Using the Thesis Statement to Your Advantage
Bobby Rich, Consultant
The thesis statement is the keystone of a paper: a solid thesis statement holds everything together, but without one, your paper can fall apart pretty easily. Because of this, developing a strong thesis statement is of high importance, and, as I’m sure many students are aware, the phrase “strong thesis statement” often appears at the top of many grading rubrics. So, you know it is a necessary thing, but…
What is it thesis statement, anyway?
The thesis statement can be an intimidating thing for many writers. At its most basic, a thesis statement is an explicit statement of argument. The majority of papers written in college are not simply restating information, they are assessing information, analyzing it, and making an argument about what the information means. A thesis is not a statement of raw opinion, rather, it is a strong assertion about how something should be interpreted, intended to apply to the general understanding of that thing, not just your own. Yes, to a degree the thesis statement is personal, but it is not a statement of simply individual taste or feeling; it is a statement of educated interpretation, based on the research you have done, and the knowledge base you are pulling from, stemming from critical thinking. If I’m having a conversation with a friend, and I say, “Marvel comics are the best,” they might as “Why?” and I might respond, “Because they’re the best!” That, unfortunately, is just pure opinion, and won’t do much to convince my friend of that point. In fact, that claim really isn’t arguing anything, it is just a flat statement. If I want to convince them, I need to argue; I need to present an argument in a way that will then allow me to readily back it up with facts, like: “I argue that Marvel is currently producing the best comic books on the market, because they exhibit a clear sense of social awareness and dedication to incorporating diversity in their publications.” From there, I can begin to elaborate on my points. Not only does that set me up to make my argument, but it makes discussion possible, which is necessary to a good argument. If I just state my raw opinion, there is no room for discussion; my friend would only be able to agree or disagree.
Alright, but why do I need one?
Organization, for both the reader and the writer. I like to think of the thesis statement as a kind of organizational tool or outline, built into the paper I’m writing. For the reader, it serves the purpose of saying, “Here is what I am going to tell you in this paper, here is how all the evidence I present is tied together, and here is what I want you to be paying attention to.” Without that sort of statement, the evidence you provide can seem random and disconnected, which can confuse the reader. The thesis statement should create a sort of focal point for the reader, and a sense of perspective to put the evidence against; it should guide them through the paper. For you, the writer, a strong thesis statement will have a similar effect, and will help you keep track of what you’re doing. As you go through your paper, you can refer back to your thesis statement and think “Okay, so, is it clear how the point I just made relates back to my thesis? Will the reader get the connection? Have I made the connection?” This will help you keep your paper from becoming jumbled or disorganized, which is definitely a good thing.
How do I develop one?
Again, think of it as an organizational tool. Ask yourself questions like, “What problem do I perceive in this evidence? What do I see connecting the evidence? What kind of solution can I provide?” That will get you started. Then you want to think about where you can take the argument, what sort of order you need for your evidence, and what the most central point is. Your thesis statement doesn’t need to say every single thing you will do in your paper; it needs to provide a jumping off point for your writing to follow from, and you want it to be easily linkable to the points you make in your paper at any given time.
When do I develop one?
This will depend, more or less, on your discipline of study. For example, in English, if you are writing about literature, your thesis can kind of shift and change as you work through your piece. It may not be finalized and solid until after your first draft; on the other hand, in philosophy, you might find it necessary to have your thesis statement more strongly developed from the beginning, in order to prevent confusion or contradiction as you work through your argument. Regardless, it is best to begin thinking about and attempting to formulate your thesis as you research your topic; doing so will, as above, allow you to keep everything organized better as you go through the writing process, which will not only make for a stronger paper, but will make it easier on you as you write. Try keeping a log of your reactions to the sources you read. Your reactions do not have to be fully hashed-out, but keep notes of problems you perceive, questions you have, and potential solutions. Thinking about your thesis up front will save you work later.
Whatever discipline you may be writing in, the next time you have a paper due, try thinking of your thesis statement as an organizational tool, and develop it along those lines: for ease of use. It could just make the writing process an overall smoother, more confident experience.
Posted in Creative Writing, Process, Writing Advice and tagged Academic Writing, writing process
Your thesis will probably change as you write, so you will need to modify it to reflect exactly what you have discussed in your essay. Remember from Chapter 8 “The Writing Process: How Do I Begin?” that your thesis statement begins as a working thesis statement, an indefinite statement that you make about your topic early in the writing process for the purpose of planning and guiding your writing.
Working thesis statements often become stronger as you gather information and form new opinions and reasons for those opinions. Revision helps you strengthen your thesis so that it matches what you have expressed in the body of the paper.
Ways to Revise Your Thesis
You can cut down on irrelevant aspects and revise your thesis by taking the following steps:
1. Pinpoint and replace all nonspecific words, such as people, everything, society, or life, with more precise words in order to reduce any vagueness.
Working thesis: Young people have to work hard to succeed in life.
Revised thesis: Recent college graduates must have discipline and persistence in order to find and maintain a stable job in which they can use and be appreciated for their talents.
The revised thesis makes a more specific statement about success and what it means to work hard. The original includes too broad a range of people and does not define exactly what success entails. By replacing those general words like people and work hard, the writer can better focus his or her research and gain more direction in his or her writing.
2. Clarify ideas that need explanation by asking yourself questions that narrow your thesis.
Working thesis: The welfare system is a joke.
Revised thesis: The welfare system keeps a socioeconomic class from gaining employment by alluring members of that class with unearned income, instead of programs to improve their education and skill sets.
A joke means many things to many people. Readers bring all sorts of backgrounds and perspectives to the reading process and would need clarification for a word so vague. This expression may also be too informal for the selected audience. By asking questions, the writer can devise a more precise and appropriate explanation for joke. The writer should ask himself or herself questions similar to the 5WH questions. (See Chapter 8 “The Writing Process: How Do I Begin?” for more information on the 5WH questions.) By incorporating the answers to these questions into a thesis statement, the writer more accurately defines his or her stance, which will better guide the writing of the essay.
3. Replace any linking verbs with action verbs. Linking verbs are forms of the verb to be, a verb that simply states that a situation exists.
Working thesis: Kansas City schoolteachers are not paid enough.
Revised thesis: The Kansas City legislature cannot afford to pay its educators, resulting in job cuts and resignations in a district that sorely needs highly qualified and dedicated teachers.
The linking verb in this working thesis statement is the word are. Linking verbs often make thesis statements weak because they do not express action. Rather, they connect words and phrases to the second half of the sentence. Readers might wonder, “Why are they not paid enough?” But this statement does not compel them to ask many more questions. The writer should ask himself or herself questions in order to replace the linking verb with an action verb, thus forming a stronger thesis statement, one that takes a more definitive stance on the issue:
- Who is not paying the teachers enough?
- What is considered “enough”?
- What is the problem?
- What are the results
4. Omit any general claims that are hard to support.
Working thesis: Today’s teenage girls are too sexualized.
Revised thesis: Teenage girls who are captivated by the sexual images on MTV are conditioned to believe that a woman’s worth depends on her sensuality, a feeling that harms their self-esteem and behavior.
It is true that some young women in today’s society are more sexualized than in the past, but that is not true for all girls. Many girls have strict parents, dress appropriately, and do not engage in sexual activity while in middle school and high school. The writer of this thesis should ask the following questions:
- Which teenage girls?
- What constitutes “too” sexualized?
- Why are they behaving that way?
- Where does this behavior show up?
- What are the repercussions?
In the first section of Chapter 8 “The Writing Process: How Do I Begin?”, you determined your purpose for writing and your audience. You then completed a freewriting exercise about an event you recently experienced and chose a general topic to write about. Using that general topic, you then narrowed it down by answering the 5WH questions. After you answered these questions, you chose one of the three methods of prewriting and gathered possible supporting points for your working thesis statement.
Now, on a separate sheet of paper, write down your working thesis statement. Identify any weaknesses in this sentence and revise the statement to reflect the elements of a strong thesis statement. Make sure it is specific, precise, arguable, demonstrable, forceful, and confident.
Please share with a classmate and compare your answers.
Writing at Work
In your career you may have to write a project proposal that focuses on a particular problem in your company, such as reinforcing the tardiness policy. The proposal would aim to fix the problem; using a thesis statement would clearly state the boundaries of the problem and tell the goals of the project. After writing the proposal, you may find that the thesis needs revision to reflect exactly what is expressed in the body. Using the techniques from this chapter would apply to revising that thesis.
- Proper essays require a thesis statement to provide a specific focus and suggest how the essay will be organized.
- A thesis statement is your interpretation of the subject, not the topic itself.
- A strong thesis is specific, precise, forceful, confident, and is able to be demonstrated.
- A strong thesis challenges readers with a point of view that can be debated and can be supported with evidence.
- A weak thesis is simply a declaration of your topic or contains an obvious fact that cannot be argued.
- Depending on your topic, it may or may not be appropriate to use first person point of view.
- Revise your thesis by ensuring all words are specific, all ideas are exact, and all verbs express action.