Getting an A on an English Paper

Jack Lynch,
Rutgers University – Newark

Bad Theses

My discussion of theses provides some general advice and some brief examples of good and bad theses. Here's some more detailed analysis of bad theses.
Fate versus free will in Macbeth.
This one isn't even a thesis — it's still a topic. Remember, a thesis should say something specific, and it should be a full sentence (with a verb), not a sentence fragment.

Money is important in Moll Flanders's life.
This one fails for two reasons. First, although it's a sentence and has a verb, it doesn't say much — just some vague indication that a topic is worth attention. It's easy to change any topic to this kind of wishy-washy thesis, but the word “important” (like its synonyms, “significant,” “worth consideration,” and so on) won't do. This thesis is also weak because it's not controversial — who in his or her right mind would argue with it? Yeah, Moll is obsessed with money, and it's obvious to anyone who opens the book. You have to say something that's not obvious.

In Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens presents a realistic picture of social interaction in Victorian London.
How do you know? — what makes you think Victorian London was really like what Dickens describes? Be careful of circular reasoning: it appears in a book, so it must have been part of real life; therefore I can discuss how the book is like real life. Unless you've done research on actual social conditions in the nineteenth century, don't presume to talk about the world outside the book. All your attention should be on interpreting the text itself, without regard to things you don't (and sometimes can't) know.

Hamlet is an enduring testimony to the genius of William Shakespeare.
Poppycock. Yeah, Hamlet is great and all. But it's the easiest thing in the world to praise something you know your teacher likes. That's not only lazy, it's intellectually dishonest, even if you really like Shakespeare. Good English papers are analytical, not evaluative — your thesis should never be that a work is good or bad. (That's the business of book reviewers.) Take it for granted that Hamlet deserves two thumbs up: there's no need for you to say it, and certainly no reason to make it the center of your argument.

In its departure from the familiar metrical forms of its day, Whitman's Leaves of Grass is ahead of its time.
A good thesis should at least nod in the direction of historicism. Evaluating old works by modern standards does them no justice.

Now see how to turn these bad theses into good ones.

from Jack Lynch's guide,
Getting an A on an English Paper

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