Getting an A on an English Paper
Rutgers University – Newark
A good thesis is:
- Argumentative. It makes a case. That's the biggest
difference between a thesis and a topic —
a topic is something like “Slavery in Huck
Finn.” That's not a case, only a general area. A
thesis, on the other hand, makes a specific case, it
tries to prove something. One way to tell a thesis from a topic:
if it doesn't have an active verb, it's almost certainly still a
That doesn't mean something like “Abortionists should be
shot” or “George W. Bush's election was
illegitimate” — it means that it has to be possible
for an intelligent person to disagree with your thesis.
If everyone agrees on first sight, your thesis is too obvious,
and not worth writing about. It also has to be something you can
reasonably argue about: it's not enough merely to give an
- Analytical, not evaluative. A college English paper
isn't the place to praise or blame works of literature: theses
like “Paradise Lost is an enduring expression of
the human spirit” or “The Sound and the Fury
isn't successful in its choice of narrative techniques”
aren't appropriate. That's the business of book reviewers. No
need to give thumbs-up or thumbs-down; evaluate the work on its
- About the readings, not the real world. Never forget
that books are books and, if you're in an English class, you're
being asked to talk about them. Many books are
unreliable guides to the real world
outside the texts, and it's dangerous to talk about, say,
Renaissance attitudes toward race based only on your reading of
Othello. Talk about Othello.
- Specific. It's not enough to deal in vague generalities. Some students
want to write their paper on man and God, or on the black
experience in the twentieth century. Both are far too nebulous to
produce a good paper. Get your hands dirty with the text.
- Well supported. That's the key to the rest of the
paper after those first few paragraphs.
The thesis statement should appear very close to the beginning of the paper. Some professors
want it in a specific place — often the last sentence of
the first paragraph. That's as good a position as any, but I
prefer not to be rigidly formulaic in
such matters. In any case, though, the thesis statement should
be very near the beginning (in the first paragraph or two).
Note, though, that just because the thesis should be at the
beginning of the reader's experience, it rarely comes at the
beginning of the writer's experience. My pals Jeannine DeLombard
and Dan White offer this “important hint” for
constructing a thesis:
You do not need a refined thesis in order to start writing. If
you begin with a provisional thesis and then do good and
careful close readings, you will often find a version of your
final thesis in the last paragraph of a first draft.
Integrate that version into your first paragraph and revise from
there. Do not worry too much about your thesis, therefore, until
after you've written out your close readings! A good
final thesis should emerge from, not precede, your
Expectations, Guidelines, Advice, and Grading”)
Of course you have to know exactly what you're saying by the
time you finish, but don't let that stop you from beginning to
write. The fear of the blank screen — think of the old
movie cliché of the would-be writer with the trashcan
overflowing with crumpled paper — paralyzes too many
people. Theses don't spring into being in their final form.
An insight into how professors assign grades: I usually have a good idea
of what a paper's going to get by the time I finished the first
page. If you give me a solid thesis right up front, you've
probably earned at least a B-plus. Use the beginning of your
See examples of both good and bad theses.
There are plenty of good resources that cover similar turf.
Here are a bunch by friends and colleagues: I can vouch for all
of them. Read 'em several times each.
from Jack Lynch's guide,
Getting an A on an English