The thesis statement

Despite what some English teachers may say, there is no single formula for a successful paper, nor will I be looking for one in this class. The most important characteristics of a good paper include a structure in which ideas are logically connected and easy to follow, clear and precise communication, and distinct points that all contribute to the overall purpose of the paper.

Sometimes the hardest step is deciding what, exactly, your paper will be about. However, simply stating a topic or question is not the same as offering the reader a compelling purpose to your paper. Most writing forms, including the papers for this class, demand an engaging point to be made. Some writers describe this concise description as a thesis. However, this term is not used to imply that all papers must be persuasive in intent (at least in the sense of debating a controversy). For our papers, you should be able to state in a single sentence (without semicolons) what exactly what your point is. Some writing teachers encourage students to come up with a title first, because if you can't state what the paper is about in a concise title, you should perhaps rethink the thesis.

The SAFE method for evaluating a thesis:

  • A thesis should be Significant. This criterion is often summarized as the "so what?" test. That is, if a reader answers "So what?" to your thesis, the resulting paper is unlikely to be interesting.
    • Less effective:

    • In "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," Whitman reminisces about an incident in his childhood.

    • More effective:

    • In "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," Whitman reconciles the innocence of childhood with human mortality.

    A thesis should not be merely an observation or description.

    • Less effective:

    • William Burrough's cut-up method results in unexpected juxtapositions in Nova Express.

    • More effective:

    • The unreliability of language creates a terrifying subversion of causality in Burrough's Nova Express.

  • A thesis should be Arguable. Compendiums of facts are useful as Wikipedia articles, but scholarship usually goes further, providing readers with an interpretation. An interesting interpretation is neither entirely descriptive nor obvious.

    • Less effective:
    • In 1913, Igor Stravinsky shocked Paris with the premiere of his ballet The Rite of Spring.

    • More effective:
    • The Rite of Spring dehumanizes its subjects in the same way that the upcoming war would anonymize carnage.

    Similarly, a thesis should go significantly beyond class discussion, proposing an original interpretation. A paper should never summarize or restate other people's ideas, whether from class discussions or other sources. Of course, these sources may help provide inspiration for your own ideas or evidence for your points, but the thesis should be an idea original with you.

  • A thesis should be precise and Focused:
    • Not effective (even if you're going to write a book):

    • The music of Erik Satie was revolutionary.

    • More effective:

    • The early music of Erik Satie already showed remarkable reactions against romanticism.

    • Even more effective:

    • The lack of transitions in the early music of Erik Satie creates a sense of time at odds with Wagnerian aesthetic.

    Likewise, a thesis should be a single, distinct idea:

    • Less effective:

    • The dream-like aspects of Rousseau's paintings influenced de Chirico, and their juxtaposition of perspectives influenced Picasso.

    • More effective:

    • The dream-like aspects of Rousseau's paintings deeply influenced de Chirico's search for truth within the Freudian subconscious.

    • Or:

    • The juxtaposition of perspectives in Rousseau's paintings provided Picasso with a compositional solution that would lead to Cubism.

  • The thesis should have Evidence to support it and not require unavailable evidence or speculate on the author's intent.

    First, don't tell us what the author meant, only your interpretation of the text. In most cases, we don't know what the author was thinking. In those cases where we do (from an interview, for example), the thesis would be trivial and obvious once you have quoted the author. Of course, successfully arguing for a particular interpretation may mean that you have convinced the reader that the author intended it, but claiming authorial intent without evidence is pointless and distracting.

    • Problematic:

    • In her paintings, Georgia O'Keeffe elevated animal skulls to objects of beauty so that the viewer will contemplate the transitory nature of life.

    • More effective:

    • Georgia O'Keeffe's depictions of animal skulls show beauty in all existence despite the transitory nature of life.

    Your choice of thesis will determine evidence you need to present as well as the appropriateness of points that follow. For example, consider this thesis:

    • Satie's simplicity and startling juxtapositions were fundamental influences on the music of Darius Milhaud.

    Because the writer has stated that influences exist, it becomes incumbent upon her not only to give examples of musical similarities, but to show historical evidence that Milhaud actually knew Satie's music and was influenced by it.

    Of course, a more vague wording of a thesis does not make up for failures of research, but any claim you make that is not an obvious fact, including opinion, criticism, and interpretation, needs to be backed up by a) factual evidence, b) an example, or c) a citation.

    Sometimes it will take several tries and a lot of research before you formulate a thesis that precisely states what you intend to communicate and have evidence for. It is, at times, helpful to "write your way to an idea," but that's only a first step, not what you turn in! If your thesis does not fulfill the suggestions above, it may reveal shortcomings in your concepts for your paper. You should be grateful to have found such shortcomings, because that realization can set you down a much more fruitful path.