I’ve decided to attempt the first draft of a college-level textbook, writing it directly into my blog, bit by bit. Feedback and recommendations in the thread comments are welcome, either encouraging or critical. The first chapter is a mini-course in critical thinking for writers; the second chapter is a mini-course in rhetoric for writers. This post is part of chapter two. To have a look at other parts of chapter two–or the whole of chapter one (Concepts 1.1 – 1.10), click here.
Concept 2.4. Thesis. The thesis is your main point; your ultimate yes. It’s the reason for a performance of rhetoric. Imagine, for instance, you believe marriage would be a good idea for your partner and yourself, and that you would be happy together “till death do you part.” That’s a thesis that you might have in your head–but it’s not necessarily the way you might propose it to your audience (your partner). You might say it more poetically, or you might simply pose it as a question: “Will you marry me?” Perhaps the actual sentence that you use to broach the subject ends up being: “I think marriage would be a good idea for us.” This way of saying it becomes your thesis statement. The thesis statement is your main point–your thesis–made clear. So your thesis and your thesis statement are not exactly the same things. If the thesis is your main point, it is the thesis statement that makes it explicit in carefully chosen words. A strong thesis statement seeks precision of expression, ideally leaving no room for a decoding error on the part of the hearer or reader. By contrast, a weak thesis statement is one that is vague; unclear.
What precedes and follows the thesis statement are other sentences–sentences that support the thesis statement. The thesis statement thus functions like a North Star around which all the other stars–all the other sentences–revolve. Sentences either lead up to or follow from the thesis statement, and if you say yes to each one of them along the way (or, at least, most of them), all those collective yeses should converge on an overarching conclusion: the thesis itself. The thesis is the thing you’re trying to get your audience to reach a final yes on.
The sentences that are not the thesis statement are akin to the accouterments to the performance of a marriage proposal: the flowers, the person on one knee, and the open ring box support and lead up to The Big Question (which you have an opinion on): marriage. So the thesis is your idea that marriage would be a good thing for your prospective partner and you; the thesis statement (“I think marriage would be a good idea for us”) makes explicit the point of putting on a rhetorical performance in the first place; and the other sentences are present to support your main point.
As a rule of thumb, your thesis statement belongs toward the beginning of your essay. If you don’t have a very definite main point—if your rhetorical flowers, gestures, and rings, as it were, don’t add up to anything—then you don’t really have a thesis, and so you risk losing those readers who might be looking for one. This is readily solved by putting your thesis near the beginning of your essay (within the first or second page). Otherwise, if you are being digressive, and not writing to the point, you might in fact deprive your actual, perhaps impatient, reader—say, a professor—from grasping the hook that tells her where, exactly, your piece of writing is going, and whether it is worth reading beyond the first page or two.
A research question is not a thesis statement. So observe the following important distinction: you may have a piece of writing that, though it has a goal (to explore a question) it does not have a thesis. It may, for instance, not take an interesting or novel position on a matter worth arguing over—worth getting to yes over. Instead of a thesis statement, what you may have is a research question: “Is it fair to call Rome’s destruction of Carthage a genocide?” This is a perfectly reasonable opening question for an essay or book. But again, it’s not a thesis or thesis statement. From this question, your reader, if she has the patience for your withholding of judgment, has a sense that you’ll be exploring the nuances of the question, presumably from different angles and perspectives (reflections on expert opinion; comparisons with contemporary acts of genocide; how one defines genocide, exactly, etc.), guiding her through some of the terrain of the question. Perhaps, at the end, the reader will expect, given your appraisals along the way, that you will actually provide an overarching opinion—a culminating judgment—to which she will finally concur (say yes to) or demur (say no to).
If you offer that culminating judgment at the end of your essay, then this is your thesis statement functioning as a conclusion. If the terrain is sufficiently complex or intractable at some level, this rhetorical move of holding off the thesis to the conclusion may be appreciated. And as with a proposal of marriage, there’s nothing inherently wrong in a build-up to an overwhelming conclusion. There’s no law set in stone, for instance, that says a thesis statement should be at the end of the first paragraph of a piece of writing. But as a rhetorical performance, it’s a risk to trust that your audience will not grow impatient with a delayed thesis statement.
So catch another important distinction here: the research question (“Is it fair to call Rome’s destruction of Carthage a genocide?”), located toward the beginning of a piece of writing, coaxes the reader to some culminating thesis (presumably arrived at toward the end of the essay), while the thesis statement hopes that the reader, made privy to the writer’s main point or conclusion straight-off, will stay for the details: “It’s fair to call Rome’s destruction of Carthage a genocide.” Is it more or less intuitively satisfying to get this thesis at the beginning of a piece of writing or toward the end? That’s a decision grounded in your purpose, a correct reading of your audience, and—if the writing is being done for a college course—the careful reading of a particular professor’s prompt.
A research question can be blended with a thesis statement. Book authors sometimes signal their thesis statement—which can be more than a sentence, and sometimes even extends to a full paragraph—with the phrase, This book…. Philosopher Susan Neiman uses this formulation in her widely acclaimed and influential Evil in Modern Thought (Princeton 2002), placing her thesis statement at page two of a book that is over three hundred pages long:
This book traces changes that have occurred in our understanding of the self and its place in the world from the early Enlightenment to the late twentieth century. Taking the intellectual reactions to Lisbon [the Lisbon earthquake of 1755] and Auschwitz [the Nazi-run death camp at Auschwitz, 1940-1945] as central poles of inquiry is a way of locating the beginning and end of the modern [era]. Focusing on points of doubt and crisis allows us to examine our guiding assumptions by examining what challenges them at points where they break down: what threatens our sense of the world? That focus also underlies one of this book’s central claims: the problem of evil is the guiding force of modern thought.
Notice that Neiman explicitly sketches, in just a few sentences, a broad map to both her research project (tracing “changes…in our understanding of the self…”) and one of her key claims: “the problem of evil is the guiding force of modern thought.” In doing both in a single paragraph, she heightens her readers’ interest in at once joining her search for answers and discovering whether she makes a convincing case that the problem of evil plays a central role in forming the modern mind. Her words also assist the readers’ focus, setting up an implicit contract with them that she’ll not disappoint, but actually perform, exactly what she promises.
As with Susan Neiman above, San Francisco gay rights activist and civil rights attorney, Kenji Yoshino, in his book, Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights (Random House 2006), also uses the phrase–This book–to flag his thesis statement, but it occurs, not on page two, as in Neiman’s book, but on page twenty-six: “This book performs the point that the new civil rights requires both legal and cultural action.” This would seem to be a vague, weak thesis at first, but in a nearby paragraph he elaborates: “My argument begins at its source—gay rights. I retell the history of gay rights as the story of a struggle against…the demand to convert, the demand to pass, and the demand to cover” (27). He next goes on to write, “I then argue that this gay critique of assimilation has implications for all civil rights groups, including racial minorities, women, religious minorities, and people with disabilities” (ibid.). Notice that, like Susan Neiman, Yoshino has laid out a map of the territory for his book early on, and in a manner that announces both his route of exploration through the material and his central conclusion, which is that civil rights groups should preserve their unique identities by resisting assimilation (“the demand to convert, the demand to pass, and the demand to cover”). Also notice that the title of his book does the work of anticipating his thesis as well: Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights.
Writing 2.4.1. Think of a topic you know well and have researched in the past. Presumably you have the basic issues surrounding that topic in memory and have an opinion concerning it. Now attempt to write a paragraph about it akin to Susan Neiman’s above. Let her paragraph function as an exemplary model of someone announcing her purpose in a piece of writing. Sketch out a broad road map to your own topic and state, by the last sentence, your opinion about it (a claim worth defending or arguing about).
Writing 2.4.2. In Writing 2,4,1 immediately above, you generated some writing in which you staked out territory for discussion as well as an opinion. Imagine this constituted the outline for a book or essay. What would you then title it? In generating a title, deploy a colon in it after the manner of Kenji Yoshino’s Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights.
Writing 2.4.3. Read the beginning of any essay and see if you can locate an explicit thesis statement. What does it say, exactly? Is it strong enough in terms of specificity, relevance, controversy, and interest to make the essay seem intriguing, where you want to read the whole thing? If there is no explicit thesis statement, is there an implicit thesis that is readily discerned? How about a research question? Perhaps there is a research question combined with a thesis statement. In any case, discover how the author announces her or his purpose.
Writing 2.4.4. Browse some essays or books in search of explicit thesis statements. Once you’ve located one or two, ask yourself the following: How clear are they—and detailed? Do they consist of one sentence—or more than one? If the thesis statement contains more than one sentence, why did the author resort to more than one? What work were those additional sentences doing, exactly? Did the thesis statement include a reference to the author in the form of the I voice, such as, “I argue that…”?