Thursday, March 3, 2011

Writing Effective Thesis Statements and Avoiding the Road to Nowhere

Trying to write an essay without a clear thesis statement is like trying to go on a road trip without a map. You have a strong and confident beginning, but that confidence will flag by the middle part and you’ll lose the thread entirely before the end. The thesis statement, like a map, indicates exactly where you begin, exactly where you’re going to end, and exactly how you plan to get there. It acts as a guide for both the writer and the reader.

The thesis statement is your assertion. It’s your purpose, your argument, the reason you’re writing this essay to begin with. Fiction writers also must have a thesis statement, though it is typically implicit in the text rather than explicit, as it is with academic writing. Thousands of English majors toil away at finding, debating, and explicating implicit thesis statements every day. But when they write about their conclusions, they must always have strong, explicit assertions.

A thesis statement must be clear, straightforward, and plainly worded. Don’t try to obscure your topic in order to create a mystery to entice your readers. The opening line should create the questions; the thesis statement should answer them. Don’t use weak language to distance yourself from your assertion. That negates your authority as the author. Your reader won’t be interested in what you have to say if your word choice signals that you’re not confident in your knowledge of the topic.

Many people argue that the Glen Canyon Dam should be demolished.

That’s a factual statement. Many people do argue that the Glen Canyon Dam is harmful to the ecosystem and serves little purpose. But what is the essay going to be about? Will it be in favor of demolishing the dam or against it? Is this going to be an argument, a report, an observation, or a reflection essay? Who are the “many people” who argue about it, for that matter? Is the debate limited to the science community, people who enjoy outdoor sports and recreation, hippies, or somebody else? Is many the same as most? Is it more than some?

The question of demolishing dams in order to save ecosystems is becoming increasing controversial.

Once again, this is technically a factual statement. It gives the reader more information about why people are even discussing demolishing dams, but there’s still no indication of the writer’s opinion or what ground the essay will cover. This might be used as a transition sentence between the lead-in and the thesis, but it is not an assertion.

The Glen Canyon reservoir should be drained within the next decade so the Colorado River ecosystem can thrive once again.

This sentence states a clear opinion and a reason for that opinion. The reservoir should be drained so the ecosystem can thrive. The explanation of why the ecosystem will thrive or the logistics of draining the reservoir can wait for later. Remember that your thesis statement isn’t a riddle. Your audience shouldn’t have to guess what you’re trying to say.

So what? and Who cares?

The number one question I ask about essays is so what? The second question I always ask is who cares? That might seem a bit harsh when I’m writing it in the margins of a student’s paper, but when it comes to a thesis statement you must have an answer.

Your thesis statement should be specific. A vague or generalized thesis statement indicates a lack of clarity in the author’s mind. If you don’t know what you want to say, then how could your reader ever hope to understand your point? As I mentioned before, it’s sometimes easier to write your final thesis statement after you’ve completed the essay, but your working thesis statement should be specific as well.

Owning a pet can teach a child about responsibility.

How old is the child? What sort of pet? What lessons about responsibility will the child learn? How will the child learn those lessons? The statement is true, but there’s not enough information for the reader.

Children who look after pets at home or in class demonstrate greater empathy, responsibility, and perform better in school.

Let the thesis be your guide

Keep the following rules in mind when you’re crafting your thesis statements:

  1. Your thesis statement is not merely an announcement of subject matter. Don’t say I will be writing about the Colorado River or Some fish are endangered.
  2. Your thesis statement should not be cluttered with qualifiers. Don’t say in my opinion because it’s clear that this is your opinion. You wouldn’t be writing it down if it wasn’t your opinion. Likewise, avoid I think… or Perhaps… or My thesis states. That sort of phrasing is redundant and its only function is to distance the author from the text, which then undermines the author. If you don’t even believe what you’re saying, why should I?
  3. Stand by your words, but don’t be insulting. Don’t use language that might antagonize readers or casts a strong us versus them argument. Calling the opposition “radical” or “misguided” or insulting large groups of people will never be effective writing.
  4. Your thesis statement is not a simple statement of fact. All calico cats are female is an interesting fact, but it wouldn’t make for a very interesting paper. Thesis statements need to be arguable opinions. I like cats isn’t an arguable opinion. People who live in apartments should look for small pets, like hamsters, gerbils, or cats is an arguable opinion.

Note: This post is an excerpt from our writing guide Put the Body on the Slab: The Anatomy of College Writing which will be released on May 1, 2011.

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