Teaching the Strong Thesis Statement, Part Three

Well, we took another break, because we went on our winter vacation, and then we chaperoned a four-day school trip.  Such is teacher life. Back to work we get! When last we left our heroes, we were discussing strategies for teaching students to write thesis statements that won’t cause you to beat your head against the wall in boredom or despair. We come today to our final piece of the puzzle, and on the topic of finality…

3. Teach them to write the thesis statement last.

Imagine two adventurers, each starting on the east coast of the United States, headed out on a cross-country trip.  The first adventurer has decided that her ultimate goal is to end up in San Francisco. She doesn’t really care how she gets there, and she’s willing to take her time, but she knows she wants to end the trip in San Francisco, so at some point she’s going to have to plan a route that will take her there.  The second adventurer isn’t concerned with his destination. Instead, his plan is to simply hop on Interstate 10 and see what he can see. He’s heard there’s a lot of neat stuff along or near Interstate 10, and he’s looking forward to seeing where the journey leads him.

Good map for a road trip. Maybe also for a final draft?

Both of these are perfectly valid ways to plan a road trip, and as you’ve no doubt guessed, both make excellent metaphors for the process of writing an essay.  For your students, which do you think is the better approach?

Without hesitation, I say my students should take the second adventurer’s approach.  Treat the argument – the thesis – as the destination, not the starting point.  Arrive at your thesis by hopping on the road of your choice, whatever looks interesting to you, and letting it take you where it will.

Students should not go into their papers with an agenda.  If they base their planning, their research, and their writing all around the first nonsensical, stakes-free gobbledygook that occurred to them the night before the first outline was due, they’re going to develop severe tunnel vision.  That’s Science and Philosophy 101: if you start the experiment with the result already in mind, your entire experiment gets tainted by bias. When it comes to literature, that means your reading suffers under unnecessary constraint.

The first adventurer’s approach can absolutely do the job for advanced students and scholars who know the subject very well.  If you can quote the body of literature surrounding your topic chapter and verse, I will permit you to start with a destination in mind.  But let’s be honest – how many students have you taught to whom that description actually applies? Does that description actually apply to you?

But wait! I hear you cry.  You want me to let my students just start writing about stuff without any argument or organizing principle in mind?  These students? The ones who routinely write three-page paragraphs and sentences that end in a different time period than they began?  Those student?  I thought you cared about good writing!  I thought you cared about me!

I certainly do, and I would never have my young writers engage in that “write until you discover what you mean!” business that only works for grad school term papers.  Instead, I encourage my students to start their papers with two things in mind: a topic, and a working thesis. The topic, henceforth known as X, is whatever interests them and fits within the guidelines of the prompt (guidelines which we have definitely given them – see Part Two of this series.  The working thesis, in the meantime, is a placeholder, and only a placeholder. At its most basic, the working thesis need only be “I thought X was really interesting, and I’m going to say something interesting about X.” I’ve had students give me some comically slack-jawed looks when I told them to do this, but I was insistent, so they did.  Later on, some of those students report that they became much more relaxed and confident in the process when writing a solid thesis was no longer the first hurdle they have to jump over.

At this point in the writing process, the thesis itself shouldn’t be the priority.  The priority, instead, should be X, whatever X is. Read about X. Learn about X. If you are interested in George Eliot’s portrayals of English aristocracy, go back through your Eliot books and read the parts that involve the minor aristocrats.  Take notes. Find passages to analyze and quotes. Then, and only then, will your thesis begin to form.

Once a thesis forms, the student should assess it, possibly with your help.  Does it have stakes? Does it offer the reader a new way to look at the primary text?  If it doesn’t, help the student hone it so that it does. If the student has done his homework, you should have plenty of material to work with.  If it does, the student is ready to begin writing the real paper, and the real paper should be just about leaping from the keyboard all by itself at some point.

So, at the end of this three-part series, let us review the steps to teaching a good thesis statement:

  1. Teach students why thesis statements exist.  They are one of several types of forecast sentences that lets a reader know what the full piece is going to do.
  2. Teach students what makes thesis statements work.  Ingrain in their minds the importance of stakes, the importance of adding something new to the conversation even if it’s only new to them.
  3. Teach students when to write the thesis.  It’s okay, even desirable, that they haven’t already come up with an argument three days after getting the paper prompt.  They have to do the dirty work before they can make it pretty.

If you have other tips for teaching students the fine and subtle art of the thesis, please leave them in the comments!

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