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Research Workshop


Lecture: Forming a Good Thesis

Once you have asked a question, listened to the answer, and engaged fruitfully with that answer, you are ready to express your own position. You have probably met that person who asks a question and then answers it himself, or puts words in your mouth, or assumes he knows what you think before giving you a chance to respond. This kind of rude behavior can extend to the research process as well; you might not ask a question at all and just start by expressing your own opinions, or you might ask a question but then ignore the answer, or you might listen to the answer but then fail to make sure you understand it, or you might understand and engage with it but then fail to respond clearly in a way that moves the conversation forward. It is imperative that you wait to establish your own position until you are certain you have all the pieces you need and have comprehended them. Nobody wants to be the unintentional buffoon at the dinner table.

Here is an excerpt from Michael Kibbe's excellent book, From Topic to Thesis: A Guide to Theological Research, which addresses this idea.

First, your thesis is the heart and soul of your paper. Every single word, phrase, and paragraph in your paper should contribute to your thesis. If something in your paper doesn't contribute to your thesis, cut it out. Be ruthless! If you're concerned about being able to meet the minimum length requirement for your paper, you need to do more research. A well-researched paper will always struggle to stay under the maximum rather than over the minimum.

Several years ago, my boss sent me out to do some tree trimming. His basic guideline: talk to the tree. Tell it which direction you want it to grow and which direction you don't. If a branch is going the wrong direction, cut it off. Big or small, healthy or sick, pretty or hideous, if it's not going where you want it to go, get rid of it. Think of your paper as a tree, and your thesis as your chosen direction. If a paragraph or illustration or argument or word doesn't take your paper where you want it to go (as defined by your thesis), get rid of it. Your paper must offer a position. You are arguing, not merely informing.

Second, don't start writing your paper too soon. You may want to take notes, construct individual arguments or draw diagrams and charts. Remember, though, that if you write your paper before you have a thesis, you'll have to rewrite it. And if you write your thesis before you do your research, you won't be able to support it. The best way for you to end up with a paper that revolves around a well-supported thesis is to (1) let your research mold your thesis and (2) let your thesis mold your paper.

Third, your research paper should enter into an already-existing conversation about your chosen topic. Remember that a research paper is not you thinking in a vacuum. This, your paper needs to demonstrate three things: that you are aware of the conversation, that you understand the conversation and that you can participate in that conversation.

Fourth, don't be afraid to ask for help! Some professors will give you a chance to hand in your paper early for feedback to help you prepare the final draft. The teaching assistant for your class may be available to help you find sources, construct arguments or deal with other issues. Your librarian will also be able to assist you in locating sources and using online databases. If you are new to writing academic papers and feel overwhelmed by the task in front of you, your school may have a writing center with editors available to look at your paper or sit down with you and talk through it.

 Your thesis statement seeks to answer your (polished and refined) research question, so the quality of the former depends upon the quality of the latter. This means that many of the criteria for evaluating your question also apply to your thesis statement. For example, your thesis, like your question, should be: interesting, relevant, and appropriate to the scope of your assignment.

However, here are some additional criteria for evaluating your thesis:

  • Takes a stand. You don't want a wishy-washy amorphous blob of text that is just fluff and not a statement at all.
  • Uses specific language. You also want to tell the reader, right off the bat, that you know exactly what you will be discussing and (by implication) what you will not be discussing. This goes back to the idea of having a narrowly-focused research question; the more specific and focused your wording is, the more thoroughly you can research, support, and explore your thesis statement.
  • Is based on support. Your thesis statement can actually contain a "road-map" to the argument you will be presenting in your paper; it can hint at or briefly mention the texts or passages you will be basing that argument on, so the reader knows what to expect as he continues.
  • Expresses one main idea. You don't usually want to try to prove multiple things in one argument. Pick one thing you want to prove and make your thesis statement reflect that. REMEMBER - this does not mean that your thesis statement needs to be a single sentence; it just needs to be concise.

Let's work through some example thesis statements:

"More attention should be paid to children's food and beverage choices."

While this statement does take a stand and is presenting one main idea, its wording is pretty vague, and it doesn't identify any support.

"Experts estimate that half of elementary school children consume more than nine times the recommended daily allowance of sugar."

This statement is specific, and it does express one idea and refer to experts as support; however, it isn't a real thesis statement because it doesn't take a stand. It's just stating a fact.

"Since experts estimate that half of elementary school children consume more than nine times the recommended daily allowance of sugar, schools should be required to replace soda in vending machines with healthier options."

This statement hits all our criteria and makes for a solid thesis statement.

"Balrogs don't have wings."

This statement does take a stand and present one idea, and it is pretty focused and specific; however, not only does it fail to pull in support, it also fails in an area we discussed with research questions: relevance. There may be a very niche group of Tolkien nerds who would enthusiastically debate this question, but unless that group is your primary audience, it is safe to assume that your reader will not care and will consider it a fluff topic.

"Tolkien originally conceived of Balrogs as man-shaped."

Not only is this statement irrelevant, but now it fails to even take a stand.

"Tolkien’s portrayal of Balrogs gradually morphed throughout his work, as can be seen in Morgoth’s Ring, The Silmarillion, and The Fellowship of the Ring. This shift in appearance and character provides valuable insight into Tolkien’s perception of evil."

We have now related the question of Balrogs to a larger view of Tolkien's metaphysics. Thus, this statement's relevance is much improved. It also refers to support from three primary texts. It is now a workable thesis.

"There is a lot of planetary imagery in Hamlet."

This statement takes no stand, is fairly vague, and refers to no support.

"The planetary imagery in Hamlet reveals something about why it is a tragedy."

This statement does take a stand, but it is still too vague and refers to no support.

"Because six of the seven medieval planets are associated with major characters in Hamlet, Shakespeare must have left the seventh out deliberately. In fact, the absence of Jove, which was the planet associated with mirth, kingliness, and wisdom, is the reason why Hamlet is a tragedy."

Seriously, who wouldn't want to read that paper?

Exercise 6


1. Revisit one of your papers from last term and "reverse engineer" it, listing the following:

  • Your thesis statement
  • How this statement fits the criteria for evaluation (one or two brief sentences per item)
    • Does it: take a stand, use specific language, arise from support, and express one main idea?

2. Revise your thesis statement so that it better satisfies the criteria for evaluation.

3. Submit a PDF document containing #1-2 under the "Exercise 6" assignment on the Populi class page.