Forming a Thesis, and Other Sound Advice For The Budding Essayist
In this Hub I intend to impart a few tricks I learned for writing papers while at University. There will be two sections: one designed with paper preparation in mind, and the other as a last resort guide. Therefore, if you have some breathing room, perhaps a few days, or even weeks, before your paper is due, begin from the top of this page. If you are pulling an all-nighter and freaking out, stop wasting time and scroll down to the sections Tips for Coming Up With a Thesis, and A Word To The Last Minute Writer.
I.) Tips for Advanced Preparation
Good for you. You've decided to get a head start on that upcoming term paper, analytical essay, book report, review, etc. After eight semesters of 300 and 400 level literature courses, I learned a few tricks that made advanced preparation for an assignment all the more beneficial to my performance in my courses. Here they are.
First, keep getting a head start on your work. This is a good habit, and even if you do happen to leave something to the last minute and do well, you won't always. That first D on a paper will ruin your course grade, and your day, and every day is precious.
Second, take notes all the time. I don't mean just in class. This is, perhaps, the greatest time saver there is when writing a paper, except having someone else write it for you, which, obviously, I don't condone. When you start to read a book for class, or an article, anything, have a spare notebook with you at all times. In that notebook, jot down notes about the plot-line, characters, points, arguments, etc. Make sure that all of your notes are given relevant page numbers. I know this sounds like it will only add to the time you spend reading for class- it will. But it will save you a heck of a lot of time and anguish when your paper finally comes around, and you suddenly realize that you have a whole stockpile of quotes, notes, and potential evidence to back your thesis already in one compact place. No rereading, no flipping through an entire 350 page novel to find that one quote. It's all there, ready for you to begin your paper. To help shorten the time you spend writing the notes, create your own sort of shorthand. For example, you could refer to characters in your notes by simply using their first initial (Ex: Pg. 92- R meets J, quote about J's beauty.) In the end, I think you'll find that the extra 45 minutes you spent reading that 350-pager will pay off when you save loads of time and a potential coronary when you actually have to write your paper.
Third, try to gage your teacher or professor. Also, closely read your syllabus. Most of the time, you can figure out, based on class discussion or office meetings, whether or not you'll be able to pick your own thesis, or if one will be provided for you. If you can pick your own, start working on it on your slow weeks, if only punching out a thesis. You can also use this knowledge to choose which readings you will take notes on, and which ones you can read through quickly, or even which ones to save until after you have your degreem and have more free time.
II.) Tips on Forming a Thesis
This is, perhaps, the most difficult part of a paper. For most students I've known, once this crucial step has been completed, and all the evidence to support the thesis has been compiled, the rest of the process moves along a bit smoother. This section is written with the lost and frustrated would-be paper writer in mind. So, without further ado, let us begin.
First, let us define, quickly, the function and importance of a thesis. The thesis is the compass to your essay. This is the opportunity for you to make a claim, and the rest of your essay will endeavor to prove your claim (though, it is alright in some cases to disprove your own thesis and conclude with a revised thesis).
The best bit of advice I can give for someone in a jam over what to have for a thesis is to delve into other essays written about the particular work you wish to cover. I like to call this the piggy-back thesis. Briefly skim a work about your topic, and decide whether or not you agree. Form your thesis there, from your own words, and support it with your own research. Some may pooh-pooh this idea, viewing it as bordering on plagiarism. This is wholly untrue. Some of the greatest essays of all time employ the piggy-back thesis. One example would be Sir Philip Sidney's Defense of Poesy. This essay was written in response to the specific claim made by a specific man writing during Sidney's lifetime that poesy (or poetry) was, for lack of better terms, evil and dishonest, and that it paled to other sciences and philosophies. Sidney , essentially, read another's thesis, disagreed, and started from there. The result was one of the greatest essays written in our language. Skimming a few articles on your topic is the best way to get a feel for what others have to say, and, therefore, to place an argument within a larger context. There are a few things to be careful of here, though. First, make sure that you don't plagiarize. Most often, the piggy-back thesis is best used to create a dissenting opinion, and can be tricky if you decide you will agree with whatever thesis you came upon in your brief research. Also, before citing any sources outside of your course material, make sure that your instructor allows such references. Sometimes, instructors prefer that you stick to course readings. You can still use the piggy-back thesis here, just don't draw any quotes.
Another great place to look for thesis ideas when writing an essay about a literary work is the introduction. This is the part of every required reading that nearly every student skips over, and always to their detrement. Introductions to plays, famous novels, and the like are often written by incredibly intelligent and insightful scholars. Where better to begin your search for possible thesis ideas than the minds that have studied the work for a living? Is this so much different from listening to your instructor discuss the work in class? Furthermore, these introductions are normally short, and one could procure from them their basic concepts in a relatively short time. And most often these introductions do count as course material, and thus could be cited. Make sure, again, to check with your instructor on this.
In the end, there is no surefire way to make sure that you'll find the right thesis for your essay, if there is such a thing. Just take some time to think about the topic or the work. I'm sure something will come to you: a comment made in class or in an article that you do or don't agree with, or a particular character or point that has caught your attention. Best of luck.
III.) To The Last Minute Writer
Your task is difficult, and stressful. Here are a few general tips for helping you to get through the long night ahead.
First, and I'm going to get this one out of the way quickly, if you don't finish, turn in what you have. I know that it stings the pride a bit less sometimes to go in with nothing instead of with something that you hate, or that is incomplete. This is silly. At the very worst, you'll receive a lousy grade, but that was going to happen anyway. And if you turn something in, you can receive criticism from your instructor that will allow you to further hone your essay writing skills.
Second, if you are going out for coffee, you should know that, nine times out of ten, a coffee shop's straight up coffee is going to have about two to three times as much caffeine as their espresso and blended drinks. I'm not kidding. This is especially true of any Starbucks, where the ratio is actually much higher on the drip coffee side. Get drip coffee, and get a lighter roast. There's a reason that lighter coffees are breakfast coffees. The more you roast a bean, the less caffeine it retains. You'll get more of a kick, and it'll last longer. I know it doesn't taste as good as that blended mocha thing with the whipped cream and the bow on top, but suck it up, you've got a long night ahead of you.
Third, don't freak out. I know this sounds silly, but you could be doing something more productive, even if you feel as though you are accomplishing nothing. Write anything about your topic, even if it doesn't seem to be any good. Take a five minute break, get a refill, and then come back to it. Pick out the best stuff and throw away the rest and repeat. This is how a lot of writers write. It's an old trick, and I've heard plenty of stories about how something was just horrible for its first few drafts and then it began to pull together.
Fourth, if you're in a bind, and cannot access materials you normally would if, say, it weren't three in the morning on a Sunday night, use the internet. Most universities have online databases run through their libraries and various colleges. Get on these databases and search for full length articles. This is a great and often underused resource provided by many institutions. And, to boot, these are genuine academic sources, and can be safely cited for essays, whereas the World Wide Web is a host to all kinds of information, some of which is accurate, and some of which is not.
Fifth, don't eat any large meals. I know it's tempting to treat yourself to a large pizza when pulling one of these all-nighters. Your body will spend all of its energy trying to digest the grease and the cheese and the salt. You'll slow down, and you'll be much more tired and much less alert than you would be if you broke from writing every once in a while to eat a piece of fruit or some carrots. Drink lots of water, also. You should always drink lots of water.
Finally, take lots of small breaks. During these breaks, if you have the willpower to tear yourself away after 15 minutes, watch television, read a book, play a videogame, check out your myspace or youtube, anything to take your mind off of the essay. This allows the information that you're organizing to solidify, and, whether it makes sense or not, most of the time, with a stressful situation like this, your mind will be hashing things out anyway. These breaks are best used when you feel really stuck. The fifteen minutes could give you just the fresh perspective you need in order to continue with your paper.
Alright, that's it. Best of luck with everything, and I hope this was helpful.