WriteCast Episode 2: Thesis Statements
© Walden University Writing Center 2013
Why is a thesis statement so important? Where does it go? How is it different than a purpose statement? How can you make yours stronger? These are some of the questions Brittany and Nik talk about this week. Don't miss this episode on what Nik calls the most important part of an academic paper.
[Opening music plays, fades and continues in the background.]
NIK: Welcome to WriteCast, a casual conversation for serious writers. I’m Nikolas Nadeau.
BRITTANY: And I’m Brittany Kallman Arneson. Every other week, we’ll explore a different aspect of academic writing in a way that’s informative but also approachable, and, we have to admit it, a little quirky.
NIK: This week’s topic:
BRITTANY: The thesis statement. What is it, what does it do, and why in the world is it so important?
NIK: Today we’re going to talk about the absolute most important part of any course paper you’ll be writing here at Walden, and that is the thesis statement. Now of course this is different from a thesis like a master’s thesis, a dissertation thesis, that’s talking about the whole shebang and the whole project. That’s not what we’re focusing on today. Instead, we’re talking about a single sentence. And this sentence is so important that it’s worth devoting an entire episode to and I would say even five episodes but, for the sake of your sanity, we’ll just focus on one today. You know, Brittany, you and I have read how many papers during our time here at Walden? I mean, I know I have read more than two thousand…
NIK: …and I’m sure you’ve reviewed about the same. Now, in those assignments, we often see main problems.
BRITTANY: The first one is just that the thesis statement is completely missing; we don’t see it in the paper at all. Second of all, oftentimes it’s misplaced. It can also be not argumentative enough or too vague. We’re going to cover each of these problems in detail over the course of this episode.
NIK: Now, number one, the main problem that you might have if the thesis statement just isn’t there, you know, maybe it would be kind of obvious and cheesy and lame to be like, oh, “in this paper I will discuss…” You know that might be a little too obvious, a little too corny for some of you. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your style, that’s kind of how it works, at least for academic that takes place and is published in the United States. Now APA, the American Psychological Association, is of course based in the U.S. and so is Walden. So if any of you have different ideas about the content and the format, the patterns of the paper, that’s totally legitimate, and we’re definitely willing to discuss those kinds of patterns as well. But for today, just to make sure we cover what the consensus is for United States-style academic writing, we’re just going to say right off the bat that the thesis should be there.
BRITTANY: The key for the thesis statement is kind of to give away the ending of the paper right away at the beginning, and oftentimes this can feel really unnatural to us as writers because many of us are used to reading fiction, where that’s usually not what happens, you know. If you find out how the book is going to end in the first few pages, what’s the point of reading it? But, in an academic paper, you don’t want your read to have to guess at what your main point is. You want to have it stated very clearly at the beginning, and then the reason that your reader wants to continue reading is to see how you back up that claim, to see if it’s actually a valid claim, if you actually have evidence to support it. So, this is one thing that can be really tricky at first, is that you really do kind of want to give away the main point of your paper right away in the first paragraph of your essay.
NIK: And Brittany, before we go further, we should clarify that this is all our general advice. Maybe what you’re doing for your current assignment is an exercise in how to write a particular section of your dissertation. So of course in these situations, it probably doesn’t make sense to have a thesis statement. That’s why we just wanted to give you this disclaimer that we’re giving you advice that generally if you follow it, your instructor will be happy, because of course, your instructor is one of those readers. But of course you should never take our advice without a grain of salt and you should definitely be in communication with your instructor. I hope if anything that this podcast will help you give the initiative and the confidence to really approach your instructors and ask, what is it exactly, you know, do I need a thesis statement? If so, what should it look like?
BRITTANY: So, the second problem that we often see here in the Writing Center when it comes to thesis statements is that they’re misplaced in the paper. This can be a problem because, like I said earlier, it’s very important that the thesis statement appear early on in the paper so that your reader understands what the point is and why they’re reading. So, what we typically tell students—and again, this isn’t a hard and fast rule but in general, this is one that you should try and follow—you normally want your thesis to appear as the last sentence of the first paragraph of your paper, so the introductory paragraph. Oftentimes students will feel like maybe their thesis statement should be the very first sentence of their intro paragraph, but that can be a little bit disorienting for the reader, right, Nik?
NIK: That’s right, Brittany. And, one thing we do want to emphasize is the structure of an introduction. And that structure, generally speaking, should be like a funnel. And the way that this begins is as a funnel opens very wide—you know, that top part of the funnel is very wide—in the same way, you want to begin your paper, your introductory paragraph, with some degree of breadth. You don’t want to give a huge, general statement that could mean anything to anyone. So, something I recommend is avoiding phrases like “In today’s society…”, right? What day is today and what society are we talking about, right? That’s usually not helpful but try to find that broad introduction, maybe something that readers could know in general, but depending on your topic, something that will suck them in.
BRITTANY: Right, I love that image of the funnel, Nik. I think that’s just perfect to describe sort of the metaphorical shape of your introduction. So, like Nik said, you want to start broad, and then you get narrower and narrower as you move toward the bottom of your paragraph, which is your thesis statement.
BRITTANY: Now, I want to jump into the importance of having an argumentative thesis statement. This doesn’t mean that you have to antagonize your reader in some way, but it does mean that your thesis statement needs to be something that a reasonable human being could disagree with. So here’s an example of a thesis statement that’s similar to thesis statements we see fairly often in student writing that’s not argumentative, okay? It goes like this: In this paper, I discuss the relationship between vending machines in schools and childhood obesity. Now, why wouldn’t someone be able to argue with that statement, Nik?
NIK: Well, because this is just a fact, Brittany. This is someone saying “I discuss.” You know? That’s like me saying “I discuss game 5 of the eastern conference finals between the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers,” but that doesn’t tell them anything, that just gives them a fact: I’m discussing this. Questions that readers will be asking are, okay, well, you say you’re going to be discussing a relationship of some sort—well, what is the relationship? And then, you talk about vending machines—okay, there’s a lot of different kind of vending machines out there. What kind are you talking about?—Soda machines? Are you talking about candy machines? The machines that give out chapstick? And then, you know, we’re talking about childhood obesity. In what country? If we’re talking about the U.S.—okay, is this the entire country? Is this, you know, maybe the Midwest? Is this a particular state or county? All of these questions are questions that your reader is going to wonder. And it’s your job to give them as much guidance as you can to let them know, “you can zoom in to here.”
BRITTANY: I love that—again, that image of zooming in, that is just perfect. You don’t want to be so far zoomed out that the reader has no idea what the context of your discussion is.
NIK: So in all of these questions, your readers are really wondering, what are you standing for? What’s your position?
BRITTANY: So let’s look at a revised thesis statement, based on that first not very argumentative thesis statement, that is argumentative. Okay, here it goes: Junk food vending machines in schools play a significant role in childhood obesity in the United States. Okay. So, the first thing that I notice is that there’s nothing at the beginning of this sentence that says In this paper, I will. Right? In this paper I will discuss; In this paper I will argue. You don’t necessarily need to tell the reader what you will do. You just want to make a straightforward statement that captures the argument that you’re going to make in your paper, right, Nik?
NIK: Definitely, Brittany. There’s a degree here of some sort of stance being taken, that the author is saying, junk food vending machines—there’s something about them that has what we say is a significant role. Now we’re going to talk in a little bit about how wording like that might be best made more specific. What does it mean to have a significant role? What does it mean to have a significant role for childhood obesity? So we’ll get to that in a bit, but the main point we want to make here is that this is worlds better than what we had originally where we just said I discuss X, Y, and Z. Now we have a sentence that says junk food vending machines clearly have a role that we need to look at.
BRITTANY: Exactly. And I do want to stress, too, for our listeners, that if you start with a less argumentative statement that’s maybe more of a purpose statement—you know, those I will statements—that’s fine. That’s a really good place to start. Those can actually morph really easily and often very logically into a more argumentative thesis statement. So, don’t despair if you find that it’s easier for you to write that kind of purpose statement at first. You may not know exactly what it is you want to argue when you begin writing. Oftentimes you may find that your original hypothesis, what you thought was going to be true, is not true, in fact, as you continue to read and find out what people have said about your topic. So, do keep in mind that as you write, this is going to be a fluid thing, this thesis statement. And beginning with something that is less argumentative is not a bad thing. You just want to make sure that by the time you get to your final draft, you’ve revised so that you are making a clear statement of argument and that you’re really taking a stand.
NIK: Well said, Brittany.
BRITTANY: Thank you! [laughs]
NIK: The one thing also that we touched on was that there wasn’t exactly a level of specificity there; that sometimes, a thesis statement can be argumentative but still a bit vague or a bit unclear. So I’m going to give another example here and this example is about a swimming pool. It’s summertime, at least for most of us here in the northern hemisphere, right? And so I’m just going to give you a sentence that is pretty vague, and let Brittany dissect why it’s vague. So here we go: The pool at the Gold Hotel is not adequate. Alright, Brittany, so let us know: What’s wrong with that sentence?
BRITTANY: Well, it actually is an argumentative thesis statement, because somebody could say, no, the pool at the Gold Hotel is adequate. However, what does “adequate” mean, exactly? This is where we come to the part about vagueness. It’s very important that you define your terms well so that your reader knows what exactly you’re arguing. So, you might have an argumentative thesis statement, but if those terms aren’t very well defined, it makes for kind of a nebulous argument. So, yeah, I think the first problem is that “adequate” is not really a clearly defined term in this thesis statement. We don’t understand what it means to be adequate or not adequate. And, furthermore, it’s difficult for readers to tell why this matters, right? So, not adequate for whom? Not adequate to do what?
NIK: Yeah, like so what? Who cares? Those questions are fair questions for readers to ask.
BRITTANY: Right, exactly. That is a question you should be asking yourself as you think about your thesis statement: So what? Who cares? Why is this important? So, we have a great revision of this statement that gets more specific and answers that “so what?” question. Do you want to read it, Nik?
NIK: Sure, Brittany. Here it goes: To reduce customer health risks, Gold Hotel maintenance staff should decrease its pool chlorine levels below maximum legal levels and increase the frequency of pool cleaning sessions. Now, this is by no means a perfect sentence—it’s a little long—but we have jam-packed information here, Brittany. What are the three elements of this sentence that make it stand out and make it specific?
BRITTANY: Well, the first thing that jumps out to me here is that this sentence identifies the stakeholders. This is the “who cares” part, right? To whom does it matter that the pool at the Gold Hotel is not adequate? And the stakeholders here are the customers of the Gold Hotel. So, the first very vague statement didn’t mention the customers at all, but this second statement does. The second important thing that this sentence identifies is the agents of change. So, not just saying that something should change but also saying who ought to instigate the change, who ought to enact the change. And here in this sentence we have the Gold Hotel maintenance staff—these are the people who should instigate the change. And then third, it identifies the specific actions that ought to be performed. So, very specific here, that the maintenance staff should decrease its pool chlorine level below maximum legal levels and also should increase the frequency of pool cleaning sessions.
NIK: We just wanted to really emphasize that point that a thesis statement doesn’t just exist on an island. It’s not just a sentence that is there and then is ignored throughout the rest of the paper. Your readers—think about this—your readers are reading your paper as a map, okay? So imagine that your readers are in Alaska and they’re trying to make their way to California. Now let’s assume that you want your readers to get to California as quickly as possible with as much guidance as possible. Now if you’re going to do that, you need that thesis statement, right, which is your end destination. So maybe you’re going to Santa Barbara, California—oh, wouldn’t that be nice, Santa Barbara—okay, so that’s your thesis statement: Santa Barbara. But to help your readers get there, on the way you’re going to need to give them a lot of guideposts, a lot of landmarks. And that’s what your paragraphs do. That’s what the rest of your body does, is to circle back, constantly, to that thesis statement. Each paragraph’s purpose is to support and uphold that thesis statement, right, Brittany?
BRITTANY: Exactly, Nik. So I think the key here is to remember that once you have your argumentative, specific thesis statement, you can’t just forget about it and go on and write your paper. You want to continually think back towards that thesis statement and use it as a guide for the rest of your paper. Actually, one thing that I do when I’m writing is I’ll write my thesis statement on a notecard and prop it up on my laptop so I can always see it, and that helps me kind of remember what the point is. Oftentimes as we’re writing we can kind of lose track of the point of our writing and get off track, and having that thesis statement written down and in plain sight can really help you remember that each paragraph needs to relate back to that thesis.
NIK: Now Brittany, we’re running out of time, but before we depart, we definitely want to give you resources for additional guidance. So the first resource we want to point you to is our thesis statement page, which you can easily find if you go to our homepage—writingcenter.waldenu.edu—and go to the upper right part of the page. You’ll see a search box. In that search box, type in thesis, and that will direct you to our instruction page, which discusses what Brittany and I have talked about in greater length and will give you more of a visual guide to how to craft that clear, concise, impactful thesis statement. And we also have webinars specifically devoted to that, right, Brittany?
BRITTANY: We do! We have a new webinar and an archived webinar. So our new webinar is coming up in a couple of weeks and it’s part of our new Practical Skills series of webinars. And this one is going to be on thesis statements. So, it’s super relevant to what we’ve talked about today. It’s going to involve a little bit more practice and interaction than our past webinars, so you’ll get some really great help from Sarah Prince, who will be presenting. And the webinar is going to be on Tuesday, July 2, at 6:30 p.m. central time, and you should be able to register for it very soon on our webinars page. It’s actually not up there yet, but if you keep checking back, within the next week or so it should appear and you should be able to register for it. You can easily find our webinars page by clicking on the big yellow button on our homepage, which again is writingcenter.waldenu.edu. And keep in mind that if you can’t attend the live webinar, the recording will be on that same webinars page in the archive section later on in July. I also want to quickly mention that we do have an archived webinar called “Synthesis and Thesis Development,” and you can view that at any time just like all of our archived webinars, and again you can access it by clicking on the big yellow button on our homepage.
NIK: And as always, if you have questions specifically relating to your thesis, be sure to send us an email at [email protected]. Just be sure to give us something to work with, give us an example—this is my thesis statement so far, what do you think, how can I improve it. That’s a great way to get in touch with us. And you can also make an appointment and in the paper that you upload, ask for our specific help related to the thesis statement and how the rest of your paper supports it.
BRITTANY: To look for an appointment, you’re going to go to your student portal and you’re going to click on “Appointments” and you’ll choose the Writing Center. Now, I do want to make a slight disclaimer that we are often very busy here at the Writing Center so if you can’t find an appointment with us right away, continue to check back. We do have openings due to cancellations, or people who aren’t able to make their appointments, so feel free to continue to look for appointments. But you can also use all of our other resources—our webinars, our website, and of course that email address where you can send your shorter questions that Nik just mentioned.
BRITTANY: Well that is about all the time we have for today’s episode. Thanks so much, everyone, for listening, and I hope you can join us in two weeks for our next episode.
[Ending music begins]
NIK: This podcast is a production of the Walden University Writing Center.
BRITTANY: This episode was produced by me, Brittany Kallman Arneson, my co-host, Nikolas Nadeau, and Anne Shiell.