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The Problem with Thesis Statements

13 Mar

Developing a sound thesis statement is often one of the most challenging parts of writing a paper. As we discussed in a previous post on thesis statements, a thesis statement is a sentence (or, occasionally, two sentences) in an essay’s introduction that show the reader where the essay is going by identifying the writer’s scope and focus, and by providing the reader with an idea of where the paper is headed. As we touched on briefly last time, your thesis statement will vary depending on what type of writing task you are completing; this is often what makes writing thesis statements so difficult.

We know from our previous blog post that thesis statements should:

  • Be defensible
  • Not be obvious
  • Pass the “So what?” test

That said, different assignments will require different thesis statements, as your task in the writing project will dictate what kind of information and analysis you need to include within the essay, and this, in turn, will influence the development of your thesis. In short, there is no one right way to structure or write a thesis statement becaus every assignment is different!

So, let’s imagine a few different scenarios:

The Argument-Driven Response Paper:

Emily has been instructed to write a response paper reflecting on what she has read in one of her courses. Emily’s paper needs to be 2-3 pages in length, with an introduction, several body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Emily needs to provide three examples of technological devices that have changed society in the last ten years. Emily decides to write about cell phones, laptop computers, and tablets. She has some ideas, but she is having trouble developing a thesis statement.

The information that we know about Emily’s assignment and her ideas gives us a good understanding of what she should include in her thesis statement. We know that, while Emily is writing a response paper, she does have an argument: she is arguing that the three devices she has selected have changed society. This is important because it needs to be considered in her thesis statement. We also know exactly which three devices Emily is writing about. This can also be included in the thesis statement to show the reader where Emily is going with her argument.

Emily can pull these items together to form a basic thesis statement: “Cell phones, laptop computers, and electronic tablets have changed the face of society.” We know from Emily’s current thesis statement that she is going to write about cell phones, laptop computers, and tablets, and that she is going to focus on how these different devices have changed society. Emily should write one body paragraph on each device, and she should approach them in the order that she has listed them in her thesis statement. First, she will discuss cell phones. Then, she will focus on laptop computers. In the last paragraph before her conclusion, she will discuss tablets.

That said, Emily has a small problem. Her thesis statement does not pass the “So what?” test. It needs to be more specific! Emily needs to give us some idea of what her argument is – or how these electronic devices have changed society. She might revise her thesis statement into something like: “Cell phones, laptop computers, and electronic tablets have changed society for the better by creating a new generation of learners who have relevant and up-to-date information at their fingertips.” She could continue to push her thesis statement further in order to show her reader her argument, but she needs to provide at least some idea of where she is headed.

The thesis that Emily has constructed for this assignment is often called a listing thesis because it lists the items the writer will cover in the order they will be discussed. The listing thesis still needs to include more than just the items that will be evaluated, as we know we need to understand Emily’s argument and how she will develop it solely from reading her thesis statement. Listing thesis statements often work well when writers must discuss a certain number of points, and for shorter essays. This type of thesis statement is not appropriate for all types of writing and must be used carefully.  

The Compare and Contrast Essay:

Sam has been instructed to write a Compare and Contrast essay for his English 101 class. In this essay, Sam must compare and contrast two items of his choosing. He must show the similarities and differences between these two items/experiences, and he must make a recommendation in his essay, where he clearly shows the reader how/why one of the two items is preferable to the other. Sam does not have a page limit, but he does know that he needs to make a clear argument in order to convince the reader that, although these two things are similar, one is better than the other. Sam decides to write about owning a house and renting an apartment. He knows that he wants to recommend living in a house.

The information that we know about Sam’s assignment, his ideas, and the approach that he wants to take is enough to help us develop a thesis statement for Sam’s assignment. We know that, while Sam is ultimately focusing on the similarities and differences between owning a house and renting an apartment, he still has an argument: he must make a recommendation of one over the other. This is something that needs to be considered in Sam’s thesis statement. We also know that Sam is dealing with two items: owning a house and renting an apartment. Both of these items need to be included in Sam’s thesis statement.

Since Sam is writing a compare and contrast essay, his thesis statement should indicate that he is comparing and contrasting the two items that he has selected. Sam can start his thesis statement with a dependent word to automatically show that he is comparing and contrasting these two items. By using a dependent word, including both items in his sentence, and showing his recommendation (or his argument), Sam can create a strong thesis statement that does everything it needs to while easily passing the “So what?” test. For example, Sam might try something like “Although renting an apartment and owning a house both offer a person a sense of independence, owning a house is preferable because…” Then, he can preview his argument for owning a house (longterm investment, stability, etc.).

By starting with a dependent word, Sam has already placed the two items into a compare and contrast relationship with one another. He can then compare and contrast the two items while steadily moving toward his recommendation – as illustrated in his thesis statement. While this type of thesis statement works well for Sam’s assignment and purpose, it would not work for Emily’s argumentative response paper because Emily’s focus is different.

While these are just two of many possible assignments and thesis statements, it is clear to see one thing: the problem with thesis statements and with writing thesis statements lies both in their duty (to inform the reader of the writer’s argument while passing the “So what?” test) and in their variety (argument essays vs. compare and contrast essays vs. research papers vs. literature reviews vs…). To easily tackle your next thesis statement, ask yourself the following:

  • What is my assignment?
  • What is my purpose? What is my focus?
  • What ideas do I already have? Or, what points do I know I want to make in this essay?

Then, pull your answers together, brainstorm a tentative thesis statement, and ask yourself:

  • Does my thesis fit with what the assignment is asking?
  • Does my thesis clearly show my purpose (to reflect, to inform, to argue, etc.) and my focus?
  • Does my thesis give my reader an idea of where my writing will go?
  • Does my thesis pass the “So what?” test?

As always, do not feel like you are locked into one thesis statement just because it is the first thesis statement you have written! Tweak it until it fits with your assignment, your purpose, and your direction. Last but not least, if you need assistance (or even just an additional set of eyes to look at your thesis statement), feel free to schedule an appointment in the Writing Center!


Thesis Statements

21 Nov

What is a thesis statement?

A thesis statement is a sentence (or, sometimes, a couple of sentences) within the introduction of an essay. This sentence needs to show the reader where the essay is going; it should identify the writer’s scope and focus, and provide the reader with a general understanding of the writer’s overall approach in the paper. A thesis statement is a contract between the writer and the reader. Writers should uphold that contract by delivering whatever was promised in the thesis statement.

Thesis statements should also be defensible, they should not be obvious, and they should pass the “So What?” test. As The Whitman College Writing Center’s most recent blog post, “Cathy wears blue pants” explains, writers want to construct a thesis statement that is non-obvious and highly defensible. They provide some general examples to explain:

Thesis 1: Cathy wears blue pants.

This thesis statement is very obvious and not very defensible. As it is descriptive, it is stating a fact that does not need further elaboration. Cathy wears blue pants in the novel, and our sentence illustrates this for the reader. Since this sentence is so obvious, it leaves little room for our writer to defend it and it does not give them much to work with as they begin to develop the body of their essay.

Thesis 2: Cathy likes the color blue, because she is found wearing blue pants in every scene in the book.

In this revised example, the thesis statement is less obvious and more defensible. The reader is inferring that, as Cathy is shown wearing blue pants frequently, she must like the color blue. This is something that would not have been stated directly in the novel, and the writer is identifying it as something significant.

There is only one problem. This thesis statement does not pass the “So What?” test. When reviewing this thesis statement, readers can understand that Cathy wears blue pants and possibly likes the color blue, but the writer has provided no indication of the significance of this data. This allows readers to ask “So What?” or “Why does it matter if Cathy likes the color blue?”, showing that the thesis statement needs further development. The writer needs to identify the significance of Cathy and her choice of blue pants for the reader, as this is something that they would address and defend within their essay.

Thesis 3: Cathy tends to wear blue pants because of her deceased mother’s affinity for the sea.

While it could still benefit from further development, the third thesis statement shows the most promise. In this thesis statement, readers can observe that Cathy wears blue pants, but they are also shown why Cathy wears blue pants, and the writer has begun to develop their reasoning and analysis here. They have started to answer the “So What?” question posed when considering the second example, but they would want to push a bit further here to fully illustrate the importance of this topic and to begin to show where they are going in their essay.

 Thesis Statement Tips:

  • When constructing your thesis statement, first determine the type of assignment. An analytical paper will have a different approach (and a different thesis) than an argumentative paper! Make sure that your thesis is in line with your assignment.
  • Thesis statements should be specific! Your thesis statement should only include ideas or points that you will cover in your paper, and you should be able to support these points with specific evidence.
  • Thesis statements should appear in the first paragraph – or introduction – of your essay. In some cases, placing your thesis statement as the last sentence of your introduction allows it to function as an effective transition from that introduction into the first body paragraph.
  • You can always change your thesis! As you are writing and researching, your approach to your topic may change and it may be necessary to revise your thesis statement accordingly. This is ok!