The Thesis Statement

 

SELECTING YOUR FOCUS

  Without a clear notion of our essay's main purpose or a definite plan of how to begin and where to go, we may often find ourselves drifting aimlessly through ideas, starting with "x," trudging through "y," and concluding with several layers of wadded paper balls strewn about our feet. To avoid the problem of roaming from one unrelated idea to another, you first need to formulate a working thesis statement.

WHAT DOES A THESIS DO?

  The thesis statement declares the main point or controlling idea of your entire essay. Frequently located near the beginning of a short essay, the thesis briefly answers the questions "What is my opinion on subject 'x'?" and "What am I going to argue (or illustrate or define or explain) in this essay?"

  A working thesis statement, prepared if possible before you begin you first rough draft, is perhaps your single most useful organizational tool. Once you know your essay's main point, you can arrange the rest of your paper to explain and back up your thesis statement. In other words, everything in your essay should support your thesis. Consequently, if you write your thesis statement at the top of your first draft and refer to it often, your chances of drifting away from your purpose should be reduced.

WHAT IS A "WORKING" THESIS?

  It's important for you to notice at this point that there may be a difference between the working thesis that appears in your rough drafts and your final thesis. As you begin your first rough draft, you may have one main idea in mind that surfaced from your prewriting activities, but as you write, you discover that what you really want to write about is slightly different. That's fine: Writing is an act of discovery and frequently we don't know exactly what we think or what to say until we write it. Don't hesitate to change or modify your working thesis if your rough draft has taken a new, better direction. A working thesis is there to help you focus and organize your essay, but it's not carved in stone. Just remember that if you do change your paper's topic or purpose, revise your thesis so that it is consistent with the body of your essay and so that it will guide your readers rather than confuse them.

WHAT IS A GOOD THESIS?

A good thesis states the writer's clearly defined opinion on some subject.

You must tell your reader what you think. Don't dodge the issue; present your opinion specifically and precisely.

 

Poor:

Many people have different opinions on whether people under twenty-one should be able to drink alcohol, and I agree with some of them. [The writer's opinion on the issue is not clear to the reader.]

 

Poor:

The question of whether we need a national law governing the minimum age to drink alcohol is a controversial issue in many states. [This statement might introduce the thesis, but the writer has still avoided stating a clear opinion on the issue.]

 

Better:

To reduce the number of highway fatalities, our country needs to enforce the national law that designates twenty-one as the legal minimum age to purchase and consume alcohol. [The writer clearly states an opinion that will be supported in the essay.]

 

Better:

The legal minimum age for purchasing alcohol should be eighteen rather than twenty-one. [Again, the writer has asserted a clear position on the issue that will be argued in the essay.]

 

A good thesis asserts one main idea.

Many essays drift into confusion because the writer is trying to explain or argue two different, large issues in one essay. You can't effectively ride two horses at once; pick one main idea and explain or argue it in convincing detail.

 

Poor:

The proposed no-smoking ordinance in our town will violate a number of our citizens' civil rights, and no one has proved secondary smoke is dangerous anyway. [This thesis contains two main assertions--the ordinance's violation of rights and secondary smoke's lack of danger--that require two different kinds of supporting evidence.]

 

Better:

The proposed no-smoking ordinance in our town will violate our civil rights. [This essay will show the various ways the ordinance will infringe on personal liberties.]

 

Better:

The most recent U.S. Health Department studies claiming that secondary smoke is dangerous to nonsmokers are based on faulty research. [This essay will also focus on one issue: the validity of the studies of secondary smoke danger.]

 

A good thesis has something worthwhile to say.

Before you write your thesis, think hard about your subject: does your position lend itself to trite, shallow, or overly obvious ideas?

 

Poor:

Dogs have always been man's best friends. [This essay might be full of ho-hum cliches about dogs' faithfulness to their masters.]

 

Poor:

Friendship is a wonderful thing. [Again, watch out for tired truisms that restate the obvious.]

 

Poor:

Food in my dorm is horrible. [While this essay might be enlivened by some vividly repulsive imagery, the subject itself is ancient.]

 

A good thesis appeals to many readers.

Even if you feel you have something to say about a topic, you must remember that some topics simply won't appeal to other readers because the material is too personal or restricted to be of general interest. In those cases, it often helps to universalize the essay's thesis so your readers can also identify with, or learn something about, the general subject, while learning something about you at the same time.

 

Poor:

The four children in my family have completely different personalities. [This statement may be true, but would anyone but the children's parents really be fascinated with this essay topic?]

 

Better:

Birth order can influence children's personalities in startling ways. [The writer is wiser to offer this controversial statement, which is of more interest to readers than the one above because most readers have brothers and sisters of their own. The writer then can illustrate her claims with examples from her own family, and from other families, if she wishes.]

In other words, try to select a subject that will interest, amuse, challenge, persuade, or enlighten your readers. If your subject itself is commonplace, try to find a unique approach or an unusual, perhaps even controversial, point of view. If your subject is intensely personal, ask yourself if the topic alone is enough to interest readers. If not, think about universalizing the thesis to include your audience. Remember that a good thesis should encourage readers to read on with enthusiasm rather than invite groans of "not this again" or shrugs of "so what."

 

A good thesis is limited to fit the assignment.

Your thesis should show that you've narrowed your subject matter to an appropriate size for your essay. Don't allow your thesis to produce more of a discussion than you can adequately deliver in a short essay. You want an in-depth treatment of your subject, not a superficial one. Focus your essay on an important part of a broader subject that interests you.

 

Poor:

Nuclear power should be banned as an energy source in this country. [Can the writer give the broad subject of "nuclear power" a fair treatment in three to five pages?]

 

Better:

Because of its poor safety record over the past two years, the Collin County nuclear power plant should be closed. [This writer could probably argue this focused thesis in a short essay.]

 

A good thesis is clearly stated in specific terms.

More than anything, a vague thesis reflects lack of clarity in the writer's mind and almost inevitably leads to an essay that talks around the subject but never makes a coherent point. Try to avoid words whose meanings are imprecise or those that depend largely upon personal interpretation, such as "interesting," "or," and "bad."

 

Poor:

The Women's Movement has been good for our country. [How is it good? For whom?]

 

Better:

The Colorado Women's Party is working to ensure the benefits of equal pay for equal work for both males and females. [This tells who will benefit and how--clearly defines the thesis.]

 

A good thesis is clearly located, often in the first or second paragraph.

Many students are hesitant to spell out a thesis at the beginning of an essay. Without an assertion of what you are trying to prove, your reader does not know how to assess the supporting details your essay presents. You write an essay to have a specific effect on your readers. You won't have a chance of producing this effect unless the readers understand what you are trying to do.

If you are an inexperienced writer, the best choice at this point still may be to give a clear statement of your main idea. It is, after all, your responsibility to make your purpose clear with as little expense of time and energy on the reader's part as possible. Readers should not be forced to puzzle out your essay's main point--it's your job to tell them.

Remember: an essay is not a detective story, so don't keep your readers in suspense until the last minute.

 

AVOIDING COMMON ERRORS IN THESIS STATEMENTS

1. Don't make your thesis statement an announcement of your subject matter or a descriptions of your intentions. State your attitude toward your subject.

 

Poor:

The subject of this theme is my experience with a pet boa constrictor. [This is an announcement of the subject, not a thesis.]

 

Poor:

I'm going to discuss boa constrictors as pets. [This represents a statement of intention but not thesis.]

 

Better:

Boa constrictors do not make healthy indoor pets.

 

Better:

My pet boa constrictor, Sir Pent, was a much better bodyguard than my dog, Fang.

 

2. Don't clutter your thesis is expressions such as "in my opinion," "I believe," and "in this essay I'll argue that. . . . "

These unnecessary phrases weaken your thesis statement because they often make you sound timid or uncertain. This is your essay; therefore, the opinions expressed are obviously yours. Be forceful: speak directly, with conviction.

 

3. Don't be unreasonable.

Making irrational or over simplified claims will not persuade your reader that you have a thorough understanding of the issue. Don't insult the reader; avoid irresponsible charges, name calling, and profanity.

 

Poor:

Radical religious fanatics across the nation are trying to impose their right-wing views by censoring high school books. ["Flame" words--"radical," "fanatics," and the like--will antagonize readers immediately.

 

Better:

Only local school board members--not religious leaders or parents--should decide which books high school libraries should order.

 

4. Don't merely state a fact.

A thesis is an assertion of opinion that leads to discussion. Don't select an idea that is self-evident or dead-ended.

 

Poor:

Child abuse is a terrible problem. [Of course, it is; who would disagree?]

 

Better:

Child-abuse laws in this state are too lenient for repeat offenders.

 

5. Don't express your thesis in the form of a question unless the answer is already obvious to the reader.

 

Poor:

Why should every college student be required to take two years of foreign language?

 

Better:

Chemistry majors should be exempt from the foreign language requirement.

Can you explain why the following are not clear and rewrite them?

1. Applying for a job can be a negative experience.

2. There are many advantages and disadvantages to the county's new voting machines.

3. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s had a tremendous effect on this country.

 

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