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6.5: Writing a Working Thesis

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  • The next step, developing a “working thesis,” can be a difficult and time-consuming process. However, as was the case when considering different ideas for research in the first place, spending the time now on devising a good working thesis will pay off later.

    For our purposes here (and for most college classes), a thesis advocates a specific and debatable issue. In academic writing (including the writing done by your professors), the thesis is often stated fairly directly in the first third or so of the writing, though not usually at the end of the first paragraph where students are often told to place it. The sentence or two that seems to encapsulate the issue of the essay is called a “thesis statement.”

    Frequently, theses are implied—that is, while the piece of writing clearly has a point that the reader understands, there may not be a specific sentence or two that can easily be identified as the “thesis statement.” For example, theses are often implied in newspapers and magazines, along with a lot of the writing that appears on Web pages.

    The point is a thesis is a point.

    Theses are not statements of facts, simple questions, or summaries of events. They are positions that you as the writer take on and “defend” with evidence, logic, observations, and the other tools of discourse. Most kinds of writing—and particularly academic writing—have a thesis, directly stated or implied. Even most of the writing we largely think of as “informational” has a directly stated or implied thesis.

    Theses also tend to lend a certain organization to written arguments since what you include (or exclude) in a written text is largely controlled by the thesis. The main goal of the thesis (either as a specific statement or as an implied statement) is to answer two key questions that are concerns of all readers: “what’s your point?” and “why should I care?”

    Now, a working thesis is more or less a temporary thesis you devise in the beginning of the research process in order to set some direction in your research. However, as I wrote in the beginning of this chapter, you should remember:

    Your working thesis is temporary and should change as you research, write, and learn more about your topic.

    Think of the working thesis as the scaffolding and bracing put up around buildings when they are under construction: these structures are not designed to forever be a part of the building. Just the opposite. But you couldn’t build the building in the first place if you didn’t have the scaffolding and bracing that you inevitably have to tear away from the finished building.

    Here’s another way of thinking of it: while the journey of 1000 miles begins with just one step (so the saying goes), you still have to pick some kind of direction in the beginning. That’s the purpose of a working thesis. You might change your mind about the direction of your research as you progress through the process, but you’ve got to start somewhere.

    What does a working thesis look like? Before considering some potentially “good” examples of working theses, read through these BAD examples of statements, ones that ARE NOT theses, at least for the purposes of academic writing:

    • Computer crime is bad.
    • Fisheries around the world are important.
    • The Great Gatsby is an American novel.

    None of these sentences would make effective theses because each of these is more or less a statement of fact. Of course, we could debate some of the details here. But practically speaking, most people would assume and believe these statements to be true. Because of that, these statements don’t have much potential as working theses.

    These statements ARE NOT really theses either:

    • There are many controversial ways of dealing with computer crime.
    • There are many things that could be done to preserve fisheries around the world.
    • The Great Gatsby is a wonderful novel for several different reasons.

    These revised working thesis statements are better than the previous examples, but they are not quite working theses yet. The problem with these possible working theses is that they are hopelessly vague and give no idea to the reader where the essay is going. Also, while these statements are a bit more debatable than the previous group of examples, they are still statements that most people would more or less accept as facts.

    While this next group of statements is yet another step closer, these statements ARE NOT really good working theses either:

    • This essay will be about the role computer hackers play in computer crime committed on the Internet.
    • This essay will discuss some of the measures the international community should take in order to preserve fisheries around the world.
    • My essay is about the relevance today of The Great Gatsby’s depiction of the connection between material goods and the American dream.

    Each of these statements is close to being a working thesis because each is about an idea that has been focused into a specific topic. However, these statements are not quite working thesis statements because they don’t offer a position or opinion that will be defended in some way. To turn these topics into working theses, the writer needs to take a side on the issues suggested in the statements.

    Now, these revised statements ARE examples of possible working theses:

    • While some computer hackers are harmless, most of them commit serious computer crimes and represent a serious Internet security problem.
    • The international community should enact strict conservation measures to preserve fisheries and save endangered fish species around the world.
    • The Great Gatsby’s depiction of the connection between material goods and the American dream is still relevant today.

    If you compare these possible working theses with the statements at the beginning of this section, you will hopefully see the differences between the “bad” and “good” working theses, and hopefully you can see the characteristics of a viable working thesis.

    Each of the “good” working thesis statements:

    • takes a stand that is generally not considered a “fact;”
    • is specific enough to give the writer and potential reader some idea as to the direction the writing will take; and
    • offers an initial position on the topic that takes a stand.

    Another useful characteristic of a good working thesis is that it can help you as writer to determine what your essay will NOT be about. For example, the phrasing of the working thesis on computer hackers suggests to both the reader and the researcher that the essay will NOT be about the failure of “dot com” business, computer literacy, or computer software. Certainly these issues are related to the issue of computer hackers and computer crime, but these other issues will not become the focus of the essay.

    Exercise 5.4

    • Working with the topic you’ve chosen, create a working thesis similar to the above examples. Try to ensure that your working thesis is focused and to the point by keeping it to only one sentence. Creating a working thesis can be tricky, so be sure to devote some time to try out different possible working thesis statements. And don’t forget: a working thesis is the temporary scaffolding that will help you build your essay. It will and should change in the process of writing, so it doesn’t need to be “perfect” at this stage.
    • After you have individually formed working theses, get together with a small group of classmates to share and revise them.