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Defining the Argument: Developing Thesis Statements

Writer(s): 
Loran Edwards, Kansai Gaidai University; Charles Moore, Concordia University

The definition of a thesis is a “statement that someone wants to discuss or prove” (Merriam-Webster). In academic writing, the purpose of most papers is to convince the reader on a particular point derived from research by the author. The thesis statement is particularly important because it defines the argument for the rest of the paper. An imprecise thesis statement, or one that tries to include too many arguments, can fail to leave an impression on the reader and result in your paper’s argument remaining unclear. On the other hand, a clear-cut thesis statement prepares the reader to be able to accurately understand the arguments laid out in your paper.

A PSG Coordinator’s Experience

Loran Edwards, coordinator for the JALT Writers’ Peer Support Group (PSG), often reads many papers that are still works-in-progress and has assisted a variety of authors with refining their academic papers. When reviewing a paper, questions she commonly asks herself regarding the writing are “What and where is the thesis statement?” and “Where is that central message that acts as the paper’s focal point and guides me through the rest of the paper?” 

In her experience, problems with thesis statements usually arise in either one of two forms. The first is that a paper will contain several different potential thesis ideas, thus leaving the writing without a main focal point on which to hinge. In this case, it is best if the author instead chooses to focus on only one of the ideas to develop into the dominant point in the paper. Also in these cases, all is not lost with the remaining thesis ideas; instead of being discarded, they can be further developed and turned into several different legitimate publications.

The second thesis statement problem that Loran encounters is that a paper has not yet developed a clear central theme. In this case the writer needs to read, research, write, and brainstorm more until a clear thesis idea emerges. 

 So How Do I Develop My Thesis Statement?

Deciding on your final thesis statement will most likely be a result of the lengthy process of genuinely coming to know what your paper is about (University of North Carolina, 2009). Because of this, you should not be too worried about settling on a final statement at the beginning of your writing. With enough research and thought, you should eventually find that one central idea that defines your paper.

The statement itself is usually one or two sentences. In some papers it may be longer, but the rule of thumb is that usually the shorter and more precise a statement is, the better. It could be said that thesis statements are like a door hinge. The door is all of your cumulative ideas and research related to your paper. The wall the door is connected to is the previously established ideas about the topic you are writing about (i.e., background research or information). Your thesis statement, then, is the hinge that solidly connects the two together. Just like a real door and hinge, if your thesis statement is too loosely constructed, then the two parts of the paper (previous background research and your own ideas and research) will not hold together. Another apt analogy is an hour-glass. As in the image below, all of the components in the top half of the glass should flow through the thesis statement in the middle and come out into the bottom half of the glass.

Questions to Ask Yourself During the Writing Process 

Here are some questions to ask yourself during the writing process that can help you refine your thesis statement:

1. Where is my thesis statement?

The thesis statement should as much as possible come early in the paper; preferably within the first third of the writing. This will help keep the reader focused and give the paper a sense of direction from the beginning of the read.

2. Is my thesis statement focused on one idea?

Many writers try to work too much into a single thesis statement. Make sure that your proposed argument can be adequately analyzed and discussed within the allotment of the paper. Put another way, do not try to cram a book’s worth of material into a 3,000 word paper.

3. Is my thesis statement clear?

You ultimately want your paper to be available to the widest audience possible.  Therefore, try to avoid using technical jargon where possible, and keep your words and the meaning easily comprehensible.

4. Does my thesis statement state my personal solution to a problem?

Does your statement reflect your true feelings about the topic you are writing about? Does it specifically express your solution to a problem? The statement should reflect your own viewpoints and solutions, and this ingenuity can translate into a very persuasive argument.  

Example Statements to Help You Find Your Way

Here are a few published thesis statements that provide an illustration of what an easy-to-grasp statement looks like. The statements by Krashen and Farrell & Renandya are great examples of statements that are clear, to the point, and allow the reader to know exactly what the paper is about. The fourth thesis statement, by Lapkin & Swain, gives an example of a statement that goes beyond one or two sentences, but still directly communicates one idea: “What goes on between the original output and its reprocessed form...is part of the process of second language learning.” (Lapkin & Swain, 1995, p. 371).

“The fundamental claim of Monitor Theory is that conscious learning is available to the performer only as a Monitor.” (Krashen, 1981, p. 2)

“However, in this article, we maintain that given the lack of evidence of success with this approach to teaching lower proficiency EFL learners and the fact that strategy training places a heavy burden on teachers, an extensive listening approach in the same vain as an extensive reading approach should be adopted.” (Farrell & Renandya, 2011, p. 1)

“With the aim of taking into consideration the interests of all concerned parties, this paper will review relevant research and offer some practical advice on planning and executing a balanced and effective TOEIC preparation course.” (Sarich, 2014, p. 17)

“This paper argues, and provides data to support the argument, that in producing an L2, learners will on occasion become aware of (i.e. notice) a linguistic problem. Noticing a problem can ‘push’ learners to modify their output. In doing so, learners may sometimes be forced into a more syntactic processing mode than might occur in comprehension. Thus, output sets ‘noticing’ in train, triggering mental processes that lead to modified output. What goes on between the original output and its reprocessed form, it is suggested, is part of the process of second language learning.” (Lapkin & Swain, 1995, p. 371)

Sites for Further Information

If you are in need of more information concerning developing and writing thesis statements, you may find the websites below useful.

  • Center for Writing Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign <http://www.cws.illinois.edu/workshop/writers/tips/thesis/>
  • Harvard College Writing Center <http://writingcenter.fas.harvard.edu/pages/developing-thesis>
  • Indiana University Bloomington Writing Tutorial Services <http://www.indiana.edu/~wts/pamphlets/thesis_statement.shtml>

References

Farrell, T.S.C. & Renandya, W.A. (2011). ‘Teacher, the tape is too fast!’ Extensive listening in ELT. ELT Journal, 65(1), 52-59.

Krashen, S. D. (1981). Second language acquisition and second language learning. Pergamon Press Inc. Retrieved from <http://www.sdkrashen.com/content/books/sl_acquisition_and_learning.pdf>

Lapkin, S. & Swain, M. (1995). Problems in output and the cognitive processes they generate. A step towards second language learning. Applied Linguistics, 16(3), 371-391.

Sarich, E. (2014). A guide to planning and executing a TOEIC preparation course. The Language Teacher, 38(1), 17-21.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill “The Writing Center”. (2009). Thesis Statements. Retrieved from <http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/thesis-statements/>

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