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10.4: Working Thesis Statement

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    Defining “thesis statement”

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    A thesis statement:

    • tells the reader how you will interpret the significance of the subject matter under discussion.
    • is a road map for the paper; in other words, it tells the reader what to expect from the rest of the paper.
    • directly answers the question asked of you. A thesis is an interpretation of a question or subject, not the subject itself. The subject, or topic, of an essay might be World War II or Moby Dick; a thesis must then offer a way to understand the war or the novel.
    • makes a claim that others might dispute.
    • is usually a single sentence somewhere in your first paragraph that presents your argument to the reader. The rest of the paper (the body of the essay) gathers and organizes evidence that will persuade the reader of the logic of your interpretation.
    • If your assignment asks you to take a position or develop a claim about a subject, you may need to convey that position or claim in a thesis statement near the beginning of your draft. The assignment may not explicitly state that you need a thesis statement because your instructor may assume you will include one.

    If your assignment asks you to take a position or develop a claim about a subject, you may need to convey that position or claim in a thesis statement near the beginning of your draft. The assignment may not explicitly state that you need a thesis statement because your instructor may assume you will include one.

    When in doubt, ask your instructor if the assignment requires a thesis statement. When an assignment asks you to analyze, to interpret, to compare and contrast, to demonstrate cause and effect, or to take a stand on an issue, it is likely that you are being asked to develop a thesis and to support it persuasively.

    Writing a thesis statement

    A thesis is the result of a lengthy thinking process. Formulating a thesis is not the first thing you do after reading an essay assignment. Before you develop an argument on any topic, you have to collect and organize evidence, look for possible relationships between known facts (such as surprising contrasts or similarities), and think about the significance of these relationships. Once you do this thinking, you will probably have a working thesis statement: a basic or main idea, an argument that you think you can support with evidence but that may need adjustment along the way.

    Ensuring a thesis is strong

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    If there’s time to get some feedback on your thesis, consult your teacher. Even if you do not have time to get advice elsewhere, you can do some thesis evaluation of your own. When reviewing your working thesis, ask yourself the following:

    • Do I answer the question?
      • Re-reading the question prompt after constructing a working thesis can help you fix an argument that misses the focus of the question.
    • Have I taken a position that others might challenge or oppose?
      • If your thesis simply states facts that no one would, or even could, disagree with, it’s possible that you are simply providing a summary, rather than making an argument.
    • Is my thesis statement specific enough?
      • Thesis statements that are too vague often do not have a strong argument. If your thesis contains words like “good” or “successful,” see if you could be more specific: why is something “good”; what specifically makes something “successful”?
    • Does my thesis pass the “So what?” test?
      • If a reader’s first response is, “So what?” then you need to clarify, to forge a relationship, or to connect to a larger issue.
    • Does my essay support my thesis specifically and without wandering?
      • If your thesis and the body of your essay do not seem to go together, one of them has to change. It’s o.k. to change your working thesis to reflect things you have figured out in the course of writing your paper. Remember, always reassess and revise your writing as necessary.
    • Does my thesis pass the “how and why?” test?
      • If a reader’s first response is “how?” or “why?” your thesis may be too open-ended and lack guidance for the reader. See what you can add to give the reader a better take on your position right from the beginning.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Suppose you are taking a course on 19th-century America, and the instructor hands out the following essay assignment: Compare and contrast the reasons why the North and South fought the Civil War.

    1. At what stage of the writing process would you expect a student to write a statement like this?

      The North and South fought the Civil War for many reasons, some of which were the same and some different.

    2. At what stage of the writing process would you expect a student to write a statement like this?

    While both sides fought the Civil War over the issue of slavery, the North fought for moral reasons while the South fought to preserve its own institutions.

    1.  At what stage of the writing process would you expect a student to write a statement like this?

    While both Northerners and Southerners believed they fought against tyranny and oppression, Northerners focused on the oppression of slaves while Southerners defended their own right to self-government.

    Answer
    1. This kind of statement is likely to appear early in a writing process, likely during initial prewriting activities. It restates the question without providing any additional information.  It’s not yet a thesis statement in any form, because it makes no original claims.

      A reader of this weak thesis might think, “What reasons? How are they the same? How are they different?” 
    2. This is a working thesis. It likely was written at the end of prewriting, during evidence-gathering, or early in the drafting process.

      Included in this working thesis is a reason for the war and some idea of how the two sides disagreed over this reason. Note that while this does make a claim, it’s still a little vague.
    3. This is a final draft of a thesis statement, likely written near the end of the writing process during revision and editing. It presents a way of interpreting evidence that illuminates the significance of the question. It is also an arguable claim–not every reader will automatically agree with this statement. 
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