The Writing Process: Writing
One of the most common mistakes that students make when paper writing is to put it off until the last minute; thus, there is rarely time to create a draft. First drafts can be particularly useful in that they allow for a stream of ideas while subsequent editing prevents these ideas from being disorganized or unclear. When you write a draft you also have the mental and emotional benefit of knowing this is not the final product and that you have time to make mistakes, correct them, throw out entire paragraphs, even change your thesis.
The first step in drafting a paper is to articulate a clear and cohesive thesis. Then, you should consider how the paper is divided into sections: an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion.
Professors in first-year writing courses spend an entire semester teaching and reviewing the thesis statement, and so it stands to reason that, despite most students’ familiarity with the term, the thesis is often the most difficult part of a paper to master. What exactly do professors mean when they ask for a clear thesis statement? And do they always have to be stuck at the end of your first paragraph? This section will help you answer these questions and teach you how to write strong, effective theses.
What exactly is a thesis statement?
A thesis is a succinct statement of your essay’s main argument. It does not necessarily have to be limited to one sentence in length and should not be a self-evident conclusion with which anyone knowledgeable on the topic would fundamentally agree. In other words, your thesis should be your own personal, arguable, and defendable stance on a particular topic. The keyword here is “argument.” Your thesis statement should make a relatively original claim that can be either proven or, at least, well-supported in your proceeding paragraphs. It is not an “opinion” because by definition an opinion needs no support. It is, rather, a position that acknowledges a certain precariousness and so needs support through analysis and evidence.
Your entire essay relies on your thesis. Therefore, in addition to being argumentative, a thesis should be concise, thorough, and clear. It should suggest that there is evidence to support it, and it should outline the major topics that will develop the argument throughout the essay.
How is a thesis different from a topic sentence?
Many students confuse the terms “thesis statement” and “topic sentence.” The difference lies in the specificity and the arguability of the statement in question. A topic sentence is one that describes the general subject of the paragraph or essay but does not address what exactly the writer wants the reader to conclude about the topic. A thesis statement, on the other hand, is a much more specific and, at some level, controversial statement about the topic. It is a claim up for debate based on interpretation of evidence. And it is a statement that needs support and development to be persuasive. It is not inherently persuasive or accepted.
The following examples illustrate the differences between topic sentences, statements of opinion, and thesis statements.
In my essay, I will address the significance of color imagery in The Great Gatsby, especially the colors green, white, and brown.
Statement of Opinion:
Gatsby is foolish for attaching so much significance to the colors green and white.
In The Great Gatsby, different colors define the boundaries between social classes, with grey, navy, and brown being associated with the poor in the Valley of Ashes, bright primary colors with the middle class in West Egg, and white, green, and muted colors with the wealthy in East Egg.
In his novel, 1984, George Orwell used war and battle metaphors.
Statement of Opinion:
Winston should not have succumbed to Big Brother’s ideology.
Orwell’s 1984 is a critique of modernization and industrialization, in that it reveals the loss of individual identity for the sake of greater efficiency.
Most readers, including your professors, look for a thesis early on in your paper, but not necessarily at the end of the first paragraph. Thesis statements are usually most effective in the introduction because they do, in fact, introduce the argument. However, sometimes a paper is most persuasive if the thesis comes later. These are known as “delayed thesis” papers. In this instance, the paper works towards the thesis, which may be located in the middle or even at the end of the paper. The delayed thesis works particularly well for close analysis papers where the goal is to analyze the language rather than use the language to prove your analysis; a good example of this type of analysis is poetry explication. In addition, the delayed thesis can be used effectively for longer essays where the claim is too complex to contain within the first paragraph, or when the writer expects an initially hostile reaction to his or her thesis and wants to establish common ground with the reader first. It is worth noting, however, that while a delayed thesis can work exceptionally well, if not executed properly, it can make the paper disorganized and therefore more difficult for a reader to follow and understand. Because of this risk, less experienced writers should state their thesis early on, allowing the reader to get a strong grasp of the paper’s argument from the start.
The Changing Thesis
Often during the course of writing or revising, it becomes clear that the thesis of your paper has changed. It may be that you’ve found new and different evidence than you anticipated or that you’ve simply realized a new argument through your analysis of the subject. Be aware of such shifts in your thinking and be sure to adjust your thesis statement accordingly. During the writing process make a conscious effort to ensure that your thesis is present and consistent in the essay, that every paragraph works to support and promote your thesis. Assuring that your reader can follow your argument is imperative in a persuasive essay.
In general, an introduction is a paragraph (about 5-10 sentences or 100-200 words) and basically introduces the reader to your subject. In this section of the paper, avoid summarizing the topic and quoting or referring to specific evidence. Instead, begin contextualizing your claims and showing the direction the paper will take. Do not write so generally that your reader must search for your argument, and avoid phrases like “Throughout history” and “Since the beginning of time.”
A strong introduction should
• Identify the subject of the paper.
• Engage the reader.
• Offer a general outline of the paper (what its structure will be).
• Communicate the argument.
An introduction might also
• Provide necessary background information.
• Relay a story about or describe your topic.
• Establish your credibility as a writer on this subject (so the reader will trust your claims).
• Offer counter-arguments (against your thesis) that will “hook” the reader.
• Begin with a notable quotation that leads to your larger discussion.
Once you’ve introduced your subject and stated your thesis, you then must organize your analyses, research, and ideas into fully developed body paragraphs. Careful, thoughtful organization is essential to ensuring that your paper is readable and persuasive. If, however, you structure your paper with one topic here and another topic dangling over there and no coherence whatsoever, the reader may lose interest or get so confused that your intended argument gets lost or misunderstood.
The body paragraphs of the paper should include—as fully articulated topic sentences—the claims you alluded to in your introduction. These claims are like mini-thesis statements that both articulate the supporting point of and provide direction for the paragraph that follows (in the same way that the thesis itself provides direction for the entire paper). The ideas and evidence that follow should be relevant to and support this claim. If there is disjuncture, the evidence may belong in another paragraph or perhaps the claim needs better or different examples. Maybe the claim itself is faulty and doesn’t adequately pull together the evidence that is meant to support it.
One distinguishing feature of a strong essay is that successive paragraphs are linked in a coherent fashion. In an outline, main points are bulleted, presented in isolation with no clear link from one idea to the next. Paragraphs developed in a paper, on the other hand, must be clearly connected to one another. They must be linked, either through ideas or words, in such a way that the reader can easily follow the development of your thesis.
An idea link is a connection (also called a transition) between two paragraphs based on a similar train of thought or repetition of an idea. Idea links tie the paragraphs together because the reader is clearly told how one paragraph relates to another by the related ideas they employ. An idea link may consist of a repeated phrase, a related anecdote, or a similarly worded summary of the idea previously presented.
In the following example, from “The Lost Year” by Dan Baum (The New Yorker, August 21, 2006, 46-59), the paragraphs are linked by the idea that the redevelopment of New Orleans after Katrina is a project with global appeal.
Baker’s proposal [to finance reconstruction] was big enough to save New Orleans. It would put money and options in the hands of homeowners. And it was tailored to appeal to Bush’s sensibilities—government involvement would be temporary, and about half of the initial public outlay would be recovered when redeveloped properties were sold. The bill made New Orleans the greatest urban-revival opportunity in recent American history, and planners and architects from around the world gathered to help.
More than just New Orleans was at stake. A third of the world’s population lives in coastal zones, many of them in delta cities that may flood as the climate changes and seas rise. The Netherlands’ complex of levees, fortified after a hurricane killed hundreds in 1953, is a respected flood-control model; done right, planners said, New Orleans could serve as another example of how to rebuild, smarter and better, a city flooded on an unprecedented scale. (Baum 49)
In the final sentence of the first paragraph, the author remarks that a government bill has attracted the attention of international building professionals, and in the opening of the second paragraph, he moves to more general concerns and hopes about urban development in flood risk areas around the world. Thus, Baum is linking the internationally popular proposal to revitalize New Orleans with growing global interest in securing and developing other coastal urban centers.
Where an idea link is a compositional link between paragraphs, a word link is a syntactic transition. Word links such as however, although, needless to say, then, secondly, next, as it pertains to, as you can see, similarly, on the other hand, conversely, and subsequently, signal to the reader that you are further developing a topic in this paragraph based on the information you have provided in previous paragraphs. Word links are very important because they allow your reader to follow your argument, seeing quickly and easily how each new paragraph pertains to the thesis and relates to the paragraph before it.
In the first sentence of the next paragraph of Baum’s article, he uses the word link “though” to show transition to a new idea (Note: the ellipses after the first sentence signals that a portion of the text has been removed by the editor of this guide).
More than just New Orleans was at stake. . . . “We have this incredible, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reëngage and recalibrate this city in a way that, politically, you might never have been able to get to.” Joseph Canizaro called the city a “clean sheet.” In their enthusiasm to create a new city, though, the planners were up against New Orleanians’ uncommon fondness for the old one. (Baum 49)
Word links and idea links make your paragraphs coherent; always check to ensure that transitional ideas and phrases connect each paragraph like directional markers on a map.
In addition to considering how your paragraphs logicially develop the argument set forth in your introduction, you should pay close attention to how your sentences develop the ideas presented in your paragraphs. Essentially, sentences are the building blocks of your paragraphs, and they should be clear, engaging, and varied. For example, make sure that parallel ideas exist within parallel phrases or sentences and that every sentence doesn’t begin the same way. Sentences with the same word order or length produce the kind of monotony that is boring to readers. To make your sentences more interesting, add variety by making some longer than others and by finding alternatives to starting every sentence with the subject followed by the verb. Below are some strategies to help achieve that variety.
• Combine two sentences into one longer sentence.
• Join the subject of two independent clauses into one sentence when the verb and the rest of the clause are the same.
• Join two predicates when they have the same subject.
• Add a description about a noun after the noun or add an adjective before the noun.
• Add a who, where, or which clause after a noun.
• Add a modifying phrase or a clause to the beginning of a sentence.
• Begin with infinitives or with phrases beginning with –ing or –ed verbs.
• Begin with a dependent clause (i.e., beginning with after, although, because, if, since, until, when, while).
Changing Words, Phrases, and Clauses:
• Move adjectives to a new place in the sentence.
• Expand your subject into a phrase or clause.
• Change your sentence into a dependent clause and attach it to an independent clause.
In addition to having varied sentences, you should have efficient and precise language in those sentences. Remember to delete any unnecessary words or phrases and to maintain a consistent verb tense (usually the present tense), a consistent point of view (usually third person), and a consistent level of formality throughout the paper. You may use contractions, provided they are used correctly, and unusual sentence constructions provided they are used for an obvious stylistic or rhetorical purpose.
The conclusion should reinforce the development of the argument and establish closure for the reader without blandly restating the thesis. Most conclusions begin with a summary of the major points or evidence in the paper. However, your conclusion shouldn’t be simply repetitive. Upon reaching the conclusion to your paper, imagine the reader saying “Okay, I’ve been persuaded, but what does this mean to me?” or simply “So what?” Below are suggestions for writing a conclusion.
• Avoid quoting or presenting evidence (as with the introduction).
• Summarize the main body points as briefly as possible in the order they appear in the paper.
• Offer an explanation as to why this paper needed writing in the first place.
• Describe how your argument might have larger implications that extend beyond just the paper. Relate your thesis to a broader issue, showing that it has some meaning and relevance outside of an academic exercise.
• Point to the implications of your argument for further study in the field.
• Show exactly how your paper fits into the existing literature on the subject.