Our last post at Writing Center Underground discussed how to develop a research question. The research question is more of an open-ended beginning for the research paper. Your answer to your research question is your thesis. The thesis to your paper is an assertion you make about your topic.
THESIS = TOPIC + SPECIFIC ASSERTION
The thesis is considered a promise you are making to the reader about the purpose and direction of your paper. Some instructors refer to the thesis as a “forecasting statement,” forecasting what will lie ahead in the paper. The thesis statement usually is placed at the end of the introductory paragraph, setting up a roadmap for the coming argument.
In the research question you hopefully already created, you posed a question you wanted to know more about, a question that, after some initial research, you came to have an informed opinion about. Your answer to that research question will lead you toward your thesis.
For instance, if you wanted to know if watching violent television programs causes violent behavior in adolescents, your answer to this question is your working thesis. We call it a “working” thesis, as it may change shape as you move further into your paper.
If you think about this question and can’t decide, or you want to present both sides or ride the fence, as they both have valid points, this is NOT a thesis statement that will work in a persuasive paper. One of the main characteristics of a thesis statement is that it must be arguable. If you make a statement that others couldn’t disagree with, then there is no other side to pose, no assertion to make, so no arguable thesis.
If you take the same research question above and give a definitive answer, for instance, watching violent TV does not cause violent behavior in adolescents, then you have a statement that an audience might disagree with. Now you’re not riding the fence, you’ve jumped on one side of the fence to argue a point – a THESIS!
Let’s take another example from last week’s research questions. You have chosen the topic of children’s programming, and pose the research question, Does watching children’s programming have a positive effect on language learning in preschool-age children? After some initial research, you answer this question YES! The form of a thesis statement will be something like
Watching children’s TV programming has a positive effect on language learning in preschool-age children.
To confirm this thesis statement is arguable and well-qualified, ask yourself, could someone disagree with my assertion? For the above example, yes, some people might say that young children’s language learning might be hampered by watching TV. If you are ever in doubt about whether or not a thesis is going to work, ask yourself if someone else might disagree with you. If the answer is yes, then it’s passed the largest hurdle.
Vague thesis statements are one of the most common problems for beginning writers. A vague thesis statement leads to an unfocused paper, so the more specific the better. Say you want to write an argument paper on cell phone use. What about cell phone use?
Vague: All states should ban cells phone use while driving.
This thesis leaves too many unanswered questions. What kind of cell phone use? Is it okay to listen to messages? Is it okay to talk, but not text? Should all types of use be banned – texting, talking, listening? Should all drivers be banned from cell phones? All ages? What if you’re “driving” a boat or jet ski? Be Specific!
Revised: All cell phone use should be prohibited while operating a motor vehicle for all drivers under the age of 21.
The revised thesis is specific, arguable, and has research available. As you dig further into the research, you might decide to adjust the working thesis, and this is fine. This is just a starting point to focus your research and paper.
Avoid Question Thesis – Make sure you form the thesis into a declarative statement and not a question. “Can we save the whooping crane? is a broad question that fails to express an assertion or perspective.
Focus Focus Focus – “Football should be outlawed” or “Drugs should be banned” are too broad. Both lack a specific focus. What level of football? What type of drugs? Go back to your research question and consider exactly what you want to investigate further. If you can’t answer the research question with a well-focused response, keep tweaking until you have an answer, or working thesis, that will fit the shape and scope of your assignment.
So What? – Does your thesis pass the “so what” test? – So what about banning drugs? So what about outlawing football? Consider if you are connecting your thesis to a larger issue and if you have clarified it enough so that readers will be interested and engaged in your argument.
Forecast –Your thesis should forecast what the paper will be about, without explicitly stating what it will be about. For example, “This paper will explore the extinction of prairie dogs and what we must do to stop it” is not a thesis statement, but a “signpost.” This type of statement signposts what you are writing about. Any statements of “I will do this in my paper,” or “Next I will talk about this and that” should be avoided.
Once you compose a strong working thesis, your paper will gain focus and clarity. Each paragraph will support and relate back to the thesis, which will keep the focus, flow and organization humming. Next week, we’ll discuss organizing your paper around your thesis.