Writing Pitfalls: Weak Theses
One of the most fundamental questions a writer can ask themselves is: Where’s my thesis?
One way to ensure that your thesis a strong, contestable claim is to think of your thesis components as levels in a building. You must lay the foundation of your thesis with the first level before you can move to the second and third levels of thesis building.
Summarizes the topic, gives the facts, and lays the foundation. This level of thesis makes observations that are non-controversial: i.e., no reasonable person would disagree with them. Your reader immediately thinks, “Yes, this is true.”
Example: America experienced an industrial and commercial revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Many artisans, such as Paul Revere, attempted to expand their operations to take advantage of new manufacturing techniques, widening markets, and increased consumerism.
Dangers: Do not make it too obvious. Do not generalize and do not use clichés. You might as well say nothing> Focus on what is relevant to your own specific goals: do not discuss something irrelevant, like the nature of art, man’s desire to express himself, your own practice as an artist, etc.; also do not discuss something irrelevant like an artist’s childhood, style of dress, reputation as a ladies’ man, etc., unless it is the exact subject of your paper.
Interprets a point of view on the facts of the first story. This level is your thesis. It takes a debatable position on the facts, a position that is not obvious and must be proven, a position that a reasonable person could disagree with. A person reading a good two-level thesis thinks “That’s an interesting point of view; now prove it to me.”
Example: Revere’s successful transitions from silver working to iron casting to the rolling of copper sheets had a far greater historical impact than those of his peers because he alone served as a government contractor and benefited from industrial espionage. These controversial activities allowed him to overcome the capital and technological limitations that inhibited most other American manufacturing endeavors.
Dangers: Do not choose a topic so straightforward that there is only one possible argument to make. You need to take a position that is one of several possibilities. Do not make your thesis so controversial that it is absurd or idiosyncratic. You cannot ignore the facts of the work and the facts of history and argue anything you like.
Relates the two-level thesis to the bigger picture, explains its significance and sets it in a new context. Think of this story “opening out” – as if it were a balcony – to a wider view. It is the answer you get when you ask of a two-level thesis, “so what?” Address this topic in your conclusion. The reader should think, “I see why this argument matters”.
Example: Ultimately, the evidence of Revere’s combination of craft and industrial methods indicates that we should date America’s rise to modernity at an earlier point than previously suggested.
Dangers: Don’t get too ambitious and make a claim too big to substantiate. Do not say something vague and mysterious.
Adapted from VMI Writing Center handout created by Natalie Oleksyshyn.