Tuesday, April 5, 2011

What's the point of a thesis statement?

I teach one of the most dreaded classes on any college campus – oral communications, better known as speech class. (Almost) everyone hates giving speeches. They hate writing them, and they hate giving them. I try to make it fun, I really do, but organizing information and presenting it to their peers continues to cause sleeplessness and excessive anxiety in students.

The correlation between speaking and writing is obvious. They are different forms of communication that use words to convey meaning and emotion. After 10 years of fielding questions and listening to students explain their thought processes, I‘ve accidentally learned a little bit about organizing and delivering information. As a result, I‘ve come up with some simple ways to develop a clear thesis statement.

Writers spend a lot of time ensuring the message matches their intent. They want to make it easy for the reader to follow. You know how the ideas in your head sound better than they do when you put them on paper? OK, well, maybe that‘s just me. But if that has ever happened to you, then the process of developing a strong thesis statement may eliminate the disconnect that occurs between the brilliant thoughts and the not quite-as-brilliant words that end up on the paper or computer screen.

One of the most common mistakes writers make is to try to complicate the issue. My first rule is that simple is good. You don‘t have to talk down to someone to be understood, but understanding is an essential component of effective communication.

To begin, decide what you want to say about your topic. Develop a strong thesis statement to focus your writing.

A thesis is a declarative statement that identifies your opinion, or the general message you want to convey. One of my favorite definitions of a thesis statement came from Jordan Starkey, English Dept. Instructor at St. Charles Community College. He said topic plus opinion equals thesis statement.

A declarative statement makes a claim. Unfortunately, when I think about a declarative statement, I hear Scarlet O‘Hara in my head saying ―I declare, it‘s hot in he-ah, and she‘s fanning herself. She/me/the voice in my head makes a declaration of what she/me/the voice in my head believes to be true (it‘s hot in here).

So my thesis statement might be "Cats make great pets," because this is something I believe to be true. I support that thesis with reasons why I believe it, or the main points.
I. Cats require little care
II. Cats love to snuggle

Once you‘ve determined the thesis, every word of that piece of writing supports the thesis statement. I like to keep thesis statements to one idea or thought, but some writers will use two or more sentences. It‘s up to you to decide the format of your thesis, because ultimately it‘s your article or book or essay, and you know what works best for you.

I also like using one idea or thought because it also forces me to narrow the topic, and focus on the important information. The thesis may also be the answer to the question ―What‘s your book/article/essay about? By using a thesis statement and supporting it, every sentence that follows is more likely to be clear and concise.

Talk to you soon,


(This post is an edited excerpt from my book Strengthen Your Nonfiction Writing.)


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