Writing Center

An Original Thesis: Does That Even Exist?

By Soondos Mulla-Ossman


You've just gotten back your first paper of the semester. Your professor is making a face. "I liked your paper, but..." You know what's coming. "I was hoping for a little more...originality."


Coming up with an original idea can be hard for any writer, especially if you've endured the tumultuous process of brainstorming, writing an outline, a first draft, a second draft, etc. And yet, in spite of it all, it's not enough. After all, how can you be truly "original" when at least one of the 7.6 billion other people in the world probably already took your idea? You're bound to accidentally talk about a concept that's already been explored, even if you don't realize it until the professor hands you back your graded essay.


The truth is, it's hard to know which ideas are common and which aren't in an area you've just been introduced to. For example, say you've read The Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for the first time. Your class has little discussions about it as you work through chapter by chapter. Some students bring up observations you were already thinking about. Some mention things you hadn't considered prior. Either way, when it's time to write, you know other conversations about the book exist, but you're just not familiar with them all. It could take weeks, even months of poring through secondary texts to get even a faint grasp of what you could talk about.


The very core of a writer's topic is communicated through the thesis, so let's start from there. Going off of the example of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, say you want to talk about Dr. Jekyll's upbringing and how that influenced his actions in the book. That's a broad, common idea, but you can set it apart from this overdone concept by applying a second layer to it. This typically consists of a specific perspective or lens which professors may introduce, such as Marxist, feminist, queer, historical, and psychological perspectives. These lenses serve to frame your scope-or in other words, focus the way you relay your argument. So, if I want to talk about the elements that factored into how Dr. Jekyll was raised, I may want to focus on the historical context behind it-hence applying a historical lens.


That's not always enough, though. Say that with the aid of a historical lens, you decide that you want to write your paper about how London society at the time was responsible for shaping Dr. Jekyll into the kind of person that he was at the start of the novel. Unfortunately, a lot of people may have talked about that. So now what? Here's where the third layer comes into play. For this, zero in on something very specific within the text-and it doesn't have to be explicitly related to the topic of the second layer. A lot of people talk about the historical context of the story. But do people talk about how the police system worked at that time? Or how criminal detective work in general functioned? What about the culture of social structures? Housing? These elements compound in the eventual pursuit of Mr. Hyde, but some may dismiss them as minor themes in the broader story. Here's where you can be different. Grab those seemingly "little" ideas and expand upon them. Take those things that people don't ordinarily care about and make people care about it.


All of a sudden, your thesis statement has gone from "I wanna write about Dr. Jekyll's upbringing" to "Dr. Jekyll grew up a victim of the police force's historical tendencies towards truancy." Bam. Of course, a more unique topic does come with some drawbacks. One of the first things that may be immediately apparent is that finding sources may have just gotten a whole lot harder. After all, if not a lot of people are talking about it already, then how are you going to get quotes? This can be remedied with unyielding searching and reaching out to professors and library staff for help. Searching the history of London's police force, for example, provides helpful documentation that can be bent into your own interpretations.


Secondly, you'll have an easier time finding arguments against your own. Having a strong voice of disagreement may actually be a blessing in disguise, because professors may also expect you to address an opposing argument in your paper. If it's easy to pick out the counterarguments for your claim, then you can just as easily prepare a refutation.


That's about it. Crafting an original idea can be as simple as grabbing multiple seemingly random concepts and bringing them together. Originality is not coming up with something from nothing, but considering and responding to what many different people have said in the past and molding them all together into something you can truly call yours. I have always considered originality to be one of the most important things to consider when planning any paper, and I definitely hope this at least provides some guidance in your own process.