DEVELOPING A THESIS AND SUPPORTING ARGUMENTS
There's something you should know: Your college instructors have a hidden agenda. You may be alarmed to hear this-yet your achievement of their "other" purpose may very well be the most important part of your education. For every writing assignment has, at the least, these two other purposes:
- To teach you to state your case and prove it in a clear, appropriate, and lively manner
- To teach you to structure your thinking.
Consequently, all expository writing, in which you formulate a thesis and attempt to prove it, is an opportunity to practice rigorous, focused thinking habits that can result not only in better papers, but in sharper analytical skills across the board.
This TIP Sheet addresses the following steps common to any kind of non-fiction writing:
- Choosing a subject.
- Limiting your subject.
- Crafting a thesis statement.
- Identifying supporting arguments.
- Revising your thesis.
- Writing strong topic sentences that support the thesis.
It is during these early stages of writing, particularly in the identification of supporting arguments, that students are most likely to flounder and procrastinate, and when the strength of a paper's thesis is frequently diluted for lack of rigorous thinking. Here we will adapt Aristotle's method of "discovering arguments" to help identify and develop a strong thesis. You may adapt this method to any nonfiction writing, including essays, research papers, book reports, or critical reviews.
1. Choosing a Subject
Suppose your instructor asks you to write an essay about a holiday experience. Within this general subject area, you choose a subject that holds your interest and about which you can readily get information: you were in downtown Chico on the morning of St. Patrick's Day and witnessed some unusual behavior–a melee broke out, resulting in injuries to bystanders and property damage to nearby cars. You wish to write about this.
2. Limiting Your Subject
What will you name your topic? Clearly, "student behavior" is too broad; student behavior would necessarily include behavior by every kind of student, everywhere, at all times, and this could very well fill a book and require a master's degree in psychology. Simply calling your subject "St. Patrick's Day" would be misleading. You decide to limit the subject to "student behavior on St. Patrick's Day." After some thought, you decide that a better, more specific subject might be "unruly college student behavior such as that witnessed in front of La Salle's in downtown Chico last St. Patrick's Day." (Be aware that this is not the title of your essay. You will title it much later.) You have now limited your subject and are ready to craft a thesis.
3. Crafting a thesis statement
While your subject may be a noun phrase such as the one above, your thesis must be a complete sentence that declares where you stand on the subject. A thesis statement should almost always be in the form of a declarative sentence. Suppose you believe that some of the student behavior in front of La Salle's on St. Patrick's Day was very bad; your thesis statement may be, "Student behavior such as demonstrated in front of La Salle's last St. Patrick's Day is an embarrassment to the college community." Or, conversely, perhaps you think the behavior of the students was just a little high-spirited, but not really so bad as the newspaper made it out to be. Your thesis might be, "A college town has to expect a certain amount of student glee on holidays such as St. Patrick's Day; cracked auto glass and a couple of bruises are a small price to pay for all the commerce college students bring to downtown."
4. Identifying supporting arguments
Now you must gather material, or find arguments to support your thesis statement. Aristotle taught his students to examine any claim by "discovering arguments." You will use some of his techniques to formulate support for your claim. Brainstorm, adapting the questions below as a guide, and writing down even the ideas that don't appear to you very promising–you can sort through them later.
After brainstorming, you should have lots of material to support a thesis statement.
5. Revising your thesis
Notice that in the sentence above we used the phrase "a thesis statement" rather than "your thesis statement." This is because, as you examine your thesis statement through the Aristotelian method, you may discover that you were wrong. At this point, you should either revise your thesis or choose another subject and begin again. Revising your opinion in light of convincing evidence is the beginning of wisdom. Besides, even if it is possible to proceed with the essay as you first envisioned it, you will find it more difficult to defend a thesis you have previously discredited in your notes.
6. Crafting topic sentences that support the thesis
Using ideas you gathered using Aristotle's method, construct three to five topic sentences that support your claim. These topic sentences will become the framework for the rest of your paper. You will further support each with examples and citations from personal interviews, newspaper articles, or other appropriate references.
The melee was not caused by the students themselves; rather, an elderly homeless man spat on someone's shoe, causing her to move away suddenly, and a chain reaction occurred in the line waiting to go into La Salle's. (from examination of Aristotle's Relationship and Testimony)
Additional policemen would only increase tension in the downtown area, making altercations more likely. (from examination of Aristotle's The Good and The Expedient)
Trying to keep college students away from downtown on holidays like this would cause lost revenues for downtown merchants. (from examination of Aristotle's The Expedient)
As you continue to draft your paper you will, of course, revise these sentences as necessary to more precisely reflect your ideas and the support you gather for them. By this time you should have a good knowledge of your subject and know where you want to go with it. It will now be possible for you to find enough additional supporting material to complete your essay.