Monday, August 6, 2007

How Not to Write a Thesis

Before I get to the Ranting, I'm going to qualify my "expertise" (if you really want to call it that). I am a specialist in English literature. I'll be discussing general essay-writing techniques, but as most of my experience is with literary criticism, there may be a certain bias in my examples. I can't promise that everything I say is going to apply equally to lit crit and technical writing, philosophy and physics; however, I'll be as comprehensive as I can. Just be aware that my experience is almost entirely in the humanities and largely within the English discipline.

I should probably call this entry "How to Write a Thesis," but let's face it: there are so many incorrect methods of thesis construction that I really am going to be focussing on the negative here. Up in the frozen north, deep beneath the surface of the earth, there is a small hidden bunker containing the five people now alive who actually do know what a thesis is; they occasionally meet for tea and biscuits, and they burn undergraduate essays for fun. You may think you belong to this select club, but odds are that you don't. It isn't entirely your fault. People have been lying to you about theses for years.

I'm going to address some basic misconceptions about the thesis. We are going to be here for a while.

Misconception #1: The thesis is an essay's central idea.

Technically, this statement is true, but so is, "The flour is a cake's central ingredient." Both statements are pleasantly vague and tell us nothing at all about the role of the thesis/flour. Calling the thesis a "central idea" is an invitation to make it as imprecise as the definition. Sure, it's tempting to start your paper with a wishy-washy statement that means very little and allows you scope for BSing in the essay's body, but I can tell you from experience that if your thesis is simply a "central idea," your cake--er, essay--is going to collapse into a gooey mess of random ingredients, or perhaps even explode in the oven. Be specific, damn it.

Misconception #2: The thesis is what an essay is about.

Oh, I do love this one. No, silly: that's the topic. The topic is what an essay is about. Many people seem unable to grasp the fact that there is a fundamental difference between the topic and the thesis. An argumentative essay based on a topic is going to be a bad essay. An expository essay--that is, an essay that relays factual information rather than an essay that makes a controversial point--can certainly be based on a topic, but you are going to write relatively few purely expository essays over the course of your university career.

The difference between the topic and the thesis can be summed up as follows:

The topic is the answer to a "What?" question: i.e., generally, "What is this essay about?" Unless you are well and truly stuck and have changed your mind about your direction fifteen times while scribbling out your outline (it does happen), you are not going to find it difficult to answer such a question. Many profs make it easy for you by providing you with ready-made topics. A topic might be "the role of indecision in William Shakespeare's Hamlet" or "the success of the Canadian government's recent foreign policy" or "trends in twenty-first-century technology" or "I hate the bloody freaking Internet." A topic will often be broad, general, and--as I've said--the answer to a "What?" question.

This sentence does not constitute a thesis:

Indecision plays a role in William Shakespeare's Hamlet.

What...really? You're freaking kidding me.

I know that indecision plays a role in William Shakespeare's Hamlet. What I don't know--yet--is how or why it does so. A thesis is, in fact, the answer to a "How?" and/or a "Why?" question. It is a refinement of the topic, not the topic itself; it takes the topic and fiddles around with it until it constitutes an argument. A thesis that answers a "What?" question will have examples for thesis points. For instance, point 1 in an essay based on the "thesis" above might be, "Hamlet cannot decide whether or not to kill Claudius in the church." No, he can't. So what? All you can do with such a statement is follow it with a description of the scene in question. You're not proving anything; you're illustrating an undeniable fact.

An example is not a thesis point.

Shall I scream this sentence again? I think I shall.

An example is not a thesis point.

Examples are wonderful and useful things, but they are there to back up your points, not make them.

To answer a "How?" or a "Why?" question (often, the "Why?" is inherent in the "How?", especially in literary criticism) is to construct an argument. Constructing an argument is GOOD. Someone who uses a "How?" or "Why?" thesis is in less danger of having examples for thesis points because she* is actually trying to prove something instead of stating an indisputable fact, sitting back, and expecting the reader to do all the analytical work.


By featuring indecision in each of Hamlet's soliloquies, which mark the course of his interior development, Shakespeare effectively portrays procrastination as a tragic flaw, a character fault as likely as hubris to motivate the fall of the hero.

You may not agree with this thesis. Hell...I'm not sure I agree with it myself. Is Hamlet really just a procrastinator? (He's a student, after all, so maybe he is.) However, note that this thesis answers a "How?" question (How does Shakespeare use the idea of Hamlet's indecision to shape Hamlet as a classical tragedy, albeit with a thematic twist?). Also inherent in the thesis is a "Why?" question (Why, thematically speaking, is Hamlet so indecisive?). This one statement contains a lot of meat.

As well, this thesis constitutes an argument. One of the marks of an argument is that it can be argued against. If your thesis doesn't have a damn good counter-argument--or any counter-argument at all--it's going to be weak. You could make your essay really easy to argue by setting up an incontrovertible thesis. For instance (moving away from Mr. Shakespeare for a moment):

Wars are bad because people are killed in them.

I would never have known if you hadn't told me.

Sure, this statement answers a "Why?" question, but it is a "Why?" question so bloody obvious that it may as well be a "What?" question. It is not going to lead to a complex, multi-layered essay.

A writer adopting the Shakespeare thesis above is going to have to remain constantly on his toes. His thesis, like any good one, is controversial; a clever counter-argument could shoot it down. He will therefore have to work hard to plug the holes in his argument. The process of hole-plugging--of justifying his original debatable statement--will give him his essay.

Sometimes, a "How?" question is built into a topic by a prof who is trying to make this topic idiot-proof. The built-in "How?" is a gift. Do not ignore or misuse this gift. Lately, I have been marking essays centred around the following beautifully constructed topic (beautifully constructed by the prof for whom I'm working, so no, this is not me bragging):

How is the encounter with or experience of the magical (or supernatural or mysterious) crucial to the hero’s development in fantasy and/or horror?

Students must apply this question to two of the four set novels. I have marked all but three of the essays centred on this topic, and so far, every single one of them has ignored the "How?" question. The students first inform me that the hero's encounters with the supernatural are essential to his development; then they list examples of the hero's encounters with the supernatural. They do not say how or why the particular fact of these encounters being with the supernatural is important. Half the time, they don't even define "supernatural." They simply go, "Bilbo is changed by his encounter with Gollum. Therefore, the supernatural has affected his development."

How? Why? Is Gollum even "supernatural"? Would it not be fairer to call him "mysterious"? How does his mysteriousness come into play? Would Bilbo have been affected differently if he had had to escape from a bear?

Please don't turn a "How?" question into a "What?" question. You will make your marker cry.

Misconception #3: One must list one's (three) thesis points in one's thesis statement.


No no no no no!

No. No. No. No. No. Bad. Wrong.

Have I made myself clear yet? Or do I need more "no"s?

My next entry will be centred around the horrors of the five-paragraph/sandwich/hamburger/cookbook essay, and I'll probably deal in more detail with its patented "split thesis" when I'm also dealing with its stupid structure and inane, formulaic, repetitive nature, but I'll say right now that I cannot emphasise enough what a terrible, hideous error you are making when you use a split thesis. If you are still a high-school student, your teachers may force you to list your thesis points in this idiotic way; in the next section, I'll teach you how to do so without sacrificing the integrity of your poor, abused essay. If you are a university student, you must never use the split thesis again.

A split thesis generally looks something like this:

Shakespeare uses soliloquies, dramatic irony, and ambiguous language to emphasise Hamlet's indecision.

Body paragraph 1 will deal with soliloquies. Body paragraph 2 will deal with dramatic irony. Body paragraph 3 will deal with ambiguous language.


A lot of the time--okay, 99.9% of the time--the user of the split thesis will end up writing three miniature essays instead of one big one. How, silly little writer, are soliloquies, dramatic irony, and ambiguous language connected? Yes, they have to be connected. It's not enough to follow the stupid formula and plug in three random elements; again, as in the "What?" thesis above, your thesis points are just examples. They are also vague, mindless examples. How does Shakespeare use these extremely disconnected elements to emphasise Hamlet's indecision? Why does he do so? You can't say because that would take up far too much room, and anyway, you're saving it for the body of your essay? You shouldn't be. You need a clear thesis statement, especially if you are an essay-writing novice; experienced writers can sometimes get away with obscure, subtle, or hidden theses, but novices almost never can. State your argument clearly.

As well, unify it. Don't list your freaking bloody thesis points. I mean that. I also mean this:

A university-level and university-length essay--which is not a book or a dissertation or a huge, ranting blog--should generally have only one thesis point.

Only. One. Thesis. Point.

This point will, of course, have sub-points; these sub-points give you your body paragraphs. Sub-point 1 leads to sub-point 2, which gives rise to sub-point 3, which provokes some discussion of sub-point 4,** which may be contradicted by sub-point 5, except that sub-point 6 is there to save the day and lead us all to a triumphant, non-repetitive conclusion. Listing your sub-points in your introduction is useless and, if you have more than two or three of them, cumbersome; they are already encompassed in your one unified thesis point. The existence of this One Point will ensure that your essay does not go wandering idiotically all over the map, staying on the surface of the issue at hand and, in the end, saying nothing at all. The One Point gives you a starting place and a destination. It allows you to dig deep into the topic at hand.

One Point to rule them all, One Point to find them,
One Point to bring them all and in the thesis bind them...***

I'll be returning to the idea of the thesis many times over the course of this guide. The points I make above are my initial ones only; I wanted to get them out there right away in order to illustrate the importance of a thesis. Without a good thesis, you're not going to have a good essay. Period. No exceptions. In many ways, the thesis is the essay. If you forget that and slip back into following the formula for the sake of following the formula, you're going to end up with...formula. Your profs will become angered with you and give you "C"s, and they will write, "No thesis!" in the margins of your papers, and you will not understand why. You wrote an essay, after all! You did exactly what your high-school teachers always told you to do! You didn't write anything untrue! Why "C"s? Why not "A"s? What's all this about there being no thesis?

Next time, I'm going to look at why you are getting "C"s. Specifically, I'm going to take the five-paragraph essay, pin it to the floor, and hack it into quivering bits. In the monstrous form it tends to take, especially at the university level, it does not deserve to live.

*The writer is not always a "she." The writer is not always a "he." In this document, the writer will appear sometimes as a "he" and sometimes as a "she" (as will the reader). S/he will not ever appear as a "they." The Oxford English Dictionary may now accept "they" as a singular pronoun, but I never will.
**Yes! Sub-point 4! 4! You can do can introduce a fourth point! Tomorrow, I'll talk about how and why.
***Sorry. Had to be done.


Evil Weevil said...

"Wars are bad because people are killed in them."

This could be the thesis of a rather interesting essay, although it would be about demographics rather than ethics. Starting with the assumption that death is bad, the writer could examine whether wars cause a net increase in deaths, or whether other effects (destruction of inefficient political systems, technological development with peaceful applications) offset this. They* would be unlikely to draw any firm conclusions, but it could be a useful exercise.

* "S/he" is an abomination that must be destroyed!

Kem said...

Granted, weevil. However, the writer would also have to define the word "bad," which is currently subjective and vague ("bad" in what way? Morally bad? Physically bad? Economically bad? Bad as in evil? Bad as in unfortunate?). Though I'm sure an experienced writer could adopt this thesis as an "interesting exercise," the same experienced writer would be unlikely to wake up one day and say, "Golly gee! I am going to write an essay about how wars are bad because people are killed in them! My insights will rock the world!" She* might choose to word her thesis thus bluntly if she were working through sarcasm or trying to make a point by stating the obvious, but she would be unlikely to use this wording if she were writing a straight, formal, unsarcastic, non-undertaking-an-interesting-exercise kind of essay.

*Singular "they" is an abomination that must be completely annihilated!

Ester Macedo said...

This is so good! Sometimes -- many times -- it sounds like things I've said to others as a reader. Sometimes -- oh, many many times -- it sounds like things I've said to myself as a writer! ("what's my point? what's my point? what's my point?")

Keep it up, this is awsome!


Julie B. said...

Feminism has made "he" an abomination. "She" is a pointlessly PC (and equally abominable, if we're going to call "he" an abomination) substitute. "He or she" really IS an abomination, an assault on the ears, which is made even clearer when a feministly-minded writer chooses "she or he" (or even, once, "her or his", which nearly made my brain explode) instead. "One" is artificially stilted. Gender-neutral, singular 3rd person neologisms like "ey", "co" and "tey" have no way to catch on with the general public because most people are entirely unaware of the 'singular they dilemma' and are therefore unaware of the alternatives (not to mention that most people do not perceive a gap in the language that needs to be filled, which prevents language change).

While in some cases it is possible to rework sentences in such a way as to completely avoid singular "they" (or its abominable counterparts), I have encountered many rather complex sentences that become less clear, more awkward, or detrimentally simplified when rewritten in this way. Contextually, singular "they" is often the best option.

In speech, use of singular "they" is regular and predictable, not to mention more natural than any of its alternatives, which means that according to our internal syntax, singular "they" is actually preferable to its alternatives. Why should we tell students to ignore their intuitions about syntax? It just makes the job of writing that much harder (and that much more unpleasant, in the eyes of students).

Formality does have a place in academic writing. However, there are limits: it should not come at the expense of flow, naturalness and clarity. Consequently, I will always advocate for singular "they".

NB: I would make similar arguments in favor of "you".

**I just found your blog and I love it. It's everything I want to say to my students, but can't for fear of lawsuits.

***You might have a look at David Foster Wallace's book "Consider the Lobster", which includes a brilliant and hilarious (if not, for me, convincing) essay arguing in favor of strictly prescriptive grammar.

Kem said...

Thanks, Julie. I disagree with what you say, but you do make a convincing case for the singular "they." However, to me, "Your child must hand in their homework on time" sounds even MORE grating than all the repellent alternatives. Yes, I know that people use the singular "they" orally. I do it too...but I cringe every time I do because I know that what's happening in my brain--in a fraction of a second--is as follows:

"Here comes the gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun! What do I do? What do I DO? If I say anything but 'they,' everyone will laugh at me and make nasty comments about either sexism or political correctness, if not both. If I say 'they,' I shall never respect myself again. 'They' is not a singular pronoun! It's not! It's--oh, hell, I just said it."

Maybe I'm reacting intuitively...but it feels to me more as if I'm scrambling for something inoffensive to say and lighting on the most common option. I also say "like," "you know," and "um" on occasion, but I really wish I didn't. I'm not sure that my "intuitive" usage of these interjections makes them any less annoying, either.

I'm afraid I'm merely a filthy prescriptivist at heart. Sigh...

john said...

Oh man, Kem, if I could just send this on over to the me of 2001, when I was pulling my hair out trying to figure out why the way my profs wanted me to write an essay didn't make any sense...or, failing that, if I could at least tell that former self "the reason their method seems wrong is because it is, just ignore them," well, I'd have been a whole lot happier back then. It's not just high-school teachers who prescribe terrible writing methods, you know; there are college profs who are just as content to teach the wrong way to do things.

I'm gonna have to stand up for the singular "they," though, on purely aesthetic grounds; alternating "he" and "she" is less appalling and breaks up the sentence flow less than "s/he" or the abominable "he or she," but I cannot accept the idea of providing imaginary specifity to something undefined only to stomp on it later. I have Randall Munroe to back me up, so there!

Unknown said...

Kem you are officially my hero. This could be the thesis of a rather interesting essay, although it would be about demographics rather than ethics.I will recommend this to my friends.

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