The Thesis Statement: Where to End, Not BeginWriter's Web
by Joe Essid, Writing Center Director &
David Wright, Furman University Dept. of English

(printable version here)

Writers struggling with professors' expectations often begin with a concise, one-sentence statement of thesis. This technique worked--and was often demanded--in high school. It is, however, backward. Writers, contented with a one-sentence claim, often defend it to the death, warping data from primary and secondary sources to fit the thesis.

In this video (running time about 13 minutes), David Wright explains how to go about the process of drafting a thesis.

Professor Wrights's main points:

  • Theis statements make an accurate and clear promise to readers of what comes next. Think of it as a road map, not the journey taken.
  • A Thesis does not "hedge" and has two parts: a claim and a "because clause".
  • Some writers become "swashbucklers" and make claims that are too broad or absolute.
  • The Thesis is the major claim. It governs all other claims that follow.
  • Do not spend too much time framing a thesis early. It will change during the research and writing process.
  • Strive for a narrower argument that can be supported with specific evidence.

See if you can apply these principles to several flawed statements of thesis in this exercise.

Joe Essid's Process for Drafting a Thesis as a Claim that Governs an Essay:

What if, instead, the statement of thesis were considered a "governing claim" and came to be near the end of a research process? The techniques below have worked well in my writing classes. I draw heavily upon Rosenwasser's and Stephen's outstanding rheotric text, Writing Analyitcally and Keith Hjorshoj's essential guide for faculty and first-year students, The Transition to College Writing (see works consulted at the end of the page).

So how does this alternative method work?

First Step: Admit your biases, if any, about a topic. Write them down. You cannot reason FROM these to anything a professor will accept. Opinion is just that: your opinion. To get a professor to appreciate a claim, it needs more work.

Second Step: note what is most interesting to you about a topic. Can you make a claim out of that?

Example: “Cosmetic surgery seems to be used as much for vanity as necessity. The good effects of it get overshadowed by the harm it may cause.”

Third Step: Ask “so what?” and “what does X mean?” about each abstraction in the working claim. In our case:

  • What does “harm” mean?
  • “As much for vanity...” So what? Why should that harm anyone?
  • What are those “good effects”?
  • Why should an academic audience even care about such a basic claim?

Fourth Step: Begin to do research with credible sources. Many academics don’t respect Google or Wikipedia, though some like me admit that Wikipedia can be a source for general facts and a starting point for real research with academic sources. Those are the sorts of sources vetted by a panel of editors/readers in the field of study.

Fifth Step: Be honest. Don’t toss out sources that disagree with your working claim. Look for consensus among experts, then seek evidence in your search that both supports and complicates the claim you made in Step 2. By "complicates" I don't mean "make more complex": I mean data that leads to refinement and qualification "under X circumstances" for a working claim.

Sixth Step: While writing the paper revise your claim as needed, narrowing it or changing it completely. Likely professorial questions appear in parentheses.

Here’s a revised thesis: “Individuals may seek cosmetic surgery because they need it or because they want it. (So What?) Evidence suggests that the boost to one’s ego is short-lived after elective surgery.” (Which evidence? So what?)

Seventh Step: Return to the data, and repeat Steps 4 and 5 until you have something that looks like a thesis statement. Unless your professor specifies it, the thesis need not be a single sentence. You’ll want to produce a nuanced claim with some “edge” to it that governs the direction and content of the project:

“Four recent academic studies of elective cosmetic surgery have shown that most patients chose the procedures based upon self image, not need. The evidence strongly suggests that the short-term boost to patients’ egos does not last and that, in the end, cosmetic surgery may even cause more harm than good to those who elect to have it.”

Note as well a remaining “suitcase-term,” the word “harm.” What sort of harm? Under what circumstances? Always? The writer has the responsibility to “unpack this suitcase” in the project, but this sort of explanation cannot usually be done IN the thesis, without bogging it down. You could try one more sentence here, clarifying harm, or wait until the body of the paper to develop that idea.

Works Consulted:

Hjortshoj, Keith. The Transition to College Writing. 2nd Ed. New York: Bedford, 2009.

Rosenwasser, David, and Jill Stephen. Writing Analytically. 5th edition. Boston: Thompson- Wadsworth, 2009.

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