Introduction: Topic and Thesis

Your introductory paragraph should efficiently and effectively do two things: introduce your reader to your topic and present your thesis.

In a relatively short paper (5-7 pages), your first paragraph should be relatively short! Get right to it.

It is important to distinguish in your mind between your topic -- what you will write about -- and your thesis -- what you will argue or attempt to prove.

A thesis may be defined as a position that you set forth in specific terms and propose to demonstrate through reasoned argumentation and analysis. Your thesis, then, is the position that you are attempting to persuade your reader to accept.

Your thesis may be more than one sentence long. If you have a good thesis, however, usually you will be able to articulate it in one sentence. If you need two, that's fine, so long as you make sure that the argument is coherent and that the transition from the first to the second sentence is clear and effective.

Have you ever said the following, either to yourself or out loud?

"I can't think of a thesis!"

If so, you've come to the right place. The key is, you don't think of a thesis -- you develop one through the process of writing. (The key word here is "process.")

Let's start with this important hint: You do not need a refined thesis in order to start writing. If you begin with a provisional thesis and then follow the suggestions in this site, making sure that good and careful close reading is at the heart of each paragraph, you will often find your final thesis (or something very close to it) in the last paragraph of a first draft. Integrate that version into your first paragraph and revise from there. A good final thesis should emerge from, not precede, the process of writing.

"Well and good," you say, "but how do I develop a provisional thesis?" Excellent question! Below, I will provide six steps that will help you work through the process of developing a strong provisional thesis. First, though, please think about these four guidelines:

  1. A thesis cannot be a statement of fact. Ask yourself, "Could anyone even potentially disagree with my argument?" "Would a mere summary or description of the text(s) I'm discussing suffice to support my claim?" If no one could possibly disagree, or if a simple summary would show that what you've said is true, then most likely you have set forth a statement of fact. And there's no need to spend 5-7 pp. (let alone more) persuading your reader to accept a fact!
  2. A good thesis is specific, not general. Avoid all sweeping generalizations, about human beings, about literature, about civilization, about anything "through the ages" or "since the dawn of time," etc. If you follow the six steps below, you should not encounter this problem.
  3. Your thesis should matter to you, and you should be able to imagine that your thesis would matter to any other member of our class. Does your thesis address important issues that the course has raised? Does it pass the "Who cares?" test?
  4. Finally, your thesis statement should give the reader some sense of what the structure of your paper will be. If your thesis contains two or three parts, then your reader will expect you to discuss those two or three parts in the order in which you've given them in your thesis statement.

Now that you've attentively read and considered these guidelines, here are six concrete steps that you can take. Note that I do not say "six easy steps." All of these steps require work, especially the fifth.

  1. Think about the assignment. Your professor has written it carefully in order to help you produce a good paper, so please take the assignment seriously.
  2. Reread the text(s) you intend to discuss, marking them up with a pencil and taking good clear notes on passages that seem particularly relevant to the assignment.
  3. Still keeping the assignment in mind, look over these notes and then select the one specific thing in them that grabs you the most -- the one particular image or metaphor, or limited set of images or metaphors, that kind of thing! -- about which you feel in your gut that you have the most to say.
  4. Next, using your notes make a list of every instance of whatever interests you, and then from that list choose the two or three passages that call out most loudly for interpretation.
  5. Quote each passage and then, following my suggestions on close reading, write out your interpretations of the instances that you've chosen, dedicating one rough paragraph to each. Remember, your goal here is not just to say what you think your passages mean but also (and more importantly) to show how they mean what you think they mean. What work do they perform, and how do they perform it?
  6. Finally, look at what you've written and let your provisional thesis emerge out of your interpretations, out of your ideas concerning the work that your passages perform in your text(s).

When you're done with these steps, you should have a good provisional thesis along with the foundations for several of your body paragraphs! With these foundations, you'll be more than ready to turn to the next phase of composition, argumentation, the process by which you'll persuade your reader that your thesis is meaningful and worth accepting.

As you go, you will inevitably discover that the argument you're actually making is somewhat different from the argument you thought you were making, and that's a good thing because it means your thesis is getting better. As it happens, keep going back and revising your provisional thesis! This is the process through which your provisional thesis will become your final thesis.

For examples of good theses and bad theses, for help with turning bad ones into good ones, and for other links on the subject, please see Jack Lynch's Getting an A on an English Paper.

More often than not, a bad thesis is a statement of fact that desperately wants to become a good thesis. Here's how to help it get where it wants to go.

If you look at your thesis and decide that it's simply true -- a fact that no one could disagree with -- turn it into a question, putting your statement of fact in the blank spaces, like so!

What is interesting or exciting to me about the fact that _________________, and why should what I have to say about the fact that _________________ matter to other students in the class?

The answer to that question is your real thesis!

Again, though, don't try answering that question until after you've followed those six steps above. If you follow those six steps and, if necessary, pose that question and answer it for yourself, you'll never again have to say -- to yourself, to your professor, or to anyone -- "I can't think of a thesis!"