The Thesis Statement: Where to End, Not Begin
by Joe Essid, Writing Center Director &
David Wright, Furman University Dept. of English
(printable version here)
Writers struggling with professors' expectations often begin with a concise, one-sentence statement of thesis. This technique worked--and was often demanded--in high school. It is, however, backward. Writers, contented with a one-sentence claim, often defend it to the death, warping data from primary and secondary sources to fit the thesis.
In this video (running time about 13 minutes), David Wright explains how to go about the process of drafting a thesis.
Professor Wrights's main points:
- Theis statements make an accurate and clear promise to readers of what comes next. Think of it as a road map, not the journey taken.
- A Thesis does not "hedge" and has two parts: a claim and a "because clause".
- Some writers become "swashbucklers" and make claims that are too broad or absolute.
- The Thesis is the major claim. It governs all other claims that follow.
- Do not spend too much time framing a thesis early. It will change during the research and writing process.
- Strive for a narrower argument that can be supported with specific evidence.
See if you can apply these principles to several flawed statements of thesis in this exercise.
Joe Essid's Process for Drafting a Thesis as a Claim that Governs an Essay:
What if, instead, the statement of thesis were considered a "governing claim" and came to be near the end of a research process? The techniques below have worked well in my writing classes. I draw heavily upon Rosenwasser's and Stephen's outstanding rheotric text, Writing Analyitcally and Keith Hjorshoj's essential guide for faculty and first-year students, The Transition to College Writing (see works consulted at the end of the page).
So how does this alternative method work?
First Step: Admit your biases, if any, about a topic. Write them down. You cannot reason FROM these to anything a professor will accept. Opinion is just that: your opinion. To get a professor to appreciate a claim, it needs more work.
Second Step: note what is most interesting to you about a topic. Can you make a claim out of that?
Example: “Cosmetic surgery seems to be used as much for vanity as necessity. The good effects of it get overshadowed by the harm it may cause.”
Third Step: Ask “so what?” and “what does X mean?” about each abstraction in the working claim. In our case:
- What does “harm” mean?
- “As much for vanity...” So what? Why should that harm anyone?
- What are those “good effects”?
- Why should an academic audience even care about such a basic claim?
Fourth Step: Begin to do research with credible sources. Many academics don’t respect Google or Wikipedia, though some like me admit that Wikipedia can be a source for general facts and a starting point for real research with academic sources. Those are the sorts of sources vetted by a panel of editors/readers in the field of study.
Fifth Step: Be honest. Don’t toss out sources that disagree with your working claim. Look for consensus among experts, then seek evidence in your search that both supports and complicates the claim you made in Step 2. By "complicates" I don't mean "make more complex": I mean data that leads to refinement and qualification "under X circumstances" for a working claim.
Sixth Step: While writing the paper revise your claim as needed, narrowing it or changing it completely. Likely professorial questions appear in parentheses.
Here’s a revised thesis: “Individuals may seek cosmetic surgery because they need it or because they want it. (So What?) Evidence suggests that the boost to one’s ego is short-lived after elective surgery.” (Which evidence? So what?)
Seventh Step: Return to the data, and repeat Steps 4 and 5 until you have something that looks like a thesis statement. Unless your professor specifies it, the thesis need not be a single sentence. You’ll want to produce a nuanced claim with some “edge” to it that governs the direction and content of the project:
“Four recent academic studies of elective cosmetic surgery have shown that most patients chose the procedures based upon self image, not need. The evidence strongly suggests that the short-term boost to patients’ egos does not last and that, in the end, cosmetic surgery may even cause more harm than good to those who elect to have it.”
Note as well a remaining “suitcase-term,” the word “harm.” What sort of harm? Under what circumstances? Always? The writer has the responsibility to “unpack this suitcase” in the project, but this sort of explanation cannot usually be done IN the thesis, without bogging it down. You could try one more sentence here, clarifying harm, or wait until the body of the paper to develop that idea.
Hjortshoj, Keith. The Transition to College Writing. 2nd Ed. New York: Bedford, 2009.
Rosenwasser, David, and Jill Stephen. Writing Analytically. 5th edition. Boston: Thompson- Wadsworth, 2009.
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A writing assignment is designed to make an argument of some sort. In order to do that, it must be well organized and make a clear point. The framework and structure of the paper must be clear so as to direct the reader along the path of your argument. To accomplish this task, you need to develop a clear thesis. A thesis is the central argument. It is essential that it be concise and well written. It should be provided early on in your paper, so as to give the reader a road map and a sense of direction. Don't bury it, state it clearly and visibly. Developing a well-written thesis, and then revising and revisiting it, will help you develop a clearer understanding of your paper and your argument.
Thesis statements must make a claim. Thesis statements are not statements of fact, and they should be more than a simple point of view. For example:
Statement of fact: "Karl Marx was a political thinker who believed that capitalism exploits working people." This is a point that is essentially undisputeable.
Similarly, the claim "The United Nations is an organization comprised of different nation-states around the world" is not likely to inspire much debate.
Opinion statements: On the other hand, the sentence "Marx was wrong about capitalism because capitalism is good for people" is closer to a thesis statement because it makes a claim - it takes a stand or a perspective on a particular topic. But in this format it is too much of an opinion and not enough of an argument.
Similarly, "The United Nations is an ineffective organization" is closer to a thesis statement than the factual statement about the United Nations because it raises a point that is debateable. But again, in this format it doesn't offer the reader much information and, thus, it sounds like the author is simply stating their viewpoint which may or may not be substantiated by evidence.
The key difference between an opinion statement and thesis statement is that the latter conveys to the reader that the claim being offered has been thoroughly explored and is defendable by evidence.
Thesis statements: Thus, in the first example, you need to indicate that you have a clear sense of which of Marx's views were wrong and why they were wrong (by "wrong" do you mean incorrect, inaccurate, silly, ridiculous, unsupported...?). Furthermore, you would need to specify what you mean by capitalism being "good" for people. Good in what sense? It makes them happy? successful? productive? Being specific in your claims means that you will have to think through your evidence to be sure it supports your conclusions. By doing this, you will make it clear to your reader that your thesis is something that you have considered and are able to support through the knowledge you have acquired in the course.
Thus, you may end up with:
Marx's views about capitalism were rooted in a specific time and place, neither of which are true today; his arguments that capitalism exploits working people, when re-examined in contemporary society, do not account for the high standard of living enjoyed by a great many workers around the world.
Note: You should always think about what another argument (perhaps the opposite one) would look like if you were to try to counter your own. This will ultimately strengthen your argument because it requires you to justify to yourself and others why you think what you think. For example, one could counter the above thesis statement with:
Marx's critique of capitalism, though written over 100 years ago, is still devastating today; with the gap between rich and poor increasing even in the world's richest countries such as the U.S., it has become clear that a capitalist economic system can only result in massive exploitation of the working class.
Of course, one can re-work a thesis statement indefinitely and one can almost always find something at fault with it. But the point is that you must be sure that your thesis statement is indicating to your reader that you have an argument to make.
In addition, your thesis should also help you organize your paper. As you present your argument in your thesis, it should lay out how you will organize your paper. For example if your thesis is, "The organization of the UN makes it incapable of preventing war between major powers," this then gives the central structure to your paper. First you will explore the UN's organizational structure. Then you will examine why that structure hampers the UN's ability to keep peace. After laying the foundations of your central argument, you can elaborate on the specific logical steps within your thesis. You can add to the argument above, by describing the organizational structures you wish to explore, such as the Security Council, funding of the UN, and other assorted points that you are going to explore more fully in your paper. Always be sure to present them in order as they will appear in order as they will appear in your paper. In the end, your thesis should lay out your argument and provide the reader with a map to the paper.
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