Developmental writing lesson One: Thesis Statements
If there’s one thing your English 101 teacher will focus on, it will be thesis statements. Being able to write a good thesis statement is the foundation of a good paper. Without a good thesis, your paper will lack focus.
Quite often, a weak thesis will cause your entire paper to unravel. Your lack of focus will make organization difficult and transitions nearly impossible. The paper will go in circles, repeating the same points over and over again. Many of these common writing issues are usually symptoms of a bad thesis statement.
Have you heard these critiques from teachers before? Seen the corrections glowing on the page in bright red ink? Chances are your paper was suffering from one small issue that was causing all of these other complications. That small issue was a weak thesis statement.
Crafting a Good Thesis Solves Most Writing Issues
But here’s the good news. By simply learning how to fix these weak thesis statements, you can dramatically improve your writing. It’s amazing how much easier writing is when you actually know what point you’re trying to make. A light bulb will go off in your head and you’ll begin to recognize an organizational pattern to your writing that actually makes sense. You’ll start to see why transitions work and how to use them effectively.
It all comes down to this one simple step of learning how to craft good thesis statements.
In Developmental Writing, we focus intensively on honing your ability to write a good thesis. That’s why we begin right in Lesson One and continue discussing theses every week until you pass the course. If you can write a good thesis, you’ll be miles ahead of most English 101 students when you get to college.
What Makes a Good Thesis Statement?
Okay. If thesis statements are so important, what exactly makes a thesis statement good? That’s the question. If you can master the process by which we create good theses, you will be well on your way to becoming a better writer.
But, here’s the catch. There’s no specific method that will always result in a perfect thesis every time. Learning to craft a good thesis statement takes practice. The more you do it, the better you’ll get. There are, however, a couple strategies you can keep in mind that will make your life easier. Think of these guidelines as “rules of thumb” that will make your thesis statements more likely to succeed.
If your thesis meets the following criteria, there’s a good chance you’ve got a winner.
A good thesis statement must be interesting. Quite often, students get so caught up in the mechanics of a thesis that they forget the most important part of writing a good paper: it needs to be worth reading! If no reasonable reader would care about the topic, then it doesn’t matter how good or insightful your argument is. Always consider the reader. No paper can succeed if it reaches no reader. Ask yourself: Do I care about this topic? Would I read this paper?
A good thesis statement must be specific. Developing writers commonly think that choosing a broad topic will make writing the paper easier. After all, the more you have to choose from, the easier it will be, right? Actually, the exact opposite is true. Very broad thesis statements lead to information paralysis. So much can be said about the topic that the writer ends up barely saying anything at all. A thesis that’s too broad almost always results in a paper that repeats the same general statements over and over again. Usually, the writer never actually explores the topic in any kind of meaningful way.
A good thesis statement must be manageable. Similar to the specificity guideline, a good thesis statement must also be manageable. You don’t want to set up an epic game plan for a three-page paper. Manageability will vary according to the length of the paper you are writing. For example, you wouldn’t want to examine all of William Faulkner’s novels in five pages, but you might for a 300-page PhD dissertation. The five-pager would be more manageable if you focused only on one of his novels, like The Sound and the Fury.
Examples of Good and Bad Thesis Statements
Bad Thesis 1: The Affordable Care Act has many pros and cons.
Let’s see how this thesis statement works according to our guidelines.
- Is it interesting? Yes, some readers would find this topic interesting.
- Is it specific? No, not really. We don’t know what direction the writer will go, or how many pros and/or cons will be explored. We don’t know what group will be the focus of this paper–students, retirees, families?
- Is it manageable? Maybe, but because the thesis lacks specificity, we don’t know for sure whether the topic is appropriate for the assignment.
Fixed: Although many special interest groups have fought the Affordable Care Act, the bill has at least three major provisions that benefit recent college graduates which is crucial to stimulating the American economy.
Do you see why this thesis is better? It focuses specifically on one group (recent college graduates) and it limits the discussion to “three major provisions,” thereby making the argument manageable.
Bad Thesis 2: Since the American Revolution, protest has been an important part of American culture.
Ask the big three questions.
- Is it interesting? Sure, many people would like to read a paper on this topic.
- Is it specific? This is a close call, but it’s probably safe to say this thesis is specific. It focuses on the single theme of protest in American culture.
- Is it manageable? Aha, here’s the problem. This topic is not manageable. Think about how many protests have occurred over the past 250 years of American history. You would have to write a whole book to cover this vast topic.
Fixed: The protests that sparked the American Revolution have much in common with contemporary political movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party.
This new thesis zeros in on two very focused periods in American history and compares them. This paper would leave out everything that happened in between these two historical events and, as a result, the paper’s thesis will be much more manageable.
Final Thoughts About Thesis Statements
When crafting your thesis statement, keep in mind that this important sentence is flexible. It can change. We might even go as far as to say that it should change over the course of the paper. This is why we often refer to your first few attempts as a working thesis statement.
Sometimes it takes a while to figure out exactly what point you want to make. Sometimes you won’t even realize your main point until the end of the paper. I call this “writing towards your thesis.” It happens quite often, in fact. Different people write different ways. Just make sure you go back and revise your introduction when you finally realize your main point.
Whether you craft a strong working thesis in the beginning or whether you write towards your thesis, just remember those three important questions: Is it interesting, specific, and manageable? If your thesis meets these three standards, your paper is off to a good start!
When you feel good about thesis statements, continue on to Lesson Two: Topic Sentences.
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For more on writing good thesis statements and also on the craft of teaching Developmental writers to create good thesis statements, check out our resource page.