Thesis Writing Seminar

January 14, 2019
What is a thesis? How do I go about coming up with an idea that will sustain such a project? How do I test it? Join us to discuss these questions and more. All research MA students welcome! 


In summary of the meeting --

Writing a Thesis

Stage one: Brainstorming

Start with an intuition, an idea - something that you love, something that piqued your interest or something that troubles you and needs some work or unpacking. This can be an unexpected coincidence, parallel, allusion. Anything at all.

All this can be sourced from a course you've taken, a combination of ideas presented in different courses. It can also be the development of a term paper or seminar paper. Or a random idea you had while waiting for the bus.

Keep an idea log – all the metonyms, all your flights of fancy – keep a note of all the ideas and images that interest you.

Stage 2: Make it work: Marrying the idea with primary and secondary sources 

Often the idea is not connected to any specific work of literature. Perhaps it is associated with one work - but a single work will not be enough to sustain an MA thesis. In order to find a productive way to marry your idea to a literary text (or additional texts) you can:

  1. Use a text with which you are familiar – one that productively engages with the idea of your choice.
  2. To widen the scope - use the library database (or google scholars or other search engines) to search for critical treatments of the idea. Simply put in the keywords that interest you – desire, motherhood, novel. See what papers come up. Start to read treatments of the theme that you find most interesting. See what works are referenced. Once you’ve found a paper that interests you – you can continue the detective work from here. Add the name of the work to your search (say, Coetzee’s Foe) and see what other works are read with it. And so on. At the end of your investigation you will have quite a few ideas. Choose those that appeal to you.

Stage 3: Turning the jumble into a coherent thesis statement

This stage is like working on a puzzle. You need to figure out where all the pieces fit. A good idea is to read the primary works you’ve selected and take notes – point out important passages that you will analyze. See how each work treats the ideas; find the ambiguities, tensions. What are the implied author’s views? What does the work suggest?

Once you’ve done this go back to your idea log and start to put the ideas into a hierarchical formation. Which are the overarching ideas and which are the more limited considerations or motifs that might be used in support? Create a diagram – the ideas that comprehend others should be at the top, the smaller, more detailed nuances should be at the bottom. Now look at the top and consider – what do I want to argue? What is my point? How am I contributing to the scholarly discussion about the incidence of these particular themes in the works I’m reading. What is the point of reading these works together? How do they illuminate one another? Such questions will allow you to come to a tentative idea as to your thesis statement. Then you can put together an outline that serves in support of the thesis where each of the smaller points of interest serve to articulate, illuminate and illustrate your overarching idea.

Stage 4: Testing and Selection

  1. Your choice of texts and secondary sources has to be methodologically sound. This means that: first, the works of literature you wish to read together can be rigorously read together – without too far-fetched a combination of genre, period and style. And second, the theoretical approach is homogenous and integrated – you are not picking and choosing random theoretical paradigms or critical discourses that do not work together. The rule of thumb is balance – a good combination of similarity and difference. If the literary works pertain to different periods or different generic styles (again – the rule is balance – if they’re generically different, try to limit yourself to a single historical context; it they are generically the same you can compare different literary periods).
  2. Test your ideas against the primary texts. At this stage you have a working thesis and ideas that you intend to use in support of your argument. But a close look at the texts (by now you are rereading and rereading again –each time with new insights, perhaps noting mistakes made along the way) might demand corrections to your initial statement. Perhaps certain ideas no longer work. Perhaps you have new ideas. Make the corrections as you go along.



You can access MA theses submitted by past students. Taking a look at their work will help you with questions of style (what does a thesis look like?). Remember not to depend too closely on work submitted by others. Their project is likely to have demanded different chapter divisions and different approach to the material. But this is a good tool for looking into the scope of the argument and understanding the stylistic guidelines for submission.