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Thesis Statements and Topic Sentences
A thesis statement defines the scope and purpose of the paper. It needs to meet three criteria:
1. It must be arguable rather than a statement of fact. It should also say something original about the topic.
Bad thesis: Lily Bart experiences the constraints of many social conventions in The House of Mirth. [Of course she does. What does she do with these social conventions, and how does she respond to them? What's your argument about this idea?]
Better thesis: Lily Bart seeks to escape from the social conventions of her class in The House of Mirth, but her competing desires for a place in Selden's "republic of the spirit" and in the social world of New York cause her to gamble away her chances for a place in either world. [You could then mention the specific scenes that you will discuss.]
2. It must be limited enough so that the paper develops in some depth.
Bad thesis: Lily Bart and Clare Kendry are alike in some ways, but different in many others. [What ways?]
Better thesis: Lily Bart and Clare Kendry share a desire to "pass" in their respective social worlds, but their need to take risks and to reject those worlds leads to their destruction.
3. It must be unified so that the paper does not stray from the topic.
Bad thesis: Lily Bart gambles with her future, and Lawrence Selden is only a spectator rather than a hero of The House of Mirth. [Note: This is really the beginning of two different thesis statements.]
Better thesis: In The House of Mirth, Lawrence Selden is a spectator who prefers to watch and judge Lily than to help her. By failing to assist her on three separate occasions, he is revealed as less a hero of the novel than as the man responsible for Lily's downfall. [Note: Sometimes thesis statements are more than one sentence long.]
4. Statements such as "In this essay I will discuss " or "I will compare two stories in this paper" or "I was interested in Marji's relationship with God, so I thought I would talk about it in this essay" are not thesis statements and are unnecessary, since mentioning the stories in the introduction already tells the reader this.
Good topic sentences can improve an essay's readability and organization. They usually meet the following criteria:
1. First sentence. A topic sentence is usually the first sentence of the paragraph, not the last sentence of the previous paragraph.
2. Link to thesis. Topic sentences use keywords or phrases from the thesis to indicate which part of the thesis will be discussed.
3. Introduce the subject of the paragraph. They tell the reader what concept will be discussed and provide an introduction to the paragraph.
4. Link to the previous paragraph. They link the subject of the present paragraph to that of the previous paragraph.
5. Indicate the progression of the essay. Topic sentences may also signal to the reader where the essay has been and where it is headed through signposting words such as "first," "second," or "finally."
Good topic sentences typically DON'T begin with the following.
1. A quotation from a critic or from the piece of fiction you're discussing. The topic sentence should relate to your points and tell the reader what the subject of the paragraph will be. Beginning the paragraph with someone else's words doesn't allow you to provide this information for the reader.
2. A piece of information that tells the reader something more about the plot of the story. When you're writing about a piece of literature, it's easy to fall into the habit of telling the plot of the story and then adding a sentence of analysis, but such an approach leaves the reader wondering what the point of the paragraph is supposed to be; it also doesn't leave you sufficient room to analyze the story fully. These "narrative" topic sentences don't provide enough information about your analysis and the points you're making.
Weak "narrative" topic sentence: Lily Bart next travels to Bellomont, where she meets Lawrence Selden again.
Stronger "topic-based" topic sentence: A second example of Lily's gambling on her marriage chances occurs at Bellomont, where she ignores Percy Gryce in favor of Selden. [Note that this tells your reader that it's the second paragraph in a series of paragraph relating to the thesis, which in this case would be a thesis related to Lily's gambling on her marriage chances.]
3. A sentence that explains your response or reaction to the work, or that describes why you're talking about a particular part of it, rather than why the paragraph is important to your analysis.
Weak "reaction" topic sentence: I felt that Lily should have known that Bertha Dorset was her enemy.
Stronger "topic-based" topic sentence: Bertha Dorset is first established as Lily's antagonist in the train scene, when she interrupts Lily's conversation with Percy Gryce and reveals that Lily smokes.
No matter what type of writing that you do, whether you are writing an essay in a nursing class or an essay for a literature class, it has a main topic. In college level writing, most professors agree that this topic should be expressed in a thesis sentence. The thesis is a very important part of an essay because it summarizes what you have in mind for this essay and guides the reader in reading your essay accurately.
What a thesis IS:
- It is a claim (not a fact) that can be supported by a reason or reasons;
- It directly answers the question of the assignment;
- It is a statement that unifies the paper by stating the writer's most important or significant point regarding the topic;
- It is usually one sentence that does not discuss many topics;
- It forecasts the content and order of the essay;
- It is placed most often in the beginning of the essay, preferably towards the end of the introduction, but at least within the first or second paragraph; and
- It is sometimes – but rarely – implied rather than stated outright.
Developing Your Thesis
Now that we know what a strong thesis statement is, we can begin to craft one of our own. Most effective thesis statements often answer these three questions:
- What is the essay’s subject?
- What is the main idea that will be discussed about the topic?
- What is the evidence or support that will be used to support the main idea?
Let’s suppose that I want to write an essay about playing sports. I might begin with a sentence like this:
Playing sports is really good for people.
This is a good start because it does express my position without announcing it; unfortunately, it is vague and general and therefore ineffective. It is not all that exciting for my reader, and it leaves my audience too many unanswered questions. WHY is playing sports good for people? HOW does playing sports benefit people? WHICH people benefit from playing sports? Asking questions about the topic is a great way to find more specific information to include in my thesis.
Let’s suppose now that after asking these questions, I’ve decided I want to narrow my topic into children and sports. I might next have a thesis like this:
Playing sports is really good for children.
Now my thesis is more specific, but I still haven’t really answered the WHY and HOW questions. Maybe I think that playing sports helps children develop better cooperation skills, better coordination, and better overall health. I might have a thesis that ends up like this:
Playing sports is beneficial for children because it helps them develop better cooperation skills, better coordination, and better overall health.
Notice that I have beefed up my vocabulary a bit by changing “really good” to “beneficial.” For help with specific vocabulary, check out the Using Precise Language page.
Notice that I also now have the three major elements of a thesis statement:
1) A subject: playing sports
2) A main idea: playing sports is beneficial for children
3) Support or Evidence: better cooperation, better coordination, and better overall health.
Most effective thesis statements contain this type of structure, often called an action plan or plan of development. This is such an effective type of thesis because it clearly tells the reader what is going to be discussed; it also helps the writer stay focused and organized. How can you now use this pattern to create an effective thesis statement?
Remember, this is not the only type of effective thesis statement, but using this pattern is helpful if you are having difficulty creating your thesis and staying organized in your writing.
What a thesis is NOT:
- A thesis is not an announcement.
Example: I am going to tell you the importance of ABC.
I don’t need the announcement element of this thesis. I can simply write, “The importance of ABC is XYZ.”
- A thesis is not introduced by an opinion phrase such as I think, I feel, I believe.
Example: I feel that good hygiene begins with the basics of effective hand-washing.
I don’t need to write that “I feel” this because if I am writing it, then chances are that I feel it, right?
- A thesis is not a statement of fact.
Example: George Will writes about economic equality in the United States.
Discussing a statement of fact is extremely difficult. How will I continue the discussion of something that cannot be disputed? It can easily be proven that George Will did in fact write about equality in the United States, so I don’t really have a strong position because it is simply a fact.
- A thesis is not a question.
Example: What makes a photograph so significant?
Remember, a thesis states your position on your topic. A question cannot state anything because it is not a statement. A question is a great lead in to a thesis, but it can’t be the thesis.
Example 5: George Will writes, “Economic equality is good for the United States.”
This quote tells us George Will’s position, but it does not clearly express my position. It therefore can’t be my thesis.