A strong thesis makes a claim that (1) requires analysis to support and evolve it and (2) offers some point about the significance of your evidence that would not have been immediately obvious to your readers. By contrast, a weak thesis either makes no claim or makes a claim that does not need proving.
Five kind of weak thesis statements—ones that
- make no claim (“This paper will examine the pros and cons of…”);
- are obviously true or are a statement of fact (“Exercise is good for you”);
- restate conventional wisdom (“Love conquers all”);
- offer personal conviction as the basis for the claim (“Shopping malls are wonderful places”);and
- make an overly broad claim (“Individualism is good”).
Weak Thesis Type 1: The thesis makes no claim. Problem examples…
I’m going to write about Darwin’s concerns with evolution in The Origin of Species.
This paper will address the characteristics of a good corporate manager.
These examples name a subject and link it to the intention to write about it, but they don’t make any claim about that subject. There is, in short, nothing at stake, no issue to be resolved.
Solution: Raise specific issues for the essay to explore. Possible examples:
Darwin’s concern with survival of the fittest in The Origin of Species leads him to neglect a potentially conflicting aspect of his theory of evolution—survival as a matter of interdependence.
The very trait that makes for an effective corporate manager—the drive to succeed—can also make the leader domineering and therefore ineffective.
Weak Thesis Type 2: The thesis is obviously true or is a statement of fact. Problem examples…
The jeans industry targets its advertisements to appeal to young adults.
The flight from teaching to research and publishing in higher education is a controversial issue in the academic world. I will show different views and aspects concerning this problem.
If few people would disagree with the claim that a thesis makes, there is no point in writing an analytical paper on it.
Solution: Find some avenue of INQUIRY—a question about the facts or an issue raised by them. Make an assertion with which it would be possible for readers to disagree. Possible examples…
By inventing new terms, such as “loose fit” and “relaxed fit”, the jean industry has attempted to
normalize, even glorify, its product for an older and fatter generation.
The “flight from teaching” to research and publishing in higher education is a controversial issue in the academic world. As I will attempt to show, the controversy is based to a significant degree on a false assumption, that doing research necessarily leads teachers away from the classroom.
Weak Thesis Type 3: The thesis restates conventional wisdom. Problem examples...
An important part of one’s college education is learning to better understand others’ points of view.
From cartoons in the morning to adventure shows at night, there is too much violence on television.
“I was supposed to bring the coolers; you were supposed to bring the chips!” exclaimed ex-Beatle Ringo Starr, who appeared on TV commercials for Sun County Wine Coolers a few years ago. By using rock music to sell a wide range of products, the advertising agencies, in league with corporate giants such as Pepsi, Michelob, and Ford, have corrupted the spirit of rock and roll.
All of these examples say nothing worth proving because they are clichés. (Conventional wisdom is a polite term for clichés.) Most clichés were fresh ideas once, but over time they have become trite, prefabricated forms of non-thinking. There is some truth in all of the problem examples above, but none of them complicates its position.
Solution: Seek to complicate—see more than one point of view on—your subject. Avoid conventional wisdom unless you can qualify it or introduce a fresh perspective on it. Possible examples…
Although an important part of one’s college education is learning to better understand others’ points of view, a persistent danger is that the students will simply be required to substitute the teacher’s answers for the ones they grew up uncritically believing.
Although some might argue that the presence of rock and roll soundtracks in TV commercials has corrupted rock’s spirit, this point of view not only falsifies the history of rock but also blinds us to the ways that the music has improved the quality of television advertising.
Weak Thesis Type 4: The thesis offers personal conviction as the basis for the claim. Problem examples…
The songs of the punk rock group Minor Threat relate to the feelings of individuals who dare to be different. Their songs are just composed of pure emotion. Pure emotion is very important in music, because it serves as a vehicle to convey the important message of individuality. Minor Threat’s songs are meaningful to me because I can identify with them.
Sir Thomas More’s Utopia treats individualism as a serious but remediable social problem. His radical treatment of what we might now call “socialization” attempts to redefine the meaning and origin of individual identity.
Although I agree with Jeane Kirkpatrick’s argument that environmentalists and businesses should work together to ensure the ecological future of the world, and that this cooperation is beneficial for both sides, the indisputable fact is that environmental considerations should always be a part of any decision that is made. Any individual, if he looks deeply enough into his soul, knows what is right and what is wrong. The environment should be protected because it is the right thing to do, not because someone is forcing you to do it.
Like conventional wisdom, personal likes and dislikes can lead inexperienced writers into knee-jerk reactions of approval or disapproval, often expressed in a moralistic tone. The writers of the problem examples above assume that their primary job is to judge their subjects or testify to their worth, not to evaluate them analytically
Solution: Try on other points of view honestly and dispassionately; treat your ideas as hypotheses to be tested rather than obvious truths. Possible examples…
Sir Thomas More’s Utopia proposes an unworkable set of solutions to society’s problems because, like communist Russia, it suppresses individualism.
Although I agree with Jeane Kirkpatrick’s argument that environmentalists and businesses should work together to ensure the ecological future of the world, her argument undervalues the necessity of pressuring businesses to attend to environmental concerns that may not benefit them in the short run.
Weak Thesis Type 5: The thesis makes an overly broad claim. Problem examples…
Violent revolutions have had both positive and negative results for man.
There are many similarities and differences between the Carolingian and the Burgundian Renaissances.
Othello is a play about love and jealousy.
It is important to understand why leaders act in a leadership role. What is the driving force? Is it an internal drive for the business or group to succeed, or is it an internal drive for the leader to dominate others?
Overly generalized theses avoid complexity. At their worst, as in the first three examples above, they settle for assertions broad enough to fit almost any subject and thus say nothing in particular about the subject at hand.
Solution: Convert broad categories and generic (fits anything) claims to more specific assertions; find ways to bring out the complexity of your subject. Possible examples…
Although violent revolutions begin to redress long-standing social inequities, they often do so at the cost of long-term economic dysfunction and the suffering that attends it.
The differences between the Carolingian and Burgundian Renaissances outweigh the similarities.
Although Othello appears to attack jealousy, it also supports the skepticism of the jealous characters over the naïveté of the lovers.
Consider the following statement:
The economic situation is bad.
Such weak thesis statements (broad noun, weak verb, vague modifier) can be put to the test for revision.
Try a specific noun: The tax policies (of the current administration) [instead of “the economic situation”]
Pick an active verb: threaten to reduce (the tax burden on the middle class) [much better than “is”]
Choose a specific modifier: by sacrificing education and health-care programs for everyone. [much more specific than “bad”]
Two strategies can help you write your way into a better thesis:
- Specify—Replace the overly abstract terms—terms such as positive and negative (or similar and different)—with something specific; name something that is positive and something that is negative instead.
- Subordinate—Rank one of the two items in the pairing underneath the other. When you subordinate, you put the most important, pressing, or revealing side of the comparison in what is known as the main clause and the less important side in what is known as the subordinate clause, introducing it with a word such as although.
GUIDELINES FOR RECOGNIZING AND FIXING WEAK THESIS STATEMENTS
- Your thesis should make a claim with which it would be possible for readers to disagree. In other words, move beyond defending statements your readers would accepts as obviously true.
- Be skeptical of your first (often semiautomatic) response to a subject. It will often be a cliché (however unintentional). Avoid conventional wisdom unless you can introduce a fresh perspective on it.
- Convert broad categories and generic (fits anything) claims to more specific assertions. Find ways to bring out the complexity of your subject.
- Submit the wording of your thesis to this grammatical test: if it follows the “abstract noun + is + evaluative adjective formula” formula (“The economic situation is bad”), substitute a more specific noun and an active verb that will force you to predicate (affirm or assert) something about a focused subject (“Tax laws benefit the rich”).
- Routinely examine and question your own key terms and categories rather than simply accepting them. Assume that they mean more than you first thought.
- Always work to uncover and make explicit the unstated assumptions (premises) underlying your thesis. Don’t treat debatable premises as givens.
- As a rule, be suspicious of thesis statements that depend on words such as real, accurate, believable, right, and good. These words usually signal that you are offering personal opinions—what “feels” right to you—as self-evident truths for everybody.
- One way to assess the adequacy of a thesis statement is to ask yourself where the writer would need to go next to develop his or her idea. If you can’t answer that question, the thesis is still too weak.
- Qualify your claims; you will avoid the global pronouncements—typical of the dangers of overly categorical thinking—that are too broad to be of much use (or true).
For a more detailed discussion, please see
Rosenwasser, D. and Stephen, J. (2006). Writing Analytically. Boston, MA: Thomson Wadsworth.
SAMPLE THESIS STATEMENTS
These sample thesis statements are provided as guides, not as required forms or prescriptions.
The thesis may focus on an analysis of one of the elements of fiction, drama, poetry or nonfiction as expressed in the work: character, plot, structure, idea, theme, symbol, style, imagery, tone, etc.
In “A Worn Path,” Eudora Welty creates a fictional character in Phoenix Jackson whose determination, faith, and cunning illustrate the indomitable human spirit.
Note that the work, author, and character to be analyzed are identified in this thesis statement. The thesis relies on a strong verb (creates). It also identifies the element of fiction that the writer will explore (character) and the characteristics the writer will analyze and discuss (determination, faith, cunning).
The character of the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet serves as a foil to young Juliet, delights us with her warmth and earthy wit, and helps realize the tragic catastrophe.
The works of ecstatic love poets Rumi, Hafiz, and Kabir use symbols such as a lover’s longing and the Tavern of Ruin to illustrate the human soul’s desire to connect with God.
The thesis may focus on illustrating how a work reflects the particular genre’s forms, the characteristics of a philosophy of literature, or the ideas of a particular school of thought.
“The Third and Final Continent” exhibits characteristics recurrent in writings by immigrants: tradition, adaptation, and identity.
Note how the thesis statement classifies the form of the work (writings by immigrants) and identifies the characteristics of that form of writing (tradition, adaptation, and identity) that the essay will discuss.
Samuel Beckett’s Endgame reflects characteristics of Theatre of the Absurd in its minimalist stage setting, its seemingly meaningless dialogue, and its apocalyptic or nihilist vision.
A close look at many details in “The Story of an Hour” reveals how language, institutions, and expected demeanor suppress the natural desires and aspirations of women.
The thesis may draw parallels between some element in the work and real-life situations or subject matter: historical events, the author’s life, medical diagnoses, etc.
In Willa Cather’s short story, “Paul’s Case,” Paul exhibits suicidal behavior that a caring adult might have recognized and remedied had that adult had the scientific knowledge we have today.
This thesis suggests that the essay will identify characteristics of suicide that Paul exhibits in the story. The writer will have to research medical and psychology texts to determine the typical characteristics of suicidal behavior and to illustrate how Paul’s behavior mirrors those characteristics.
Through the experience of one man, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, accurately depicts the historical record of slave life in its descriptions of the often brutal and quixotic relationship between master and slave and of the fragmentation of slave families.
In “I Stand Here Ironing,” one can draw parallels between the narrator’s situation and the author’s life experiences as a mother, writer, and feminist.
SAMPLE PATTERNS FOR THESES ON LITERARY WORKS
1. In (title of work), (author) (illustrates, shows) (aspect) (adjective).
Example: In “Barn Burning,” William Faulkner shows the characters Sardie and Abner Snopes struggling for their identity.
2. In (title of work), (author) uses (one aspect) to (define, strengthen, illustrate) the (element of work).
Example: In “Youth,” Joseph Conrad uses foreshadowing to strengthen the plot.
3. In (title of work), (author) uses (an important part of work) as a unifying device for (one element), (another element), and (another element). The number of elements can vary from one to four.
Example: In “Youth,” Joseph Conrad uses the sea as a unifying device for setting, structure and theme.
4. (Author) develops the character of (character’s name) in (literary work) through what he/she does, what he/she says, what other people say to or about him/her.
Example: Langston Hughes develops the character of Semple in “Ways and Means”…
5. In (title of work), (author) uses (literary device) to (accomplish, develop, illustrate, strengthen) (element of work).
Example: In “The Masque of the Red Death,” Poe uses the symbolism of the stranger, the clock, and the seventh room to develop the theme of death.
6. (Author) (shows, develops, illustrates) the theme of __________ in the (play, poem, story).
Example: Flannery O’Connor illustrates the theme of the effect of the selfishness of the grandmother upon the family in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
7. (Author) develops his character(s) in (title of work) through his/her use of language.
Example: John Updike develops his characters in “A & P” through his use of figurative language.
Perimeter College, Georgia State University, http://depts.gpc.edu/~gpcltc/handouts/communications/literarythesis.pdf