What? How? Why? Thesis

More often than not, your thesis is the most important sentence in your paper. It sums up the most important point you want to make as a result of your reading, thinking, research, and writing. A good thesis has several key characteristics. It should:

  • say something significant about what you have studied, something that helps you and your readers understand it better;
  • state an idea that is not obvious, something that your reader didn’t already know;
  • be at least mildly contestable, an assertion that you might not agree with just by reading it;
  • claim something that can plausibly be supported in the allotted page limit, not a book; and
  • specifically answers “how” and “why” your claim operates.

Take a look at the following thesis:

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland communicates a message and subjects the reader to a silly world governed by nonsense.

So what? The reader probably already knows this. This statement isn’t significant concerning the text nor does it help the reader understand it better. Additionally, the phrase “communicates a message” is so non-specific that it is more confusing than helpful. This thesis does not aim to answer any critical questions about the text; it is merely an incomplete observation. It is not contributing to the conversation. Now, look at the following thesis:

Lewis Carroll’s illogical world of Wonderland in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There introduces several characters that constantly repeat the same nonsensical actions in order to meet the expectations of their respective roles.

This thesis is an improvement. At least it is now introducing a potentially new idea to the discussion. However, the reader is still unconvinced as to why this is important. This thesis thoroughly addresses the “what?” without bothering to address the “how?” or “why?” Why should the reader care about the repetitive actions of Carroll’s characters? What larger purpose do they have? If a thesis were to answer these larger, critical questions, it would serve your essay better than these previous examples.

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, Lewis Carroll mocks the restrictive, repetitive, and nonsensical societal roles of his age through the restrictive, repetitive, and nonsensical roles of the characters in Wonderland.

Now here is an interesting thesis that proposes why Carroll wrote his books and how Wonderland operates. It attempts to answer the critical questions: “What was Carroll’s purpose in constructing Wonderland? And how does he accomplish this purpose?” This claim isn’t obvious within the text and is both contestable and interesting. It contributes to the larger discussion at hand by mentioning a potentially new thought not only about the content of a topic, but its functional value as well.

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You should recognize, however, that you will only rarely be able to make a good claim like this before you write your first draft. Much more often, you discover good points during or at the end of the process of drafting. The development of your thesis could easily go through the stages of the examples outlined above. Writing is a way of thinking through a problem, of discovering what you want to say. So, do not feel that you should begin to write only when you have a fully articulated point in mind. Instead, write to discover and then to refine. Feel free to begin writing your first draft with a “draft thesis” that can be revised along with the rest of your essay.

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