This week, I want to tackle the dreaded thesis. An essay’s thesis is paramount in most of academia, and I have yet to meet a teacher—from English to biology to economics to psychology, etc.—who doesn’t require his/her students to have a thesis. The thesis sets the tone for a paper, and without a solid one, your chance of getting an “A” on that essay is about as slim as finding Bigfoot poop (see my last post). So, without further ado, here are some tips for crafting an “A”-worthy thesis.
1. Stick the thesis near the start of your paper unless your teacher states otherwise. First of all, do what your teacher says because he’s the one grading you. If he says to stick your thesis at the end of the paper, then stick it at the end of your paper. If he says to stick your thesis in the title, then stick it in the title. If he says to stick it in the second line of your sixth paragraph, then stick it in the second line of your sixth paragraph. If he says nothing and has no real preference on the matter, then you have a few options. Some people say either in the first or second paragraph of an essay. Some teachers have students put their theses in the very first sentence of the first paragraph. Personally, I’m more of a last-sentence-of-the-first-paragraph kind of gal. I feel like this placement allows my first paragraph to act as a drumroll and my thesis then ends with the crashing of metaphorical cymbals—a sort of “ta da” moment. Your thesis can also be more than one sentence, but be careful if it is. More than one sentence may indicate that you’ve taken on too much, or that you’re being wordy.
2. Make sure that your thesis has an argument. What is an argument? Here are a couple of definitions from Dictionary.com: “a discussion involving differing points of view,” “a process of reasoning,” “series of reasons,” “an address or composition intended to convince or persuade.” What can we pull out of these definitions? We can deduce that an argument needs to express an opinion and then provide reasons why the author holds that viewpoint. Ooo, “deduce.” I feel so Sherlock-ish, but I digress. An argument requires that you take a stand on something. Stating that “saving the environment is good” is a very, very weak argument, and it’s not (in this author’s opinion) “A”-worthy because it’s too broad. Stating that “preserving and protecting America’s environmental resources is desirable, and therefore the EPA should receive additional funding since it is the federal government’s main environmental protection group” is a better argument because it’s specific. An argument (and thus a thesis) should undoubtedly raise some “nuh-uhs” from people. If you don’t think that you’ll get at least a little push back (hence the “nuh-uh”), then you probably don’t have a strong argument or a strong thesis. Here’s an article that talks more about specificity and strength in a thesis: “The Roadmap to Your Paper: Specificity in Your Thesis Statement”.
3. What if there is no argument? Look harder for one. Unless you’re doing a scientific paper. Then, things get a little funky, and I’ll address how to deal with that “funkiness” in a future post. Anyway, if you have a thesis, then most of the time you’ll have some sort of argument. The argument may not be horrendously controversial like, “Bigfoot doesn’t exist because no one has reported any legitimate evidence of his scat.” The argument can be something semi-benign such as, “Despite John McPhee and Mary Clearman Blew’s dissimilar topics, both authors employ the stylistic techniques of interjection and parallelism in their narratives, and, via their uses of interjection and parallelism, create examples of ‘fine writing.’” The last thesis statement doesn’t seem that controversial, but don’t be deceived. The thesis contains several arguments: 1) that the two authors employ interjection, 2) that the two authors utilize parallelism, and 3) that their uses of the two literary tools create examples of “fine writing.”
4. Be able to support every part of your thesis. Let’s return to my above example with McPhee and Blew. I have to provide evidence in my paper to support each one of the arguments that I listed. The third argument requires that I demonstrate how the writers’ uses of parallelism and interjection create examples of “fine writing.” Normally, that means that I would have to explain the characteristics of “fine writing” and then provide compelling reasoning and evidence to support why those are attributes of “fine writing.” That’s a lot to do. Therefore, I’d probably forgo the “fine writing” bit because it’d be too difficult (not to mention long) to argue. Luckily, my teacher provided me with the defining characteristics of “fine writing” and required me to include that in my paper. But, long story short, if you don’t think that you can support a certain argument, or that it would take too much time to support it thoroughly, then drop it like a used tissue that’s on fire.
5. Make sure that your thesis addresses the “what.” What are you arguing? What makes you so sure that you’re right? I should state that not all theses have to deal with a cause and effect relationship. In fact, there are a variety of theses you can create. I suggest you visit this article for more on that: “Thesis Blog Post.”
6. Don’t start with “I” unless your teacher tells you to. “I believe” and “I think” are great for learning how to develop a thesis. However, unless your teacher wants to see those words, let them go. (Do not start singing that song. No. Don’t do it.) You can still have the vibe of “I believe [insert argument] because of [insert supporting reasons],” but elevate the language. After all, you’re a student going after a 4.0 GPA. You can do better than “I believe.”
7. Avoid absolute phrases. Let’s go back to my Bigfoot thesis: “Bigfoot doesn’t exist because no one has reported any legitimate evidence of his scat.” If I’m a hardcore Bigfoot believer, I’m probably going to say “Nuh-uh, some people have reported evidence of his scat, and just because the scientific community doesn’t think that it’s ‘legitimate’ doesn’t mean that it isn’t.” See, I’m getting myself into holes that I can’t argue myself out of. You want get some “nuh-uh”s from your audience, but you don’t want to make your job harder than it has to be. This is where softening is useful. Let’s soften the Bigfoot thesis to: “Bigfoot’s existence is unlikely because there is little testable evidence regarding his scat, which is key to supporting the existence of a creature.” I still keep my content with this version, but it’s not as harsh as the first Bigfoot thesis.
8. Write your thesis in an understandable manner. Clarity is king in writing. If I can’t tell what you’re arguing because your writing is so filled with junk, then how can you expect an “A” paper? Don’t try to use big words to sound smart. Your intellect comes through in your content, not necessarily in your word choice. Am I saying that all of your theses should sound like, “Spot likes to run”? No. I’m saying that simplicity and clarity trump junky language. For example, let’s consider the following two theses.
1. Modern movies have shown decline with regard to actors’ talents, movies’ plots, and the dialogs’ choices of language.
2. Modern cinema has exhibited a serious and disconcerting degeneration, particularly in the manifestations of the thespians’ capacity for acting, the story lines and narratives of the movies themselves, and the manners of the verbal exchanges between the actors on screen.
With #1, I can easily point out the argument and the three areas that I’m going to address to support my argument—actors, plots, and dialog. With #2, I have to wade through junk to get to the heart of the sentence. No one wants to wade through junk, including your teacher. Therefore, simplify when you can.
9. Treat your thesis as a road map for the rest of your paper. Let’s again go back to the McPhee and Blew example. If I’m going to talk about interjection and parallelism, then I should discuss interjection first in my paper and then parallelism. Getting the order of your arguments in the body of the paper to match up with the order in your thesis seems like monkey work (so easy a monkey could do it), and it is. So, don’t miss those points.
10. Work backward if you’re really struggling. Sometimes, a thesis just will not come to you. You can bang your head against your computer all you want, but that thesis may still stay as elusive as, well . . . Bigfoot. Instead of wasting your time, write the rest of your paper with an idea of what you want to do and to argue. Then, develop your thesis from what you’ve already written.
In sum, thesis = argument + list of supporting evidence. If you have a strong, clear, specific thesis, then you have a good start for your paper. Below I’ve included a few additional resources for writing theses. Next week, I promise no Bigfoot or poop. Okay, maybe not “promise” . . . . But, I’ll make an honest effort to avoid all references to Bigfoot and poop.
Bonne chance, mes amis!
Have any questions about this blog post, or have questions that you want answered about some other aspect of college and obtaining an awesome GPA? Do you think that I might have missed something? Write it in the comments below, and I’ll give it a go. 🙂
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill Writing Center
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Fantastic advice! Love, love, love!
Thank you! 🙂
I was writing a paper for an English Master’s seminar on Melville . Fifteen pages was the required length. I handed copies to the instructor and the other fourteen students for them to read and comment on the following week. Came the day for critiquing.
“Don’t ever do this to me again,” the instructor said to me.” Your thesis statement was in the middle of the paper, and I was waiting to find it.” One of the students spoke up, “Yes, but it sure kept your interest reading it!” I received an “A.” It’s okay to break the rules when it works. However, as an English teacher, I always tell my students to plant the thesis statement somewhere in the first paragraph and then spend the rest of the essay backing it up.
Haha, that’s pretty clever of that student stating that searching for the thesis kept his interest. There are, indeed, a variety of ways to do a thesis, and it largely depends upon culture. For instance, I was told that in Chinese academia, it’s very common to have the thesis be at the end of the paper so that it’s like the reader comes to that conclusion on his own by reading the whole paper instead of being told what to think at the beginning. I think that for Americans, there’s more of a tell-me-now feel to papers. Also, I agree with you that it’s okay to break the rules, but the key is to know the rules through and through first. I think it was Dave Barry who said that you have to know the rules completely before you’re ready to break them. Thanks for reading and for the follow!