Loosing the Chains of the Thesis Statement

What is a thesis? 

A necessary evil?

A helpful tool for generating writing?

A sentence at the end of the introduction that tells the reader what you will be arguing?

Whatever you call it, a thesis statement, while useful in many ways, can be debilitating to the author if seen as a solid thing that cannot be budged. An author who writes a thesis before writing anything else—maybe even before researching—may feel the need to keep that thesis no matter what other ideas or rabbit trails they wish to discover in their writing process.

This mentality can be stifling. Even a writer who is not so stuck to the rules may struggle with writing a thesis statement in the first place if they haven’t gone through the whole process of discovering their topic—which often comes from research, outlining, and writing.

So how do we counteract this? How do we “loose the chains” of thesis statements?

First, don’t think of thesis statements as your “ball and chain” but as the key to unlocking the rest of your paper. I even like to think about it as “key”—referring to the musical term. The key to a song affects the entire piece and keeps it from falling into chaos. Even key changes must be smoothly transitioned and purposeful. A thesis statement holds a paper together for both the writer and the audience.

The process of writing a thesis is not static. There are many ways (and times) to write a thesis.

For instance one may:

  1. draft a thesis that states the argument, then narrow and specify (see below) throughout the process.
  2. draft an entire paper (a very rough draft) to discover what one’s true argument is, then write the thesis and revise accordingly (lots of revision).
  3. write a complete thesis to guide the rest of the process to keep one on track, only revising if needed (often involves less paper revision).

The last example is the most traditionally taught. I would recommend starting this way and seeing if it works for you.

Moving on, what are some qualities that most thesis statements have, and how can we achieve them?

Argumentative 

You’ll want to let the reader know what your argument is early on. This is rather Western, so don’t see this as a universal rule. Most likely, however, this is the type of writing you will be doing.

Let’s say you were writing about genetic engineering. You may write something like:

“Genetic engineering is used to modify foods to increase yields and lessen chemical usage.” 

This may sound good, but it is not an argument. It doesn’t say anything controversial. But if you wrote the following—

Genetic engineering is dangerous.”

—it would be clear what your argument is.

Narrowness 

Okay, so we need to dig deeper than that. If you are writing, say, an eight page paper, writing about ALL of the dangers of genetic engineering would be impossible. Let’s narrow this down:

“Genetically modified corn threatens the environment.”

We have now specified the type of genetic engineering as well as what it particularly threats.

Specificity 

As mentioned before, specificity may not come until you have fully outlined—or even written—your paper, but it is important for making sure that all of your paragraphs relate back to the thesis. Again, if a thesis is the “key,” what notes must be played? If you add a new point to your paper, make sure you have included it in your thesis in some way. After some research, you may write the following:

“The production of genetically modified corn over the past few decades has increased harmful chemical pollution and threatened biodiversity.” 

This thesis could actually be more specific by listing all of the main points as well as what research the writer will be presenting. This would obviously need to be written after you have done all of your research, note-taking, and maybe outlining/writing (which is why the following thesis is incomplete).

“Studies from…on…show that the production of genetically modified corn over the past few decades has threatened the biodiversity of farmland and increased harmful chemical pollution in food, water, and soil.”

Below is a (very rough) outline that addresses the points in this thesis.

  1. Introduction
  2. What is genetically modified corn?
  3. How has it progressed over the past few decades?
  4. How has it threatened biodiversity of farmland?
  5. How has it increased harmful chemical pollution in food?
  6. In water?
  7. In soil?
  8. Conclusion

Of course, one might also include a paragraph or so on opposing viewpoints, etc.

Revision 

The nice thing about a thesis is that it keeps you from covering too many things in one paper by forcing you to narrow down and specify, but that doesn’t mean that The octave may change, the notes may vary, but, in the end, everything must be in sync, which is why revision (throughout the process and at the end) is necessary.

I could go on with the metaphors, but it’s time to let you write.

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Meet the Tutors: Emily D. & Marcee

Emily Diehl

Emily Diehl grew up outside of Nashville on a small farm where she was homeschooled and learned to love gardening, cooking, fiber arts, and the environment. While studying English and Creative Writing at Trevecca Nazarene University, Emily also took classes on Environmental Justice and volunteered on the campus farm.

Emily is a first year MFA student with a focus on fiction. Though she tutored during her undergrad, this is her first semester tutoring in the WKU Writing Center. She enjoys encouraging students and giving them room to process their thoughts in a safe, judgement-free environment. Her desire is to help students articulate their ideas—both creatively and coherently—and enjoy the process of writing. She is versed in both MLA and APA and has helped many students with dissertations as well as online appointments.

Her favorite authors include Wendell Berry, Jhumpa Lahiri, Marilynne Robinson, C.S. Lewis, and Victor Hugo.

She dreams of owning a small farm where she can homeschool her future children, teach writing to kids from the community, and write novels that do justice to her literary predecessors.

Marcee Wardell

Marcee is a first-year student in the Creative Writing Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program with a concentration in fiction. She began working in the WKU Writing Center this August as part of her graduate assistantship, and has knowledge of MLA and Chicago styles, as well as creative works.  In tutoring, Marcee enjoys seeing students come to epiphanies and realizations about what they’re working on, especially when they’re passionate or excited about what they’re writing.

Marcee hopes to publish fiction and nonfiction as a career, but knows that most professional writers still need day jobs; to that end, she hopes to work as an acquisitions editor after completing her MFA. Marcee originally hails from a small town on the east side of Michigan, and is definitely not acclimated to Bowling Green’s heat and humidity. When she’s not in class, in the Writing Center, or walking up the hill—it’s a long walk—you can find her attending informal workshops, reading a book, or reading at open mic events… maybe even one on Thursday: https://www.facebook.com/plugins/post.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2FWkuWritingCenter%2Fposts%2F1462018153834544&width=500

Interested in setting up an appointment with Emily or Marcee? Visit the Writing Center today or set up an appointment online. We’re open from 9 AM to 4 PM in 123 Cherry Hall and 4 PM to 9 PM in the Academic Commons in Cravens, Monday through Thursday (9 AM to 3 PM in 123 Cherry Hall on Fridays).

Research: Wading Through Sources

For reference on when to start your paper and how to choose a topic, see the following post from last week: https://wkuwritingcenter.wordpress.com/2017/09/15/what-should-i-write-about/

Overview 

Research can be an arduous, time-consuming thing, but it can also be a fascinating process if you’ve chosen a topic you are interested in. Assuming you have already learned a bit about research and how it works, I’d like to take the opportunity to help guide you through the process by digging a little deeper and addressing the following:

  • Why we research
  • How to choose sources
  • How to read sources for information you need

A Research Scenario… 

Imagine you are trying to prove to your skeptical friend, James, that Americans did land on the moon in 1969. What sources would you gather to prove your side?

You might start off quoting a NASA document, but then James argues that they are telling you what they think you should know. So you have to dig deeper. You find a scholarly article that addresses the conspiracy theories. You find a book on the life of Neil Armstrong. You find another book on the science behind space travel. Each time, James refutes it with another source, but this only makes you take your research further, until you and James are in a back-and-forth discussion, each backed up by your sources.

We Are All Researchers 

I used this silly illustration to show that research isn’t an arbitrary, boring task for scholars that you have to imitate while in school but never use again. We research all the time! We read product reviews to judge which brand to buy, we research why we woke up with a sore throat or which restaurants we should go to on vacation. Research, especially with our easy access to Google, is a part of our every day lives.

A Worthy Opponent 

In the illustration above, you are researching something with the intent of proving a point. This is what you most likely be doing in academic research. To prove a point, you need a “James” to remind you that you are not the only one who holds your opinion. Finding a source that opposes your argument will help you know which points need more evidence, that author becoming the “antagonist” to your paper that gives you, the protagonist, something to push against. That antagonist can also represent your readers without you having to argue against the readers themselves. They are the ones giving you momentum and making you question every point you are making so that you can back it up with more evidence.

An Ongoing Conversation 

Thinking about research as discovering an ongoing conversation among scholars about your topic—and thinking of your paper as a contribution to that dialogue—can help you as you search for sources. Remember that researching is a part of the brainstorming process. While you may have already chosen a topic and even written a draft of your thesis, research will help you dig deeper and develop your ideas.

Choosing a source 

When choosing a source, think about your audience. Most often, it is best to think of your audience as someone like James—a skeptic with a high expectation for academic evidence. That means your evidence needs to come from academic, scholarly sources. WKU’s library website offers many options for finding resources. For more information, see here: https://wkuwritingcenter.wordpress.com/2015/10/04/understanding-your-wku-libraries-and-that-looming-research-project/

Sometimes, however, you will need to look at a book, such as a biography, or even a news article. While most of your papers will require academic sources, don’t think this is the only answer. Sources can be anything from personal interviews to documentaries to Twitter feeds. It all depends on your audience, your topic, and your argument.

The main thing to ask yourself is, “What do I need to know, and how do I found out?” 

Reading the Source

There are many ways to make sure a source will be useful to you before you read the entire thing. You can read the abstract to see what the paper is arguing, read the first page and look for its thesis, or glance through the article, looking for topic sentences and finally the conclusion. 

If you are able to copy and paste the article into a word document, you can highlight or bold the sections you find useful. You can also use “ctrl F” to find certain words or phrases.

Write a brief summary about the article. This will not only help you get an idea of what the paper is about, but it will also help you later when you address the article in your own paper. You will need to know clearly what the article’s stance is, or what information they are sharing.

Also, while you are reading, you can take note of certain quotes or ideas you think might be used for or against your argument. Save these and take note of the page number. Also make sure you copy and paste the citation, if given, the url, or—for books—any information you will use to cite it later.

Compiling Your Sources

Once you’ve read through several sources, taken notes, and written summaries, you can compile them as you choose. I like to organize my notes into categories based on the points I want to make. I simply copy and paste my notes into the order I want them to go and give them appropriate title sections.

Finally…

Dig deep. If a source references another source that seems interesting, see if you can find it. If you can find a primary source—such as a historic document or interview, etc.—this is especially useful. Remember, this is all part of the writing process. The more you do before you actually write your paper, the easier it will be to get your ideas down later.

Keep an eye out for next week’s post on writing a thesis!

 

Best Free Online Writing Tools for Student Writers

It’s not stereotyping to say that college students love free things—it’s just a fact. Whether it’s free t-shirts from student organizations, free pizza from events on campus, or free pens from tablers in DSU, we’re taking advantage of all the freebies we can get. Why not do the same with your writing? There are tons of free writing resources available to you online; here are a few of our favorites:

Grammarly: https://www.grammarly.com/

If you’ve ever thought you needed spellcheck for email, you’re in luck. If you’re doing any writing online or in MS Word, Grammarly is for you. It’s a spellchecker that is more intuitive than Google’s or Microsoft’s, and it can be added as an extension to your web browser. If you create an account, Grammarly will track your common errors and provide you a weekly report to help you improve your writing.

Google Docs: https://www.google.com/docs/about/

If you have a Gmail account, you have access to Google Docs, an online word processing program. In addition to having similar functionality to MS Word and Apple’s Pages, it stores all documents online in your Google Drive, connected to your Gmail account. Additionally, it saves while you’re working (never accidentally lose your whole paper again!); you can have multiple editors on a document, all working in real time (great for group projects); and you can access your paper from any computer with internet.

Microsoft OneDrive: https://my.wku.edu/

With your student email account, you have access to useful Microsoft apps, including OneDrive and Word Online. Like Google Docs, with OneDrive and Word Online, you can compose and save documents online, accessible from anywhere you can use your email account. You can also collaborate with other students in real time.

Purdue OWL: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/

We love the Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab), and you will too. It has resources on every style of academic paper, including MLA, APA, and Chicago, plus resources for ESL (English as a Second Language), writing in general, and resources for tutors and teachers. Any citation or formatting questions you may have, Purdue OWL has the answers.

WKU’s Writing Center “Resources for Writers” Pagehttp://www.wku.edu/writingcenter/resources_writers.php

We’ve got some great resources, besides the ones mentioned here, specifically for academic writing linked on the Writing Center website. We’ll also be adding some video and pdf tutorials and reference sheets in the upcoming weeks—stay tuned!

WKU’s Writing Center blog: https://wkuwritingcenter.wordpress.com/

We’re shameless self-promoters, but it’s because we’re doing a ton of great stuff right now. We’ve got content on all sorts of writing situations, and new content is posted every Tuesday and Friday!

Want to take advantage of another free writing resource? Visit the Writing Center today or set up an appointment online. We’re open from 9 AM to 4 PM in 123 Cherry Hall and 4 PM to 9 PM in the Academic Commons in Cravens, Monday through Thursday (9 AM to 3 PM in 123 Cherry Hall on Fridays).

What Should I Write About?

Brainstorming can be an easy or difficult task depending on your level of excitement about an assignment, your existing knowledge, your timeline, and other factors. While you may feel that a topic is something that floats around until it finally settles into your mind, ready to be written, or that, on the contrary, it is something you chase after but remains out of reach, there are actually many techniques you can practice to pin that topic to the ground.

Where do ideas come from? 

Last week, I had an amazing breakthrough in finishing up a rough draft for a short story I was working on. Suddenly all the ideas clogged in my brain flowed freely and found their place on the page. While some may call this kind of writing session “inspired” or picture a writer stopping in the middle of an activity, grabbing a pen and paper, and writing something beautiful and perfect as if playing scribe to an external “muse,” my experience last week came after days of brainstorming and finally free writing.

Paper topics often come the same way. While I can’t deny that there are some unexplainable instances in which ideas just shoot down like lightning, more often than not, it takes intentional brainstorming time to finally capture an idea.

Set a Deadline 

In my last blog, I addressed how the best time to start your paper is now. That means that coming up with a topic begins now, and that takes intentional, scheduled time. As I wrote before, you may even decide to make a deadline for yourself for when you will finally choose your topic. In other words, don’t wait for lightning!

Thesis or no Thesis?

It may be that, while brainstorming, your topic and thesis may come to you simultaneously. That’s great! On the other hand, if trying to come up with a thesis around your topic is preventing you from choosing a topic to begin with, set it aside and don’t worry about it for now.

Brainstorming

Brainstorming is a fairly nuanced word; it can entail anything from reading, researching, note-taking, or just sitting and thinking about topics. A lot of this depends on what works for you, and that often depends on what kind of paper you are writing.

Free-writing 

One method is to simply free-write. This is what I did to unclog my thoughts about the story I was writing. I simply opened a word document and typed away until I had a more solid idea of what to write about. I didn’t stop, even when I had nothing to say but “Anyway” or “I don’t know what to write.” Before, thoughts were flowing in and out of my head, but free writing allowed me to capture those thoughts and process them.

Free-speaking

On the other hand, maybe you process better through speaking aloud, so talking into a recording devise would help you accumulate ideas.  Maybe you need an audience to receive and give feedback to your ideas. At the Writing Center, we can offer a listening ear.

Careful reading

Try keeping a pen in your hand while reading to underline and take notes. Jot down things even if you don’t know for sure it will be helpful later; it just might! For literary papers, think about questions you have, what the author is trying to say, or what theories may be applied to it. For other papers, think about how the topic might apply to other situations or what you might be able to add to it from your experience, from research, or from further study.

Research 

Do some research on your chosen book or field and see if anything jumps out to you. Sometimes seeing what’s already there can help you see what is missing. Think about your paper as a contribution to the discussion.

Questions to get you thinking

  1. What about this subject or book is interesting to you? Do you have any experience with it now? Will you in the future?
  2. What in your reading has left you wanting to know more?
  3. Do you see anything in your readings or lessons that connects with other topics, contexts, or social concerns?
  4. If you are writing on a novel, what might the writer’s intention be? What symbols do you see? Do you see any loose ends? Any connections?

How do you know it’s a good topic?

Finally, here are some questions to help you discern if your topic is not only good in general but also good for you specifically.

Is it interesting to you?

Maybe you are writing about a story that really moved or angered you, or maybe you are writing about the effects of red40 on children with ADHD because your brother had shown side effects in the past. Whatever it is, your topic should engage you enough that you won’t tire of it after the first page.

Has it been done before? 

Some students strive to write something that has never been said before, but that is sometimes a lofty goal, particularly when writing about novels that have been around for centuries. If this is stifling you, remember that this topic hasn’t been covered by YOU and that you have a perspective that no one else has. In your research, you may find yourself putting together pieces of the puzzle that haven’t been linked before.

On the other hand, choosing a topic that has never been addressed before may mean that there is nothing to research, or even that it is invalid. For instance, researching a topic that looked into the probability of apes taking over the world, if anything, might send you to personal blogs or websites with unprovable science. This may be a sign that your topic is improbable.

Is it controversial?

If you are writing an argumentative paper, it is important that your topic have some kind of opposition. If you were to write a paper about why brushing your teeth is good for you, for instance, you would be arguing with no one (or maybe some outliers). But if you wrote your paper arguing brushing your teeth with fluoride may be harmful, or that one should only use a particular brand, then you have an argument and will likely find sources that support opposing sides.

What are others saying?

If you aren’t sure about a topic, ask a friend, a professor, a mentor, or even a tutor at the Writing Center. Note their reactions, their level of interest, and any questions they might have. This will help you know if you are on the right track or if you need to dig a little deeper.

Creative Writing Blogs You Should Be Following

If you enjoy creative writing, whether as your major, your passion, or a hobby, there are endless resources available to you online to help you with your creative writing practice. Whether you’re looking for inspiration, motivation, writing prompts, or publication advice, if you’re interested in creative writing, here are the blogs you should be following.

The Write Practicehttp://thewritepractice.com/

This isn’t just a blog, it’s an entire site dedicated to the practice of creative writing with TONS of free resources: writing assessments, prompts, lessons, classes, tutorials, and of course, a blog with helpful content on a variety of writing situations.

The Creative Pennhttps://www.thecreativepenn.com/blog/

Joanna Penn, creator of The Creative Penn, is a prolific fiction and nonfiction writer and as such has a wealth of knowledge on creative writing. Her blog includes numerous free resources as well, including e-books and video series.

Write to Donehttps://writetodone.com/

Write to Done has great articles on CW topics, including publishing and marketing, an important but oft-ignored or neglected aspect of the writing process for creative writers.

Daily Writing Tipshttps://www.dailywritingtips.com/

It’s exactly what it sounds like: daily writing tips. From commonly misused words to formatting dialogue in fiction, Daily Writing Tips has tips on every writing subject imaginable.

The Writers’ Academyhttp://www.thewritersacademy.co.uk/blog/

The Writers’ Academy is created by Penguin Random House—one of the Big Five publishers. It has quality content on CW and lit topics, as well as fun stuff about libraries, bookstores, and other lit-related subjects.

Writer’s Digesthttp://www.writersdigest.com/

In addition to the Editor blogs, which are full of useful writing and publishing advice, Writer’s Digest has pretty much everything creative writers need, including writing prompts, forums, contests, guides, and other resources. Writer’s Digest also has webinars and classes (some free, some at a price).

WKU’s Writing Center blog: https://wkuwritingcenter.wordpress.com/

We’re not ashamed of self-promotion. While not all of our content is specifically relating to creative writing, we do regularly post CW content, and content about writing in general that can be applied to creative as well as academic writing.

Interested in creative writing resources or a consultation with a writing tutor on a creative piece? Visit the Writing Center today or set up an appointment online. We’re open from 9 AM to 4 PM in 123 Cherry Hall and 4 PM to 9 PM in the Academic Commons in Cravens, Monday through Thursday (9 AM to 3 PM in 123 Cherry Hall on Fridays).

When Should You Start Your Paper?

For the next several weeks, I will be writing a series of blogs that focus on each stage of the writing process, from brainstorming to outlining to finally editing your paper.

As a writing tutor, many students ask me, “Where do I start?” My hope is that these posts will help you answer that question, but for now my focus is not on the “where” and “how” but the “when.”

More than likely, you have more than one paper on your plate this semester. Some of you have some small papers with one big paper due at the end. With all of these deadlines, it may be difficult to know how long each paper will take, especially if this is new for you.

So, when do you start your paper?

Right now.

Before you start hyperventilating, I’m not saying that you get out your laptop and begin formatting your paper. If writing only involved putting words on a page, maybe, but there is a lot of brainstorming, outlining, researching, etc. that happens before you ever create your word document. In fact, there is almost always more work to do than you may anticipate, so taking the time it takes and working on small, manageable tasks each week will prevent last-minute stress, cramming, and poor work.

Sometimes, professors schedule pre-writing deadlines—such as choosing your topic or turning in an outline—to make sure you don’t put anything off and get overwhelmed. If this is not the case for you, you can still schedule the following steps (or a variation of them), beginning with deadlines for as soon as possible and ending with the final due date.

  1. Choose a topic
  2. Research—I typically give myself a week or two for this, so, rather than having a “due date,” you can schedule time throughout your week to peruse the library or online resources.
  3. Write your thesis statement
  4. Complete outline
  5. Write rough draft
  6. Edit your paper
  7. Turn in your paper

Some of these may move around or repeat. For instance, your thesis statement may not be fully developed until you are editing your paper, or you may discover a missing link that requires more research; that’s okay.

You may be hoping for a big block of time to work on your paper, but the chances are that, even if that time comes, you will quickly drain yourself by devoting all of that time to your paper. Instead, look for those moments throughout your day when you tend to have open time. What time of day do you work best? When are your breaks? Do you have five or ten minutes here and there that you could devote to finding sources or writing down ideas? You may discover you have more time to write than you originally thought!

Often, deadlines can loom over us like a hazy fog that we can’t quite grasp but that weigh heavily on our shoulders. By writing down a due date and scheduling out when you will work on it, you can pin the assignment to earth in a solid form that you can hold in your hands and continually refer back to. Don’t make this an optional due date; treat it just as you would a due date given to you by your instructor. When you accomplish that specific task, check it off, celebrate, and take a break. You will come to your next task with a fresher perspective if you give yourself some time in between.

If you have a paper looming up, I’m here to help. Not only am I and others available in the writing center to help you get started, but I will also be following up this post with several others on the topic of writing a research paper.

Emily Diehl