SparkNotes Blog

Oh My God, It’s a Strong Thesis!

Here’s a reader with a real thesis: Gregor didn’t just happen to turn into a cockroach; he *wanted* to become a giant bug. Good stuff! See for yourself:

What is the purpose of existence? In The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka suggests the theory of existentialism by implying that Gregor’s actions alone caused his transformation into a cockroach. Albert Camus once said, “A novel is never anything but a philosophy put into images,” which is exemplified in The Metamorphosis as Kafka shares his belief that there is no predestined fate; existence precedes essence. In other words, the decisions and choices made throughout life are the sole factors that shape and create purpose. Gregor was just a regular business man who one day woke up as a cockroach; Kafka portrays his philosophy of existentialism by explaining that Gregor’s transformation occurred only because he wanted it to occur. It was not “black magic” or witchcraft, but rather the decisions Gregor made and the attitude he had towards life that led to his situation.

But what, clever readers, precedes and surrounds this excellent thesis? Vague non-explanations and abstractions. Look at the first two sentences. The writer begins with a question: “What is the purpose of existence?” and then (at least grammatically speaking) answers it: “Kafka suggests the theory of existentialism.” So existentialism is the purpose of existing? Doesn’t sound quite right. And what the heck is existentialism, anyway? Is it the belief that your actions shape your fate? I’m not sure, I genuinely want to know, and I must know if I hope to understand the rest of this paper. Now, it’s possible that this writer’s class has been studying existentialism for weeks, and everyone’s on the same page about it, but it’s still important to provide a quick definition in this opening paragraph. That definition will not only orient imaginary readers who need a refresher, but will show the teacher that this writer has a firm grasp on the concept.

Take a look at this squirrelly sentence: “Albert Camus once said, ‘A novel is never anything but a philosophy put into images,’ which is exemplified in The Metamorphosis as Kafka shares his belief that there is no predestined fate; existence precedes essence.” The bones of this sentence are very strong—perfect quotation, sophisticated angle, link between two prominent existentialist writers—but it all goes to hell thanks to the phrase “which is exemplified in The Metamorphosis as Kafka shares his belief”. See how that doesn’t really say much of anything, and doesn’t make a strong connection between the quotation and the second half of the sentence? Vague language undermines what should be a beautiful point. Here’s how I might rewrite: “Albert Camus once said, ‘A novel is never anything but a philosophy put into images.’ In The Metamorphosis, Kafka puts his philosophy—the idea that fate doesn’t exist—into the image of a man-turned-cockroach.”

I’m being hard on this reader because s/he has skillz. As I know only too well, if you’re a good writer, it’s easy to hide fuzzy thinking behind a mask of stuffy academic prose. It’s much harder, and it’s also essential, to write instantly comprehensible, jargon-free sentences. The real challenge facing this talented writer is to interrogate each and every sentence, to ask, “Is this straightforward and easy to understand? Or is it kind of bullsh**y?” to answer those questions honestly, and to rewrite as much as necessary.