Narrowing from a Topic to a Thesis
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Once you have a topic selected, don't think that your thesis is already done! A good thesis has one main job to do:
It states the overall point you want to make, the argument that you want your reader to find persuasive, the position that you want to take on an issue.
- Use your Brainstorming Ideas. The thesis is the main point, the central organizing backbone of your paper. Look at your brainstorming paper and determine what connections you made among your ideas. Group ideas together and then brainstorm a little more on those subgroups. See what major points start to appear or recur in your ideas. See what questions you have about these subtopics.
Do you see
- an arguable point that you can make? If you are merely stating a fact ("Bram Stoker's Dracula is a gothic novel about vampires"), if you are stating an opinion ("I hate it when people don't signal on the highway"), or if you are just announcing what you are going to argue ("This paper will be about the differences between sociology and anthropology"), you do not have a thesis. An arguable point is one about which there is more than one side that you can take. A possible exception to this rule is in the case of a descriptive essay, but even that is probably arguable since you will most likely be clarifying something with which your readers may not be familiar, and about which they may have mistaken ideas ("Since most of us never have to go through this process, I will explain the procedures involved in obtaining American citizenship").
- ideas that create a comparison or contrast? The key here is to draw a conclusion based on the comparison and/or contrast that you see. If you want to compare, say, PCs and Macs, a paper which just goes through point by point and shows the similarities and differences will be dull, to say the least. Could you conclude, for instance, that Macs are better for certain applications and PCs for others? Or that Macs are put together in such a way that makes them easier for the home computer user to solve problems that may occur? Find a point to make with the comparison or contrast -- you don't want your reader finishing your paper and saying to herself in a puzzled voice, "So what?"
- ideas that explain an idea, show a cause and effect relationship or a problem and solution? These strategies are based on Aristotle's topoi: when Aristotle formulated a system of organizing and expressing knowledge, he developed these strategies for invention (the rhetorician's word for "coming up with a thesis"). If you think people need to rethink anorexia nervosa as a problem that also affects young men, you can define it to show how it affects boys as well as girls. If you think that youth violence is becoming an increasing problem, perhaps you can explore some reasons for the phenomenon, such as guns in the home, too much pressure to be adults too young, etc. If you think that your campus needs solutions to its wretched parking problems, can you come up with some creative ideas to solve the problem?
- a main point and smaller subpoints that support it? A paper that argues that even the small economies of Southeast Asia directly affect the United States economy might need to talk about several Southeast Asia countries in turn, or might need to discuss several different product markets to make a convincing larger point.
- a question that someone might have about the topic being answered? Perhaps you have had a conversation with one of your roommates in which he commented "Why should I give blood? There's lots of people out there who do it already." Your paper could respond to this question by explaining the need for rarer types, the seasonal changes in blood needs and the constant need to replenish the perishable supply. Or perhaps you have always wondered why people think that term limits for elected offices are a good idea. You could do research that answers your own question and also clarifies for you the position that you would take on this issue.
For instance, you may be interested in writing a paper about computers. Your brainstorming has hit on two ideas: the importance of computers in everyday life and the Year 2000 problem (which, if you are using a computer to read this, you should know about). For the first idea, you might argue that, despite ideas to the contrary, computers are very important in the lives of senior citizens and not just young people. Or you might show how computers are important to different people for different reasons. These don't sound like very exciting topics though, and that is because the main idea is overly large, vague, and doesn't hold a lot of possibilities for taking a position.
The second idea, that of the Year 2000 problem, has greater possibilities. You might be able to argue that Year 2000 problems were created by a lack of understanding several decades ago of the potential importance of computer usage in our society. Or you might want to persuade your reader that the problem is much more serious than even a daily computer user might realize. Or you might want to explain the problem and survey some possible solutions. All of these potential theses take a position and show that you hold a supportable opinion.
- Make a Rough Outline to Determine the Scope of the Paper. Look at the ideas grouped around your thesis idea. In what order might you need to discuss them? How extensive is the argument going to be? Do you seem to have too many points to make for the length of paper you are writing? This is a good time to determine the focus of the thesis so you don't find yourself later drifting off into uncharted territory in the paper.
- Find the Argument! Remember that your paper should make a point, explain your opinion, put forth an argument. Check yourself periodically as you decide on a thesis so you are writing about something that is more than just a stated fact but is not merely a matter of opinion.
Once you have found a specific thesis idea that you want to write about, you are ready to move on to Sharpening and Clarifying Your Thesis.
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Copyright 1998 Margaret Oakes
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