Writing about Literature

The Writing Process

Getting Started

Formulating a Question and a Thesis

Almost any element, aspect, or point of interest in a text can become a topic for a short essay. Before you can begin writing an essay on that topic, however, you need to come up with a thesis or hypothesis—an arguable statement about the topic. Quite often, one comes up with topic and thesis simultaneously: you might well decide to write about a topic precisely because you’ve got a specific claim to make about it. At other times, that’s not the case: the topic comes much more easily than the thesis. In those cases, it helps to formulate a specific question about the topic and to develop a specific answer. That answer will be your thesis.

Again, remember that your question and thesis should focus on something specific, yet they need to be generally valid, involving more than your personal feelings. Who, after all, can really argue with you about how you feel? The following example demonstrates the way you might free write your way from an initial, subjective response to an arguable thesis:

I really admire Bartleby.

But why? What in the story encourages me to respond that way to him? Well, he sticks to his guns and insists on doing only what he "prefers" to do. He doesn’t just follow orders. That makes him really different from all the other characters in the story (especially the narrator). And also from a lot of people I know, even me. He’s a nonconformist.

Do I think other readers should feel the same way? Maybe, but maybe not. After all, his refusal to conform does cause problems for everyone around him. And actually it doesn’t do him a lot of good either. Plus, he would be really annoying in real life. And, even if you admire him, you can’t really care about him because he doesn’t seem to care about anybody else.

Maybe that’s the point. Through Bartleby, Melville explores both how rare and important, and how dangerous, nonconformity can be.

Regardless of how you arrive at your thesis or how strongly you believe in it, it’s still helpful at this early stage to think of it as a working hypothesis—a claim that’s provisional, still open to rethinking and revision.

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