Whenever you are writing to explain something to your reader or to persuade your reader to agree with your opinion, there should be one complete sentence that expresses the main idea of your paper. That sentence is often called the thesis, or thesis statement. (Some other names it goes by are "the main idea" and "the controlling idea.") Based on everything you've read, and thought, and brainstormed, the thesis is not just your topic, but what you're saying about your topic. Another way to look at it is, once you've come up with the central question, or organizing question, of your essay, the thesis is an answer to that question. Remember, though, while you are still writing your paper, to consider what you have to be a "working thesis," one that may still be "adjusted." As you continue to write, read, and think about your topic, see if your working thesis still represents your opinion.
Handy reminders about the thesis:
- Where to put it
- Put it as a statement
- Don't go overboard
- Focus further
- Choose the right shape
Where to Put the Thesis
The thesis usually comes within the introductory paragraph, which prepares the reader to listen to your ideas, and before the body of the paper, which develops the thesis with reasons, explanations, and evidence or examples. In fact, if you examine a well-written thesis, you will find hidden in it the questions your reader will expect you to answer in the body. For example, if your thesis is "Cannibalism, if practiced tastefully, can be acceptable in extreme circumstances," the body of your essay will develop this idea by explaining HOW it can be practiced tastefully, WHY it would be acceptable, and WHAT you would consider extreme circumstances.
Put the Thesis as a Statement
Make sure your thesis is in the form of a statement, not a question. "Can we save the Amazon rain forest?" is an ear-catching question that might be useful in the introduction, but it doesn't express an opinion or perspective as the following statements do:
- "We can save the Amazon rain forest by limiting tourist presence, boycotting goods made by companies that deplete the forest's resources, and generally educating people about the need to preserve the rain forest in order to preserve the earth's ecological systems."
- "We cannot save the Amazon rain forest since the companies that deplete its resources in their manufacturing are so widely-spread throughout the world, so politically powerful in their respective countries, and wealthy enough to fight the opposition fully."
Don't go Overboard!
Make sure your thesis expresses your true opinion and not an exaggerated version of it. Don't say "Computers are wonderful" or "Computers are terrible" if what you really believe is "Computers do more good than harm" or "Computers do more harm than good." Why commit yourself to an extreme opinion that you don't really believe in, and then look like you're contradicting yourself later on?
Make sure your thesis covers exactly the topic you want to talk about, no more and no less. "Drugs should not be legalized" is too large a thesis if all you want to talk about is marijuana. "Boxing should be outlawed" is too small a thesis if you also want to discuss wrestling and football. Bite off as much as you can chew thoroughly--then chew it!
Choose the Right Shape
Shape your thesis to fit the question you wish to answer. A thesis can come in many forms, including the following:
- Simply stating an opinion: "Langston Hughes was a master stylist."
- Indicating categories or reasons: "Langston Hughes was a master stylist because of his vivid imagery, surprising metaphors, and effective alliteration."
- Showing two aspects of a topic and emphasizing one (in this sample, the 2nd topic in the sentence is emphasized): "While Langston Hughes was a master stylist, as a critic he had several blind spots."
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The posting below looks at the main features that are part of a written thesis. It is from Chapter 1, The Research Thesis in the book, Writing Your Thesis, by Paul Oliver. Published by SAGE Publications Inc. 2455 Teller Road Thousand Oaks, California 91320. © Paul Oliver 2014. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
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The Characteristics of a Good Thesis
In Part 2 of this book we examine systematically the structure of the thesis, but it may be helpful here to explore some of the broad features of a well-written thesis. It is important when writing a thesis to consider those who will eventually read it. In the immediate future these may be the examiners, but later, when the thesis is bound and in a library, many future students may read it. A thesis is a long and complex work, and it is helpful if it can be written and structured in such a way that readers are able to navigate their way through it reasonably easily. It should be written in a clear style which, while doing justice to the academic requirements of the subject, does not use unnecessary jargon. It often helps if the thesis is subdivided into chapters and sections so that the reader can readily follow the developing argument. There should be an easily followed thread of argument running through the thesis, so that readers never reach a point where they are unsure how one section has led to another. To sum up, the thesis should be coherent. The issue of writing for a specific reader is discussed in Northedge (1990, p. 166).
The thesis should have clear aims which are enumerated near the beginning and which provide a rationale and framework for the remainder of the work. The thesis then sets out to explain the way in which the research meets those aims. If some aims are only met partially, then this also is explained. Finally, the conclusion reviews those aims, and discusses the ways in which they have been addressed. In a sense, the aims act as an integrating link throughout a good thesis, setting out the intentions of the research at the beginning and providing a focus for the results and conclusion at the end.
The aims are also very important in influencing the choice of theoretical perspective and methodology. The overall research design should be appropriate to the aims. For example, if the aims of the study are to examine broad trends across a number of different high schools, then the research design needs to use survey techniques, possibly using questionnaires. On the other hand, if the research intends to explore the social context of a group of teachers in a single school, then a case study, ethnographic or interactionist perspective may be more appropriate.
Unstructured or semi-structured interviews may be selected as the data collection procedures. In terms of writing the thesis it is important to make these connections clear, and to demonstrate the way in which the research design has evolved from the need to address the aims.
Within the thesis there should be an adequate review of the relevant literature. The literature selected should be sufficiently contemporary to demonstrate the way in which the thesis is building upon recent research. While there will undoubtedly be extracts from different studies and articles, these should not be so numerous that they obscure the prose you write. You therefore need to achieve a balance between the number and length of quotations, and the main text of the thesis. Quotations and extracts should supplement the arguments of the thesis.
While these macro issues in writing are important, you should also pay careful attention to detail. Small errors can be very noticeable. Proofread the thesis carefully, to reduce typographical, punctuation and grammatical errors to a minimum. Check referencing carefully so that details of works cited match in different parts of the thesis. Consistency is very important in a thesis. In a good thesis, there will be consistency in the way the thesis is written and structured. This applies, for example, to the spelling of technical terms, to the use of acronyms, and to the way in which subsections are set out and numbered.
Start the thesis with a clear and well-written abstract. Many readers in a library will read the abstract before deciding whether or not to read the whole thesis. The abstract should provide succinct overview of the whole research project described in the thesis. It should summarize the context of the research, the aims and research design, the results and the conclusion. Finally, it is important not to forget the title. Rather like the abstract, this encapsulates the nature of the thesis. Writing a good title is almost an art form in itself. The title should not be excessively long, but it should describe precisely the nature of the thesis, and ideally include some of the key words associated with the
subject of the research. Although we will revisit many of these issues later, it does help at this stage to have an idea of some of the broad features of a well-written thesis. A typical structure is described in Barnes (1995, p. 130).
Summary – Characteristics of a well-written thesis
A well-written thesis should have:
* A clear title and abstract which accurately and succinctly reflect the nature of the research study.
* A structure and format which help the reader to absorb the subject matter.
* An intellectual coherence which starts with precise aims, from which follow the research design, and a clear conclusion.
* Accuracy in grammar and punctuation.
* Consistency in referencing presentation and the use of terms.
Barnes, R. (1995) Successful Study for Degrees. London: Routledge.
Northedge, A. (1990) The Good Study Guide. Milton Keyes: The Open University.