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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Your Paper’s Roadmap

by Abby Ponder

If you’ve ever taken any English class ever–or if you’ve written a paper in general, really–then you’ve probably heard of thesis statements. In fact, you’ve probably used them. Several times. And perhaps you’ve felt a sense of dread building in your stomach upon seeing those words in crisp, clean ink at the top of an assignment. The butterflies are a-fluttering and the tummy is a-rumbling.

Trepidation when it comes to thesis statements is not an unusual phenomenon.

This uneasiness stems from somewhere, certainly, but sometimes it’s hard to put a finger on why thesis statements cause all the organized thoughts in your head to fly out the window.

For some people, thesis statements are simply overwhelming. Ideally, according to the Center for Writing Studies at the University of Illinois, “every paper you write should have a main point, a main idea, or central message […] A thesis statement focuses your ideas into one or two sentences. It should present the topic of your paper and also a comment about your position in relation to the topic.”

In laymen’s terms, a thesis statement is the paper’s roadmap. It highlights what the paper is going to be about and informs the reader on how they’re going to get there.

With that in mind, writing the statement seems like a lot of pressure. It’s got to contain a whole lot of information that you, as the writer, might not know yet. And that’s okay!

So, you know what you should do?

You should save it for last.

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When you’re writing an essay, it can be really tempting to write in chronological order. It makes sense, after all: it’s a natural progression of thoughts, exposition, and explanation. However, just because you write the bulk of your paper in chronological order, it doesn’t mean you can’t write the introduction last.

See, sometimes as you write your ideas change. Though you may have started in a structured, “I’m going to talk about this, this, and this,” mind frame, your ideas can evolve the more you put words on paper. Wait until the paper’s finished, examine the main ideas you address, and then construct your thesis.

It helps tremendously–I promise.

However, if you like a little bit more structure before you start writing, the value of an outline in indisputable. If you use an outline, the chances are pretty good that it’ll come into play again when you’re writing your actual thesis statement, too.

And, while you’re at it, don’t be afraid to break away from the traditional “3-point thesis.” The content of the statement is arguably more important than the structure. So, as you write your statement, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does it answer the assignment’s primary question? (If there is one.)
  • Do you reference specific points? 
  • Does it answer the “so what?” question? (i.e., if I’m reading your paper with absolutely no context, am I going to understand why this paper is important?)
  • Does it, ultimately, say something? Sometimes writers get caught in a trap of wandering in circles, using words without really ever saying something. Your thesis doesn’t exist to expand on a word count. Instead, it is there to expand on an idea. Use it to your advantage.

You can even find more questions to ask yourself, along with examples, by visiting the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s webpage devoted to the topic.

So, take a deep breath. Writing thesis statements takes practice and, ultimately, confidence. The more faith you have in your statement, the more likely you’ll say something worth saying. Write with your shoulders back and your thinking cap in place.

Good luck.

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Documentation and formatting

Sometimes, citation style and formatting can seem like the most daunting – and the most tedious – part of writing a research paper. Following guidelines about margin sizes, cover pages, and detailed citations can seem like stuffy, academic nonsense and a waste of time for a paper that is most likely only going to be read by your professor. Though it is true that these details are secondary to content, they are not just torture devices designed by your professor to make you suffer and give them something to laugh about with other professors in the faculty lounge: there are actual, legitimate reasons for following these rules and learning appropriate style techniques.

Avoiding plagiarism is the most frequently discussed reason for following citation guidelines. Most of your professors have probably talked to you about this, so I won’t go into excruciating detail and give you a speech you’ve already heard. It’s pretty simple: you have to give credit where credit is due. Not giving your sources credit is stealing. It’s cheating. Don’t do it.

But why use these standard, field-specific styles? Why not just write a note at the end of your paper that tells where you got your information?

When you write a research paper, what you are essentially doing is entering into an academic conversation about the topic you’ve chosen (or been assigned) to address. You’re communicating what you understand about a given subject to an audience, and possibly pointing out something new about a topic that no one has thought of before. Proper documentation of the resources from which you gained your knowledge backs up your point; sloppy or incorrect documentation hurts your credibility (and your grade).

Documentation/citation styles are, much like grammar, or written music, or Latin classifications of plant and animal life (there is, I’m sure, a fancier word for this, but I’m not a biology major), codes that exist within a group – in this case, an academic field – to help people communicate. When you as a writer don’t follow these guidelines, your credibility is hurt. You and your audience have entered into an agreement to use these means to talk about this subject, and you’ve broken that agreement. Oops.

Now that you’re committed to learning and following style and citation guidelines, there is one obvious problem: they can be hard to master. They’re complicated. They’re technical. Lucky for you, there’s also an obvious answer!

We here at the WKU Writing Center really want to help you! As students of English and writing, we’re well versed in MLA style and documentation guidelines, but we’re also familiar with APA and other styles. If you bring in something we’re not familiar with, we can figure it out together.

It’s also important to note that we writing tutors, just like you, are only human. I look up details about MLA style nearly every time I write a paper. Almost no one has this stuff memorized – if you do, I want to know your secret. A really great resource for information about documentation style is the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL). This website has lots of helpful information about both MLA and APA documentation – I use it pretty much every time I have to cite something – and lots of other nifty writing tips as well.

Happy writing!

Rachel

This post was originally published on October 17, 2013.