Sharpening and Clarifying Your Thesis

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Now it is time to play with the specific wording of your thesis to make sure that the subject matter of the paper, your position on it, and the scope of the paper are clear to a reader. Notice that the term "thesis statement" is not used here; a thesis may require two or three sentences to explain itself, so don't struggle too long with one unwieldy, overburdened sentence. A clear thesis will do three things:

1. It will indicate the focus and scope of your argument. Are you having trouble deciding what exactly you are arguing? See if you are actually talking about two slightly different ideas: a hint will be two statements loosely connected by a coordinate conjunction (and, or, but, for, so, yet). Can you create a relationship between those two ideas with a subordinate conjuction (because, since, although, through)?

Original thesis: "Bram Stoker's Dracula discusses the theme of science versus religion and shows the ways that the humans battle the undead."
Stronger thesis: "In Dracula, Bram Stoker shows the battle of science versus religion through the ways that the humans battle the undead."
Original thesis: "In this essay, I will discuss the effects of pesticides on fish populations."
Revised thesis: "The use of pesticides has not only decimated fish populations but also endangered other creatures -- including humans -- who eat poisoned fish."

2. It will indicate the organization of your paper. A thesis is a promise made to a reader that certain things will be discussed in a paper.While you don't want to overload the thesis with detail, at least give the reader an idea of the major supporting points.

Original thesis: "Many things have contributed to the uncertain position of NATO in the 1990s."
You will be lucky if the first question out of your reader's mouth isn't "What things?"
Stronger thesis: "Changes in the balance of European power, the decline of some previously important economies, and the growing importance of European ties to Middle Eastern, Asian and African countries have contributed to the uncertain position of NATO in the 1990's."
This tells your reader the major subpoints and the order in which you will cover them. It also acts as a good check for you as you write the paper -- are you delivering everything that you promised to the reader?

3. It will state your position or argument in specific, concrete terms. A good thesis should not be so narrow that it could be covered in a couple of paragraphs ("Jack Nicholson's quirky facial expressions are his primary acting tool in As Good As It Gets"). But you need to avoid broad, general terms which could raise endless possibilities for your paper, and not tell your reader anything in particular ("The history of the movie industry is long and interesting.") You also don't want to promise to your reader a paper that covers more information than any undergraduate paper possibly could!

Original thesis: Joseph Conrad is an interesting but confusing writer.
Revised thesis: Heart of Darknessuses an elliptical and introverted sentence structure and a confusing use of pronouns to impart the monomania of his main character, Kurtz, and the difficulties that Marlow has in understanding him.
This thesis gives you a specific aspect of Conrad's writing to discuss and its purpose in light of two characters in the book, a manageable thesis for a four or five page paper.

A list of words to avoid in a thesis: "interesting," "good," "fun," "exciting," "different" and "similar" (unless you specify how). AND NEVER, NEVER START A THESIS WITH THE PHRASES "IN TODAY'S SOCIETY" or "SINCE THE BEGINNING OF TIME/HISTORY." These are meaningless cliches and tell your reader that you aren't thinking about what you are writing.

Read further if you want to see an example of sharpening up a thesis, continue in this chapter to Test Your Thesis, or Return to top of page.

Suppose that you have been talking to some friends about your favorite pro football team, which is threatening to move unless the city builds a new ballpark for the team. You oppose the idea of a greedy team abandoning its longtime fans to move. Your initial idea may sound like this:

I don't like the idea of pro teams dumping on their fans,
and they shouldn't be allowed to move for no reason.

This statement possesses a position you can take, but it covers two different ideas, is too general, and is ungrammatical and overly colloquial to boot.