
is particularly true of Shakespeare).

Consider the source in relation to other texts - If something in the work

reminds you of something else you've read, there's quite possibly a good
reason why. Consider how your source is a response to or a continuation
of other texts. Always be on the look out for Christ symbolism and Greek
mythological allusions; both are fairly easy to spot and can be effectively
analyzed in support of a particular interpretation.
An Example:

From Coleridge's Kubla Kahn: "In Xanadu did Kubla Kahn a pleasure
dome decree; Where Alph the sacred river ran through caverns
measureless to man; into a sunless sea."

Your assignment is to write about how the poem illustrates the power of
human creativity. In light of this, here are some questions to ask yourself
right off the bat:


Why does Coleridge select an Oriental locale and a historical figure to

open his work?

What is the significance of the word "pleasure," "measureless," "sunless"?


What is Alph, and does Coleridge use it as the setting for his poem?

Answering these questions might involve a consideration of distance, in

both time and space, related to the vastness of human capacity. You might
also consider "measureless" and "sunless" as descriptive of types of
knowledge or ignorance; in breaching the "sunless" sea with his dome,
what sort of power is Kubla Kahn exhibiting? A trip to the dictionary (or,
more likely, a glance at the inevitable foot note) will provide the information
that the Alph is a magical river in mythology. This begs the question, "how
does a fantastic setting relate to Coleridge's view of the imagination?

Building Your Argument Part Two: Integrating Sources

The meat and potatoes of your body paragraphs will be a mixture of textual
summary and your analysis of it.
Once you've done your close reading and structured your topic sentence
for a paragraph, go back and pull out the details you've highlighted.

In putting these details into your paper, it is absolutely imperative that you
balance each one with YOUR analysis of their significance. It might help,
at least until you're used to the idea, to maintain a mental ratio: three
sentences of your interpretation for every one concrete detail of the text.

The concrete detail - Paraphrase the gist of the actual textual information
as CONCISELY as possible. It is important for your reader to understand
what you're talking about, but only as an illustration for your own ideas.

The interpretation - Go back to the questions you've asked yourself

during the close reading. What answers have you found that you can
explain here? As always, remember that good interpretation avoids both
summary and opinion - your arguments must be original but crafted from
actual evidence.

Example: "Coleridge opens his poem with an immediate statement of

locale: In Xanadu. This fable-like invocation makes the reader
immediately conscious of distance, as well as the mystical connotations of
the Orient in the context of Victorian imperialism. By choosing a setting
with such dual reverberations of reality and fantasy, Coleridge creates a
landscape parallel to his view of the imagination - vast in breadth, yet
potently accessible."

Note how very little textual detail was necessary to come up with quite a bit
of interpretation.

Keep an eye on the big picture - As tempting as it is to fill space with any
interesting idea you come up with, do not put a single thought onto the
page that you cannot relate directly to the proving of your topic sentence.
Remember, your paper must act as the impetus for an idea, not merely a
description of your sources, however subtle that description might be.

Integrating quotes - Sometimes the textual details you include will

necessarily take the form of direct quotation, particularly when analyzing
language. It is always best to do so as inconspicuously as possible. The
quotes should serve only to prove your ideas, not to supplant them. Rather
than using big block quotations, wherever possible include only that which
is specifically necessary to your point, within the framework of your own

Bad Integration: Keats describes the Grecian urn as follows: "Thou still
unravish'd bride of quietness; Thou foster child of silence and slow time;
Sylvan historian who canst express; The flowery tale more sweetly than
can rhyme.".

Good Integration: Keats begins by personifying the urn in terms of human

innocence, as an "unravish'd bride" and a "foster child of silence and slow

Building Your Argument Part Three: Strategy

Now that you've done some good analysis within your paragraphs, it's
necessary to examine how they fit in to the goal of your overall paper.

Avoid Chronology - When looking at your paper as a whole, it is much

better for your paragraphs to relate according to a process of thought,
rather than of chronology. If it seems as though your paragraphs are
divided according to the order of your source (In other words, "first this
happens," then "this happens," then "and finally...), there's a good chance
you're lapsing into plot summary.

Ordering according to thought process - Here's where your highlighting

becomes useful again. Follow each of the ideas you developed throughout
the text individually. If you highlighted in different colors, make all your pink
highlights one section, your blue highlights another, and your yellow ones a
third. In this manner your writing flows in an ordered progression, but
according to the development of an argument, rather than recapitulation of
the text.

Make your paragraphs build off of each other - It's best to try to arrange
your paper in a manner that grows increasingly more specific. In
subsequent paragraphs, try to refer back to what you mentioned in
previous ones, and explain how your current subject extends or re-
examines it in a new light.

Transitions - In order to give your paper unity and flow, it's important to
always make smooth transitions between paragraphs. Consider the
relationship between the two paragraphs, and use it as a way of moving
from one to the other. You might address a similarity in argument, by
saying "In a similar manner...", "This argument may be allied to "subject B"
in terms of... ", "Likewise... ", or "The idea of X recurs again with respect
to... " To express a dissimilarity, you might use "In contrast...", "On the
other hand... ", or "Nevertheless".

Issues of General Structure

Before putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) it will make your job
much easier to have an idea in mind of exactly how your paper is going to
be framed.

"Discuss and "Analyze prompts

If you're writing on a pre-assigned topic, its nature will likely affect the way
in which your paper is structured.

If you're asked to "discuss" or "analyze" something (for example, "Discuss

the effects of the Enlightenment on the French Revolution), it means you
need to treat a specific aspect of a broad topic. It is important, in these
cases, to stick to the specific focus of the prompt: don't talk about the
Enlightenment itself or other aspects of the French Revolution. You must
confine your paper solely to the specific relationship between the two.

When thinking about your structure, then, it's best to come up with the
general areas you'd like to discuss (this will largely be determined by the
amount of space you have), and to divide your paper mentally between
The Comparative Analysis

Very often you'll be asked to "compare and contrast" two pieces of

literature, and there are several ways in which to effectively set up this sort
of essay.

The first thing to remember (which will be explored more extensively in the
thesis section) is that your paper cannot just compare the two pieces in
general, exhaustively mentioning all similarities and differences with no
specific argument.

Once you know exactly what your argument is, your structure will be
crucial to the techniques you use to make it.

The sequential method - This means discussing all of text A and then
moving on to text B.

Example: The prompt says "Compare Milton's view of Hell in "Paradise

Lost" with that of Marlowe in "Dr. Faustus." It might be easier, here, to
spend your first pages thoroughly analyzing Milton's view and then moving
on to Marlowe's independently. It is then key, however, that your
conclusion be a successful integration off he two or else you won't have a
unifying argument.

The point-by-point method -This method works well if you have a

number of parallel specifics to deal with in both texts, and involves
discussing each one in turn, with respect to both texts at once.

Example: The prompt says "Discuss the relationship between symbolism

and character in Faulkner's Light in August and Steinbeck's The Grapes of
Wrath." In this case, it might be easier to discuss the individual
relationships one at time. You could discuss Christ imagery in both texts
first, for example, and move on to erotic symbols and so forth.

The Lens Paper

This type of comparative paper concentrates on one particular text, but
views it through the lens of another.

Example: Discuss "The Rape of the Lock in terms of mock epic, with
reference to Homer's The Illiad.

In this case, the second text should be used as a continual reference point,
but should not be analyzed in and of itself.

A way to structure this sort of paper is to break down your argument with
respect to your main text into a number of points, as you normally would
with a "discuss" paper. Within each paragraph, insert segments of analysis
as to how your new arguments function within the paradigms established
by the lens text.

The Conclusion

As the very last impression your reader gets of your paper, the conclusion
is your opportunity to sell your argument once and for all. It's a place for
reflection, for looking back at the relationship between the numerous ideas
of your paper. Most importantly, however, it ought to be the site of your
most complex analysis; that which incorporates everything that's gone

Some General Cautions

DON'T allow the conclusion to become merely a restatement of the thesis

with a couple of linking sentences beforehand.

DON'T view it as merely an ornamental way to end your paper - its role
should be to justify your paper at the highest level.

DO analyze how your argument has changed as your paper has

progressed. If you haven't proven anything more than merely what you
mentioned in your introduction, you haven't really said anything at all.
Throughout the course of a good paper new subtleties of argument ought
to have manifested themselves, and the place to integrate all these
subtleties into a new, more powerful statement of your thesis, is right in the

DON'T begin your conclusion with the opener "In conclusion...". That
makes your paper awkwardly self-conscious and contrived, rather than
naturally unfolded.

DO attempt some sort of unified closure, with respect to what you set up in
the introduction. If you used one of the previously mentioned clever
introductions, make reference again to the quote, questions, or anecdote
you incorporated.

DO consider linking your argument to a more universal idea, analyzing its

relevance with an eye on the new angle your argument proved.







































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