How to Generate a Thesis Statement if the Topic is Not Assigned.

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1 What is a Thesis Statement? Almost all of us--even if we don't do it consciously--look early in an essay for a one- or two-sentence condensation of the argument or analysis that is to follow. We refer to that condensation as a thesis statement. Why Should Your Essay Contain A Thesis Statement? to test your ideas by distilling them into a sentence or two to better organize and develop your argument to provide your reader with a "guide" to your argument In general, your thesis statement will accomplish these goals if you think of the thesis as the answer to the question your paper explores. How to Generate a Thesis Statement if the Topic is Assigned. Almost all assignments, no matter how complicated, can be reduced to a single question. Your first step, then, is to distill the assignment into a specific question. For example, if your assignment is "Write a report to the local school board explaining the potential benefits of using computers in a fourth-grade class," turn the request into a question like "What are the potential benefits of using computers in a fourth-grade class?" After you've chosen the question your essay will answer, compose one or two complete sentences answering that question. Q: "What are the potential benefits of using computers in a fourth-grade class?" A: "The potential benefits of using computers in a fourth-grade class are...." A: "Using computers in a fourth-grade class promises to improve...." OR The answer to the question is the thesis statement for the essay. How to Generate a Thesis Statement if the Topic is Not Assigned. Even if your assignment doesn't ask a specific question, your thesis statement still needs to answer a question about the issue you'd like to explore. In this situation, your job is to figure out what question you'd like to write about. A good thesis statement will usually include the following four attributes: take on a subject upon which reasonable people could disagree

2 deal with a subject that can be adequately treated given the nature of the assignment express one main idea assert your conclusions about a subject Let's see how to generate a thesis statement for a social policy paper. Brainstorm the topic. Let's say that your class focuses upon the problems posed by drug addiction. You find that you are interested in the problems of crack babies, babies born to mothers addicted to crack cocaine. You start out with a thesis statement like this: Crack babies. This fragment isn't a thesis statement. Instead, it simply indicates a general subject. Furthermore, your reader doesn't know what you want to say about crack kids. Narrow the topic Your readings about the topic, however, have led you to the conclusion that not only do these babies have a difficult time surviving premature births and withdrawal symptoms, but their lives will be even harder as they grow up because they are likely to be raised in an environment of poverty and neglect. You think that there should be programs to help these children. You change your thesis to look like this: Programs for crack kids. This fragment not only announces your subject, but it focuses on one main idea: programs. Furthermore, it raises a subject upon which reasonable people could disagree, because while most people might agree that something needs to be done for these children, not everyone would agree on what should be done or who should do it. You should note that this fragment is not a thesis statement because your reader doesn't know your conclusions on the topic. Take a position on the topic. After reflecting on the topic a little while longer, you decide that what you really want to say about this topic is that in addition to programs for crack babies, the government should develop programs to help crack children cope and compete. You revise your thesis to look like this: More attention should be paid to the environment crack kids grow up in. This statement asserts your position, but the terms more attention and the environment are vague. 2

3 Use specific language. You decide to explain what you mean about "the environment," so you write: Experts estimate that half of crack babies will grow up in home environments lacking rich cognitive and emotional stimulation. This statement is specific, but it isn't a thesis. It merely reports a statistic instead of making an assertion. Make an assertion based on clearly stated support. You finally revise your thesis statement one more time to look like this: Because half of all crack babies are likely to grow up in homes lacking good cognitive and emotional stimulation, the federal government should finance programs to supplement parental care for crack kids. Notice how the thesis answers the question, "Why should anything be done for crack kids, and who should do it?" When you started thinking about the paper, you may not have had a specific question in mind, but as you became more involved in the topic, your ideas became more specific. Your thesis changed to reflect your new insights. How to Tell a Strong Thesis Sentence from a Weak One. 1. A strong thesis takes some sort of stand. Remember that your thesis needs to show your conclusions about a subject. For example, if you are writing a paper for a class on fitness, you might be asked to choose a popular weight-loss product to evaluate. Here are two thesis statements: There are some negative and positive aspects to the Banana Herb Tea Supplement. This is a weak thesis. First, it fails to take a stand. Second, the phrase "negative and positive" aspects" are vague. Because Banana Herb Tea Supplement promotes rapid weight loss that results in the loss of muscle and lean body mass, it poses a potential danger to customers. This is a strong thesis because it takes a stand. 2. A strong thesis justifies discussion. Your thesis should indicate the point of the discussion. If your assignment is to write a paper on kinship systems, using your own family as an example, you might come up with either of these two thesis statements: My family is an extended family. 3

4 This is a weak thesis because it states an observation. Your reader won't be able to tell the point of the statement, and will probably stop reading. While most American families would view consanguineal marriage as a threat to the nuclear family structure, many Iranian families, like my own, believe that these marriages help reinforce kinship ties in an extended family. This is a strong thesis because it shows how your experience contradicts a widely-accepted view. A good strategy for creating a strong thesis is to show that the topic is controversial. Readers will be interested in reading the rest of the essay to see how you support your point. 3. A strong thesis expresses one main idea. Readers need to be able to see that your paper has one main point. If your thesis expresses more than one idea, then you might confuse your readers about the subject of your paper. For example: Companies need to exploit the marketing potential of the Internet, and web pages can provide both advertising and customer support. This is a weak thesis statement because the reader can't decide whether the paper is about marketing on the Internet or web pages. To revise the thesis, the relationship between the two ideas needs to become more clear. One way to revise the thesis would be to write: Because the Internet is filled with tremendous marketing potential, companies should exploit this potential by using web pages that offer both advertising and customer support. This is a strong thesis because it shows that the two ideas are related. Hint: a great many clear and engaging thesis statements contain words like "because," "since," "so," "although," "unless," and "however." 4. A strong thesis statement is specific. A thesis statement should show exactly what your paper will be about, and will help you keep your paper to a manageable topic. For example, if you write a paper on hunger, you might say: World hunger has many causes and effects. This is a weak thesis statement for two major reasons. First, "world hunger" can't be discussed thoroughly in five or ten pages. Second, "many causes and effects" is vague. You should be able to identify specific causes and effects. A revised thesis might look like this: Hunger persists in Appalachia because jobs are scarce and farming in the infertile soil is rarely profitable. 4

5 This is a strong thesis because it narrows the subject to a more specific and manageable topic and it also identifies the specific causes for the existence of hunger. 5

6 "What is a Thesis Statement?" Teaching a composition course for the first time in 1992, I was stunned to hear a student ask me this question. I stammered out some kind of answer that I know must have sounded fuzzy... I know it must have sounded fuzzy because it was fuzzy in my mind. Of course, I knew what one was, but it was difficult to formulate a definition, and that made it especially difficult to explain. Now, for all the thought I've given to defining the thesis statement, I'm happy to report that I've given up trying to define it in one sentence. I've come up with a number of definitions, but no single sentence seems to carry all that a thesis is. Instead, I've found it better to explain the thesis statement as a process, since it grows as your essay grows. But, for those who are dying to know a one-sentence definition, I won't disappoint you: A thesis statement is a sentence that introduces the main idea of an essay, states an essay's position, and provides direction for an essay. Okay... so what? Basically, the thesis statement is the backbone of your essay. It not only includes the topic of the essay, but it also tells the reader what you're going to say about the topic. Consider the difference between the following two sentences: Drivers in Minnesota must wear seatbelts. Drivers in Minnesota should wear seatbelts. Both of these sentences offer a topic, namely seatbelt wearing. But that's not enough: A thesis statement needs to say something ABOUT the topic. Both of these do, don't they? They both imply a requirement to wear seatbelts, and that's taking a position--which is another element in a good thesis statement. Still neither of these is a very good thesis statement. Let me show you why. Look at the first sentence again. Notice how it limits itself. If I were to try to write an essay about that, it would be very short. I might cite the Minnesota law that mandates wearing seatbelts, and... that would be about it. If I were to write much more than that, I would need to change the thesis statement because the thesis statement should encompass the entire argument (or position) of the essay. If I wanted to expand the essay into an argument that there's a reason WHY we 6

7 SHOULD wear seatbelts, I would need to expand my thesis statement, too. And that's why a thesis statement should evolve over a period of time... A Working Thesis Statement As you brainstorm your essay in the first step of the 4-step process of writing, you should find yourself coming up with fairly detailed ideas of what you want to write about. As you identify good topics and sub-topics, you will find yourself leaning toward a certain area. Usually, you will have an opinion about that area, and that opinion should be what you form into a working thesis statement. Let's take the second sentence we looked at above: Drivers in Minnesota should wear seatbelts. This thesis statement needs help: it just doesn't do much more than express an opinion, and a good thesis also needs to give a hint of what the argument in the essay will entail. Let me brainstorm through some free-writing, here, and you watch as I develop a good thesis statement in the process. Drivers wearing seatbelts is something that I feel very strongly about. It isn't that I want to tell others what they should be doing (or not doing) while they're driving, but in this case what they don't do (not wear a seatbelt) DOES affect me. If somebody without a seatbelt gets into an accident and is seriously injured, you might be inclined to think that they've only hurt themselves... but that isn't true. They've hurt you and me, too. Since their insurance company is going to pay for the excessive injuries, they will need to raise insurance rates in the area to offset their loss. That translates into higher insurance rates for you and me. Even if you and I use a different insurance company, all insurance companies base their rates on the losses of all the insurance companies combined. Okay, so now I've developed a pretty solid basis for my opinion. I know it's a valid position that can be supported. Now I'm going to revise the thesis: Drivers in Minnesota should wear seatbelts because not doing so has negative effects on us all. Well, that's better, but I'm still not very happy with it; so I'm going to go back to go back to my brainstorming notes. For brevity's sake, I will just tell you what else I have on my brainstorming notes: safety for the driver, safety of the driver's passengers, safety for children passengers who are not related to the driver, the insurance rate issue developed in the previous paragraph above, and the law in 7

8 Minnesota. I would say that there's enough there on which I can build a pretty good essay. But, my thesis statement needs to encompass all of these arguments. So, here's my new thesis: Drivers should be responsible to make sure everybody in their cars are wearing seatbelts, not only for their own safety and that of their passengers, but for the good of society as well. Ahhh... that's much better. Notice how many various arguments are hiding in that one sentence; I have a lot to defend there, and I feel ready to do it. So, the next thing I would want to do would be to form an outline that organizes my brainstorming notes into a logical sequence that I can follow as I write my first draft. If you would like help with that, go to my guide on the 4-step process of writing page now. If you would like more help and examples on the thesis statement, please read on... More help with the Thesis Statement... The key to a good thesis statement, as implied above, is that it do more than simply state a position. It needs to state something that you will be forced to defend in your essay. Once you develop a thesis that you have to defend, you have 1) a sentence that meets the definition given above, and 2) you have something that you can look at as you draft the essay... in other words, you have something to guide your essay as you write it. Going along with your brainstorming notes and your outline is not enough. You need a working thesis statement like the one above to help you stay on track. If you draft your essay with only brainstorming notes and an outline, you run the risk of slightly changing your main point as you write. This is called a split thesis. The Split Thesis A split thesis is exactly what it sounds like: it has two or more main points. If you write a working thesis statement at the top of your outline before you begin writing the first draft, and refer to it often as you write the first draft, you will keep yourself focused on a single main point and constantly ask yourself: "Now, what does this point have to do with my thesis?" Answering that question will help you write each supportive point in light of your overall thesis. In fact, as you write, you will probably hint at the essay's thesis while moving into a new point... making it easier for the reader to follow the essay's development. If 8

9 you're still not convinced, having a working thesis and referring to it frequently will save you a lot of work in revising. From Working Thesis to a Final Thesis Statement Getting from a "working thesis statement" to a final thesis statement is very easy. You will want to revise your thesis statement after you've revised the body of the essay, but before you revise (or depending on your own preference, write) the introduction and conclusion. Then build (or rebuild) your introduction and conclusion around the revised thesis statement. You're probably asking, "So, what am I supposed to do in revising my thesis? I thought it looked pretty good already." Maybe so. I've found in my writing that I often stick with the working thesis statement. But, I always at the very least examine it to see if it needs to be revised. I do this after I've completed the first draft, AND after I've finished revising. Here's some questions I ask myself when I examine my working thesis statement... Does the essay support EVERYTHING in the thesis statement? Does the thesis statement hint at every main point that is made in the essay? Is there anything in the essay that seems to stray from the thesis, and if so... (next question) Is any point not directly related to the thesis statement also not directly supporting a point that IS related to the thesis statement? If the answer to the first two is "no," then I know I either need to revise the thesis statement, or I need to look at each paragraph and point in the essay to determine whether it should be there. If so, I need to revise the thesis to fit the essay as it is. If the answer the last two questions is "yes," then I either need to clarify the point made so that it DOES fit in with the thesis (or the sub-point it's supporting), or I need to eliminate it altogether. Chopping portions out of an essay is hard to do--after all, I tend to feel like it's a part of me--but I need to be ruthless during the revision stage of writing... so if it doesn't fit, it has to go. 9

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