I think we all dread the word “thesis.” We know we should be familiar with it. After all, we’re in college, and the professor just said we needed one and didn’t bother to explain how we go about getting one. Not to mention, even for those of us who are perfectly aware of what a thesis is, a thesis still requires hard work—it requires specificity and expertise on a subject and then being able to translate “everything you know” in a concise manner to your audience.
But you can’t think about it that way. You can’t think about the “everything” you know, all the information the articles and books have bombarded you with. You have to think about what “everything” consists of. After all, the thesis is essentially the preview of the paper (the main points and the purpose of them). Therefore, I like to think about the thesis as an addition problem or a recipe. You want to add up all the main points (or ingredients) to express a larger purpose. The main points should contribute to and support that purpose. They should be relevant. For example, if you hand someone a recipe for baking “the best cake on earth” you would not include a paragraph about relieving the bowl and spoon of the leftover batter. It is irrelevant to the overall purpose, which is to make “the best cake on earth.” Licking the bowl and spoon to their bones will not impact the quality of the cake that is currently in the oven. And in your thesis, you want to limit the main points to those influential ingredients—the ingredients that make “the best cake on earth.”
But how do you know what those ingredients are?
Well, there is no foolproof method to identifying such ingredients. You often have to experiment with the writing process just like you’d have to experiment with ingredients in the kitchen. And with experimentation comes trial and error. You may rewrite the thesis three times, because the more you wade through your topic, the farther away you’ll move from your initial thoughts and conclusions and the better the cake will become.
Preheat the oven with some prewriting.
To depart from my biases about a particular topic, I do some prewriting to generate a working (rough) thesis. I’d suggest making an outline, because this gets you thinking about cause and effect (or how one main point connects to another and so on) as well as organization, which is vital to any paper. The “outline” (I use the term very loosely) does not have to be perfect or even formatted correctly as you’ll see in my example below. Welcome to the beautiful world of prewriting—anything goes.
While outlining, I tend to focus on the body paragraphs first. Without locating and submersing myself in the main points, the details, and the source material, I probably haven’t gotten to the heart of why I’m writing this paper yet.
You will want to organize the body of your outline by idea and then integrate the appropriate sources to complement those ideas. The main points you will use in your thesis will be more accessible this way. My body paragraphs will include an idea about my topic that already exists, sources that support that idea, and a reflection on that idea (why I feel it works or doesn’t work).
Creating the Recipe: An Example of a “Working Thesis”
Step 1) Take a good look at your topic. Figure out what kind of cake you want to bake.
Topic: When is art not really art?
For this topic, I feel like I would have to be able to define what art is to be able to distinguish what it is not. I feel like I would also have to narrow it down and choose one type of art to focus on.
Revised topic: How do we define literary art?
Step 2) Brainstorm main points. What ingredients will you need?
Body paragraph 1: Art should convey some sort of message. It should promote a lesson. It should make a statement. I would use Dante’s Inferno to express how this supposed “literary masterpiece” was used to put the “fear of God” in its readers. I would then reflect on this. I think the Inferno was giving the reader too much of the author’s opinion and not allowing for enough of the reader’s opinion. I think there has to be more of an interaction between the work of art and the art appreciator. I think the artist should try to bring something to his/her audience’s attention, but not necessarily comment on it. I think Ezra Pound said something like that.
Body paragraph 2: Art has to be beautiful or appeal to the senses, but not necessarily be meaningful. I would then probably incorporate Oscar Wilde’s opinion on art in his novel A Picture of Dorian Gray (“the artist is the creator of beautiful things” and “all art is quite useless”) to support this definition of art (Wilde 1,2). But then again, that would imply that beauty is not useful… I’m still not quite sold on this definition of art either. I have a hard time believing that art is useless when so much of it deals with the human condition. At the very least, it functions as a form of entertainment. And we use “art” as a window into the past. We can learn much about our history through art. For instance, renaissance art marks the rebirth of humanism, and through that art we can see man become more confident in himself (look at Donatello’s David versus Michelangelo’s).
Body paragraph 3: Aristotle would certainly disagree with Wilde as he discusses in his Poetics that art is used to release emotion, “imitate action,” and derive pleasure from empathy (being able to understand one another) (61). I would probably then go on to use an example from literature—maybe something from Shakespeare or the example Aristotle uses which is Oedipus Rex or something other than a play to show how literature meets those requirements. Overall, though, it seems that art serves a purpose more often than not.
Step 3) Tackle the intro (most importantly, the thesis). Taste test. Bite into the cake. Reflect. What ingredients worked best? Which could you leave out next time? Is there any you’d add? Blend your findings.
Rough Intro: It’s hard to provide specific rules for something that prides itself on breaking the rules; however, the definition of art seems to depend on the circumstance. It seems not everything works for a single circumstance, but there seems to be a circumstance for everything to work. Rough thesis (working thesis): That being said, for literature to be considered art, certain general criteria must be met: there must be unity and consistency throughout the work even if it is consistently inconsistent, and it must put the human condition under a microscope in order to provide a thorough observation of it.
In this case, I discussed and synthesized some of the theories and opinions about art that have already been established (main points/body paragraphs) to construct a conclusion of my own on the matter (purpose/thesis).
Step 4) Begin the paper. Perfect the recipe. Re-make the cake.
When you begin that first draft, you are taking what you learned from the prewriting stage, applying it to the paper and working out the kinks. In other words, you are perfecting/revising the recipe for your cake.
If I were to move forward with my topic and start writing the actual paper, my thesis would undergo some tweaking, but my “working thesis,” at least, gives me a focus to adhere to as I write the paper. And this is only one example of a thesis. There are a variety of them that could work for this topic with the given information.
Aristotle. Aristotle’s Poetics. Trans. S.H. Butcher. New York: Hill and Wang, 1961. Print.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003. Print.