Teaching the Strong Thesis Statement, Part One

This week, I asked my Facebook readers to suggest a topic for the blog and several people, especially my teacher pals, hit me with a lot of simmering angst about thesis statements and how students can’t write them.  There are dozens of online guides about how to write a good thesis statement, so I’m going to take a slight different approach.  Today’s question will be: how do you teach good thesis statements?

This question has a lot of answers and one could probably fill a small book with all of them.  I’m going to take advantage of that and milk a couple week’s worth of posts out of the topic, because I don’t want to give any part of this the short shrift.  We will begin with the first, most basic step towards setting your students on the path to the strong thesis.

  1. Stop calling them “thesis statements.”

Okay, I’ll qualify that: stop calling them thesis statements all the time.  When I’m allowed to teach writing the way I really want to, I don’t talk about thesis statements all that often.  And I definitely don’t talk about them at the very beginning.

The thesis statement can be intimidating to the beginning or struggling student of writing. Just about everyone has been marked down, at some point in her academic career, for an “unclear” or “unoriginal” thesis, and it makes the thesis a source of anxiety. You don’t want to give your students the idea that a thesis statement is the be-all-end-all of quality academic writing, and definitely not that it’s the be-all-end-all of quality writing.  The thesis statement should not have outsize power over the writer.

But the most important reason not to overemphasize the thesis statement is that the vast, vast majority of what your students write during their lifetimes isn’t going to have a thesis statement, and wouldn’t you like to have a lasting impact on the way they write beyond that one time they wrote about Sir Philip Sidney’s poetic technique?  I instead recommend teaching your students a technique that covers the thesis statement, but also applies far beyond the thesis statement. We’ll call this technique “forecasting” or “previewing.”

Let’s start with a few examples of writing that do not have a thesis statement.  Here’s something I nabbed from the front page of the web site for a leading roller coaster manufacturer, Rocky Mountain Construction:

In 2008, renowned coaster engineer Alan Schilke and Fred Grubb collaborated and designed our two new revolutionary track technologies: The Topper and IBox Tracks. These two new track systems have taken the roller coaster industry by storm, making us a leader in the industry.

What would you guess, from those two sentences (especially the second), that the remainder of their site is devoted to?  If you guessed “hawking the daylights out of their Topper and IBox track systems,” congratulations, you can recognize a basic marketing strategy.  RMC wants their audience (potential clients) to know what it does (makes an innovative roller coaster track) and get excited about that so that they order custom roller coasters and give RMC lots of money.  So they tell their audience, in the most prominent place on the site, what they do, using language indicating that everyone else loves it and the potential clients will too.

Here’s another example, from a cooking blog called Tastes Better from Scratch, near the top of a recipe for an “Easy, No-Fuss Thanksgiving Turkey”:

My hope is to squash any fears or insecurities you might have about cooking a perfect, beautiful Thanksgiving Turkey.

Once again, we know exactly what this piece of writing sets out to do.  The author is going to help her audience feel at ease about the daunting task of cooking a turkey for Thanksgiving.  And sure enough, the remainder of her post is devoted to easy-to-follow directions, tips, and tricks for preparing and roasting the turkey, using tools that even beginning cooks have in their kitchens.

John Maguire, the author of the curriculum that changed the way I teach writing, talks about the “forecast sentence,” which is his name for the sentence that tells the reader what your written thing is going to be about.  He stresses that a thesis statement is a type of forecast sentence, and that you need one whenever your primary purpose is making an argument.  If you’re not making an argument, but instead reporting on the news or giving directions or writing a letter to Grandma, you need a different kind of forecast sentence.  The key is to learn to discern which kind you need for each type of writing.

Teaching your students the forecast sentence illuminates a few key facts about the thesis statement and its purpose.  The thesis statement must clearly and concisely present your reader with the argument around which your entire paper will be focused.  It must tell your reader what you intend to do with the rest of the paper. It’s important, but it’s also very small. The bulk of the work comes from the body of the paper, which must be devoted to demonstrating the thesis.

Especially for beginning or struggling writers, I have had great success in teaching the thesis statement as simply one type of forecast sentence.  Just about short non-fiction thing you read, from news articles to cover letters to sales pitches to recipes to handwritten letters from Grandma, has a forecast sentence.  A thesis is just a forecast for an academic essay: it tells your reader what your essay is going to be about. It’s the point where your reader crests the lift hill on the roller coaster that is your paper and starts to head down the first drop.

Pictured: a good forecast sentence, and also Steel Vengeance, an RMC creation.  Photo credit: Detroit News.

Thus, my first suggestion is to have your students practice forecast sentences in several different kinds of writing to get them used to the practice of previewing their work within the first paragraph.  Once they’re used to this as standard practice of clear writing, you can transition them smoothly into the thickets of the actual academic thesis. They will already know the point of the thesis, and having that foundation gives them an uncommon leg up on understanding how to craft one.

Next time: getting your students to write interesting, high-stakes thesis statements!

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