5 Steps to Writing a Complex Thesis without a Prompt

Prompts are nice. They're like helpful signposts for a topic idea. But if your teacher asks you simply to write a five page paper on a book you've read for class, finding a compelling topic and position can be difficult. 

If you're struggling to write a paper without a prompt, I've got just the thing for you.

The difficulty in writing without direction is that there's too much to chose from. Though we tout freedom as one of the golden principles of humanity, it's often one of the largest sources of anxiety. It's helpful to have certain choices limited, so that you can have a clear focus when choosing.

So how do you limit yourself to writing about one clear, focused topic, when you can write about anything?

If you're struggling to write a paper without a prompt, I've got just the thing for you. This step-by-step tutorial will take you from no clue about your topic to developing a focused, complex thesis in a few simple steps! Write better papers faster with this simple thesis writing formula.


5 Simple Steps

To Help You Find a Topic and Write Complex Thesis

And I've a secret for you. (It's really easy.)

Step 1:

Connect your primary text to a secondary text.

Your life just got a whole lot easier. Instead of trying to grapple with the myriad topic possibilities within your primary text, add a second text to the mix. Now all you have to do is read through a few journals and find a topic that seems interesting to you.

There are a couple of directions to go here:

1. Find a similar essay to the one you'll be writing.

You don't have your thesis nailed down yet. That's how this process works.

First, brainstorm key words that are relevant to your primary text, and of interest to you. For example, if you've just read Pride and Prejudice and you loved the movie, note words relating to the two, such as "characterization," or "relationships." Get at least five key words down and you're ready for the next step.

Go to JSTOR or (I prefer the former, less garbage to sift through) to find your article. Type the book name + a key word. Read through the first page or two of the article. If you've found one that sounds interesting, and think you could use is as your secondary text (which means it's your go-to text to back up whatever argument you'll be presenting in your paper) then download the article and move to the next step. Otherwise, search around with more key words until you find your match.

Note: the article should be on-topic. You'll want to pull quotes from it to use in your paper, so be sure it's relevant to the book. If you've been generating ideas while you've been reading the article, you know it's going to be useful.


2. Connect the primary text to a historical issue.

If you're writing on Pride and Prejudice, look up relevant articles about the period. P & P was written in England in 1813. Your search could look like something like this: "1813 England women." I added "women" as a key word because a) Jane Austen was a woman, and b) the roles of women were constantly developing in the 19th century. I know that I'll find more relevant information if I add a keyword to help narrow my search.

Then scan for articles that you could connect to P & P. Like this one: ""Single women and property". I know P & P is very concerned with the idea of property. Your paper could enter into a historical exploration of the notion of property as it was in 1813 England, and how the concerns are depicted in P&P. 


3. Connect the text to critical theory.

If you're interested critical theory, this is a great way to familiarize yourself with a particular school of thought and exercise your ability to situate a work in a critical context. You can write about P & P from several critical positions: formalist criticism, gender criticism, historical criticism, psychological criticism, etc. Search for your secondary, guiding text, by using the book name + the form of criticism. 

Great! You now have two texts to work with. Pretty easy so far, right? You've already laid a lot of groundwork for your essay. You have two texts to guide you, and one of those is pretty specific. So now we just need to turn the general direction into a clear, focused arrow to point you at the thesis.

For a more in-depth, guided method for choosing a topic, download this free worksheet.

Brainstorming Topics

Brainstorming thesis statement topics. Write key words or topics that are interesting to you.

culture | marriage | language | flirtatiousness | darkness

To get into the essay writing quickly, and with as little panic and procrastination as possible, I like to shut out the critical voice and let my intuition guide me in the brainstorming process. No one cares at this point if you come up with a "great" idea. In fact, your whole essay doesn't have to be built on a revolutionary concept to be great. Essays are inspiring when they're written with passion, no matter how basic the idea. You will always have some new and crucial insight to offer a reader simply by giving your own perspective to a matter. So during the brainstorm session, just write out whatever comes to you.

Your potential topics should be statements of fact, as in: "there is a lack of darkness in pride and prejudice" 

or questions like, "how does P & P deviate from or adhere to the traditional structure of a marriage plot?"

Once you have several potential topics, you need to answer the most important question of your paper.

Why does it matter? You need to point out to the reader why my topic is significant. Why does it matter that there 's a lack of darkness in P & P? What does that do to the story? How does it affect the reader? What would the story be like if there were more darkness present in the novel and negative consequences for the characters?

Elements of a Complex Thesis Statement

Your thesis needs to address four things:

  • Identify your main argument
  • Answer the "so what?" or, "why does this matter?" "Why should I care?"
  • Direction - where do you go from here? this should be gestured at in your thesis.

And it consists of three parts:

1. Your claim. A statement of fact. (ie Biblical influences are evident in Cormac McCarthy's The Road)

2. What is the effect? What does it do or what doesn't it do specifically? (ie Cormac McCarthy's The Road reverses the Biblical tale of the Garden of Eden.)

3. Why is that significant? What is the consequence? (ie Cormac McCarthy's The Road reverses the Biblical tale of the Garden of Eden to create a new mythology for a post-apocalyptic world. -- this isn't quite there as a thesis yet, you'll notice, it's not quite presenting "an argument" and the "so what" isn't as strong. A later revision might look like: "McCarthy uses the Biblical tale of The Garden of Eden as a model for the post-apocalyptic world of The Road, impressing upon the reader a sense of the mythic while writing a story that is unequivocally human." The revision comes after more research is done, so you can really hone in on a topic that's supported by adequate evidence.

So for now, just come up with a "workable" thesis and leave the revision until later.

To clarify:

#1 Makes a simple statement, #2 adds specificity and a precise verb to describe the action, and #3 adds a reason or a this means that...statement.

Your job is to hone in. Pare down everything to the most basic form so that you can get specific.

Using Your Secondary Sources to Refine Your Thesis

At this stage you'll need to mark up your secondary text (or texts) first, as they'll guide you in your re-reading of the primary text.

Pro tip: I STRONGLY suggest you type your quotes in a document. Re-writing these quotes gives you a deeper understanding of what they're saying. No copy and paste. Write it out - paragraphs even, more than you'll need. You'll thank me later. (And you're doing half of your work at this stage = less to do later!)

After taking notes, you should have a pretty good idea of where your focus has led you. The things you found interesting and relevant should, at this point, be hedging you in a very specific direction.

Once you pull quotes from the primary text you should have a pretty clear conception of the effect and the importance, both from your own thoughts you generated when selecting specific quotes, and from the work of the authors of your secondary texts.

Once you've assembled the variables, you plug them into the handy thesis formula above and voilà, you're ready to get writing the rest of your paper!

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