Essay Writing: The Thesis, From Chaos to Success


The Thesis, From Chaos to Success

Any serious discussion about essay writing will talk about the thesis statement. Previous articles have touched on the importance of the core assertion and points. However, the thesis statement is so critical to essay writing that it is worthy of being treated as a topic by itself. A strong essay needs to be straight-forward, providing information to the reader with a clear sense of purpose, and providing convincing arguments to support any claims made by the author. A thesis is essentially the summation of everything that the author plans to cover, and sets the expectations of what will be discussed in successive paragraphs.


Approaching a Thesis

In the I.D.E.A Model Article we talked extensively about knowing the assignment and understanding what kind of essay you are expected to produce. Further, we laid out the essay skeleton (including the thesis) to create a map that would serve as the guide to your composition. This outlining, before-writing or pre-writing, whatever you call it, is a way for less confident writers to gather their scattered ideas. Even experienced essay writers will use them in time-critical situations as a check-list to make sure their points and ideas are represented. Suffice to say, that this structural design thinking is an excellent tool to get you started, give you a plan, and provide something to refer back to as you write. First and foremost in this pre-writing is the core premise, the thesis.

So, what is a thesis? You will hear it called a “primary assertion” which is a fancy way of saying it’s a statement that expresses an opinion. A thesis could be as simple as “all skies are blue”. However, that is an arguable point. What about at night? Not blue then. What about as the sun is going down? Since it fails the test so quickly, “all skies are blue” would be a bad thesis premise. A good thesis will make a defensible claim. “Smoking is bad for a person’s health” is a simple thesis, or core assertion. It’s a good thesis because you can find evidence of the truth of the statement. You can find numerous articles about how smoking causes many physical ailments including cancer, heart disease, and increased chance of a stroke.

To strengthen a thesis, you add in your “defense” to the opinion. We started with smoking being unhealthy, and then easily found reasons that statement was true. So, a stronger or supported thesis about smoking would be something like: Smoking is detrimental to human health causing cancer, heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Now, this is better, but the statement is flawed. The effects described don’t happen after smoking only one cigarette. So, that’s a weakness. To fix it, you change the scope of the statement. This is called “qualifying” the assertion. You make the statement more (or less) specific to retain the “truth” of the observation.

Qualification is critical aspect of designing a thesis. Whenever you propose a thesis, consider the ways the statement can be challenged. This “devil’s advocate” thinking is important not only because it strengthens the thesis but because it may give you ideas to incorporate into the essay itself. So, let’s propose a qualified thesis: Prolonged smoking is hazardous to human health and has been linked to increased occurrence of cancer, heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Now, this is a workable thesis. We add “prolonged” and change detrimental to “hazardous”. The word hazardous was picked instead of detrimental because hazardous means the “potential to do harm” as opposed to detrimental which is “certain harm”. Splitting hairs? Absolutely. In the world of the thesis, meaning is everything. Make sure you know exactly the definitions of the words you use, the more specific the better. The other part of the qualifying was changing “causing” to “has been linked to increased occurrence”. This qualification is made because sometimes people smoke for fifty years and don’t have problems. Because of these outlying examples, you can’t definitively say smoking causes cancer. You say “smoking can cause cancer”. In this case, since it’s a list of things, I made the claim more general, “linked to increased occurrence of”. This works in terms of syntax but makes the statement easier to defend. The medical profession is filled with ambiguity, so staying away from absolute statements is always wise.

Making a supportable thesis is a great start, but consider if the statement could somehow be stronger. Once you get a good candidate for an assertion and its defense, don’t stop there. See if there are ways to polish and make it seem more authoritative. Consider this revision to our smoking thesis: Decades of research into the effects of prolonged smoking indicate a dramatic increase in potential health consequences including cancer, heart and lung disease. This statement says essentially the same things as our qualified statement, but now we’ve made it more aggressive. We add “Decades of research” and “dramatic increase” to add “pop” to the assertion and make it seem more authoritarian.


Thesis support: Picking Your Battles

Part of this whole pre-writing part of your paper is simply understanding the topic you’re going to cover. One of the main requirements of this understanding is forming an opinion. In the scope of this article it’s impossible to even scratch the surface of all the possible scenarios. I will use a common one that often frustrates many students. The instructor assigns a research paper or general paper and requests that you just “talk about” or “address” a particular topic. They give a length, but otherwise leave the rest up to you. For many people, having this latitude causes them to freeze. “What do I write about X?” is the question that consumes them. Where and how to start.

The main thing about writing a paper is knowing enough about the topic to fill the length the instructor specified. Your first goal should be to accumulate enough points of interest and specific details that you have something to talk about or debate. Go through your research and write one line items of candidates that you can choose later for possible inclusion in the essay.

If the topic is something general like “natural resources” or the “economy” pick something from within that subject that interests or affects you. I find that some people simply have no curiosity, and nothing interests or affects them. If you are one of those, then Google is your friend. Search on the topic itself, what result comes up most? What kinds of discussions on the topic are going on? As you peruse this material look for statements or headlines that you agree or disagree on. For instance the topic is “Global Warming”, and you see someone touting that the phenomena is just scientific foolishness. You can write something agreeing, or disagreeing. Just remember, you have to support your position. So, you have to find enough sources to give foundation to whatever statement you plan to make. The key thing is coming up with a position: like, hate, agree, disagree, approve, disapprove, for, against. No matter what the topic is, you need stand somewhere. The middle is a valid position as well, but then you have to discuss both sides. The main thing is having sub-topics that support or validate whatever assertion you wish to make. “Nuclear energy isn’t a viable source of electric power in the U.S. because of X, Y, Z.” You need to fill in those missing arguments, and be able to defend the defense. This is the realm of research papers and citing your sources. Even non-research papers need attributable sources at times. Like in the heading, pick your battles. If you use a point to defend your assertion, make sure you understand that point, and understand how it relates to the topic. If you can’t talk about the point, then it won’t help you in supporting your thesis.

The Thesis connects your ideas to a cohesive structure.

The Thesis connects your ideas to a cohesive structure.


Architecture of a Thesis: The Nuances

For purposes of illustration, we’ve used fairly simple and direct examples of thesis statements. However, there are a vast number of topics and paper types. The straight-forward assertion and points statement won’t work in all cases.

By now you should have accepted that your paper needs a thesis statement, but may have not been able to make a more simple assertion work for your topic. So, let’s discuss the attributes that make a statement a thesis. Your thesis is the a unifying idea, it answers the question of what the paper is “about”. Here’s some more criteria for a thesis.

The Statement is a Thesis When:
  • The statement is an assertion, not a fact or observation. (Facts are used to support your thesis.)
  • The statement takes a stand. (Establishes a position: for, against, like, hate, agree, disagree, approve, disapprove)
  • The statement is the main idea and identifies your discussion topics.
  • The statement answers a specific question and provides support for the solution.
  • The statement is multi-faceted. (It should offer polarity or opposing views, that can be argued for or against, or be refutable in some way.)

The main takeaway at this point is that you know you need a thesis. You know you need support for your assertion, and that those points (sub-topics) themselves need to be concrete enough that you can write about or research them. Knowing the thesis won’t write the paper for you. However, doing the work to create a thesis that fits the criteria will give you a great start in terms of thinking through your topic and the discussion points. The writing itself may still be a challenge, but at least you will have developed a map to help you reach your goal.

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