Strategies for Writing a Thesis Statement: Part I
Writing thesis statement—especially a slick, finely tuned one—is tricky business, even for the best writers. It takes patience, practice and continuous refinement. Writing a thesis statement is also challenging because it involves more than simply figuring out what the writer’s response is to a particular topic. It also means that she understands that response, has refined the intellectual rigor of that response based on research, and put that informed and critical response into writing
Considering that, it makes sense that our students are intimidated by the process of writing a thesis statement!
To make the process less intimidating (hopefully!), we’ve put together this handout. Have your students read it and then discuss it as a group. In our next post, we’ll share another handout that breaks writing a thesis statement down into 8 digestible steps, so stay tuned!
Strategies for Writing a Thesis Statement: Part I
What exactly is a thesis? A thesis is a claim that you make in your paper, a claim that announces not only your central focus, but gives your reader an expectation of what you will be analyzing or arguing in the pages to come. The thesis goes beyond stating a topic—it puts a core complexity about the topic into writing, giving your reader a thought-provoking problem/issue/interpretation to consider.
In the thesis, you should “develop an interesting perspective that you can support and defend. This perspective must be more than an observation. “America is violent” is an observation. “Americans are violent because they are fearful” is an argument. Why? Because it posits a perspective. It makes a claim.
Let’s put another way: A good thesis sentence will inspire (rather than quiet) other points of view (www.dartmouth.edu).
What isn’t a thesis?
• A statement of fact: Music in the twenty-first century is widely available on the Internet.
• A generic or general observation: There are many music genres and they each hold a unique appeal for audiences across America.
• An uninformed or uncritical personal opinion: Björk is one of the most bizarre artists I’ve ever heard. Why do people buy her music?
• An empty proposal of “how” you will explore/prove a topic: In this paper I will show how learning music can help students improve their math skills.
• A widely accepted position (offering little to intrigue your reader): Learning music can help students improve their math skills.
• Pointing out the greatness of someone widely considered to be great: Mozart was one of the greatest musical geniuses of all time.
Do I need to have a thesis before I begin writing? Not necessarily. Some writers find it to be a good strategy to just begin writing—either brainstorming, or writing several expository passages, or constructing outlines—before the thesis is fully matured. Many writers who learn to value the process of revision discover that often times their thesis emerges out of that process. Very often, a thesis is not articulated until the draft’s conclusion. In revision, the writer can identify this thesis statement and then work it effectively into the introduction.
The thesis as work-in-progress: As you develop the paper in a series of revisions, the thesis also moves through a series of phases:
Phase 1: the preliminary or “open” thesis
Phase 2: the tentative or working thesis
Phase 3: the final thesis or “closed” thesis
Can my thesis include my opinion? That depends what you consider an opinion. Consider these two definitions of “opinion” (from the American Heritage Dictionary). “1] A belief or conclusion held with confidence but not substantiated by positive knowledge or proof” and “2] A judgment based on special knowledge and given by an expert.” If your definition of opinion is #1, then the answer is “no.” Your thesis should not include your opinion since it is an unsubstantiated opinion. If, however, your definition of “opinion” is #2, the answer is “yes,” because you are referring to your informed and critical opinion. The thesis is not a place for an uninformed, uncritical opinion. However, you may begin the process of thinking about a thesis by examining your opinion. The process of examination, inspection, analysis, and research should lead you to the point where you are able to express an informed, critical, analytical, and well-supported “opinion.”
Do I have a thesis?
- Does my thesis sentence attempt to answer (or at least to explore) a challenging intellectual question?
- Is the point I'm making one that would generate discussion and argument, or is it one that would leave people asking, "So what?"
- Is my thesis too vague? Too general? Should I focus on some more specific aspect of my topic?
- Does my thesis deal directly with the topic at hand, or is it a declaration of my personal feelings?
- Does my thesis indicate the direction of my argument? Does it suggest a structure for my paper?
- Does my introductory paragraph define terms important to my thesis?
- Is the language in my thesis vivid and clear?
Opinion (subjective): "I loved Huckleberry Finn!"
Phase 1 (generalization): Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn is a great American novel.
Phase 2 (a working thesis): In Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain develops a contrast between life on the river and life on the shore.
Phase 3 (an analytical claim): Through its contrasting river and shore scenes, Twain's Huckleberry Finn suggests that to find the true expression of American democratic ideals, one must leave "civilized" society and go back to nature.
Is there anything in particular I should avoid? Avoid using the words “interesting,” “good,” “bad,” “great,” “exciting,” “nice,” etc. in your thesis statement. We use these words all the time in spoken English to communicate our thoughts on various topics. In writing, however, these words are so vague that they don’t communicate very effectively.
If you found this helpful, check back on Tuesday for part two! In the meantime, feel free to stop by our resource library for downloadable guides, lesson plan ideas, podcasts and webinars on demand.