At some point, your teacher has probably handed you an essay with a comment like ‘you need a stronger thesis’. This is common. In fact, I’d be surprised if you hadn’t seen a comment like this, whether on a friend’s essay or your own. It can be baffling. There’s no clear mistake on the page—you can’t put your finger on anything you’ve done wrong—so it can be hard to say just what you should have done differently. I want to talk about this here.
Let’s start by acknowledging two different kinds of essays: essays that just show off what you know, for which you might score 17/20 (in one of the advanced modules, let’s say), and essays that also sustain a strong argument, for which you might get full marks. I’ll call the first kind an expository essay, and the second an argumentative essay. Obviously, you should aim to write argumentatively. If you’re used to seeing comments like ‘you need a stronger thesis’, there’s a good chance you’re writing expository essays. What’s more, if you write expository essays, ‘you need a stronger thesis’ might be the only substantial criticism you see. If that’s the case, the detail of your textual analysis is probably fine. What’s missing is the argument that frames your analysis, and the greater part of that argument is having a strong thesis. Your thesis, remember, isn’t just a few lines in your introduction. Your thesis is the thing you’re arguing for.
So what’s going wrong?
In most cases, the problem is that your thesis doesn’t differ enough from one that’s implicit in the question. It’s likely, in other words, that your thesis is basically a reformulation of the question. I’ve seen some students decide that this is a good approach. It can seem safe, and certain questions even appear to invite it—questions that ask ‘to what extent do you agree’, for example. If you want top marks, however, it’s not a good idea just to repeat what’s given to you. By themselves, most questions are far too simple to produce an interesting argument, and, more importantly, a decision to reformulate the question ignores the fact that novelty is a crucial part of any good thesis. Interpretation is what gives you something to argue for; you have to specify what you take the terms of the question to mean. Precisely because they’re couched in such simple terms, HSC questions cry out for it. If you don’t do this basic interpretive work, you’ll end up telling your reader—your marker—something that they already know, something that almost certainly goes without saying. In short, you’ll end up showing off what you know, rather than defending your understanding of it; you’ll end up writing an expository essay. A thesis doesn’t need to be radically original—just try writing something original about Hamlet, I dare you—but it does need to depart from the question.
Take as an example the questions given to extension students in the 2014 HSC. In every elective, students were asked to analyse how texts ‘engage us both intellectually and emotionally with significant ideas’. Imagine you had to answer this question. Clearly, it’s not enough simply to acknowledge that texts do engage us in this way. Before you can hope to answer this question, you have to let the reader know what the relevant ‘significant ideas’ are, and you have to specify what you take ‘intellectual and emotional engagement’ to mean. This isn’t something you can read off the question. Now, you’re probably tired of being reminded to ‘answer the question’, but it’s important to remember that answering a question involves more than leaving a trail of someone else’s terms scattered throughout your essay. Argumentative writing, after all, is also creative writing. When you sit down to write your introduction, it’s up to you to decide which ‘ideas’ qualify as ‘significant’, and to say what this significance consists in (this is why improvising introductions is invaluable exam practice). Writing stories is about naked invention; writing essays is about the novel articulation of an argument.
Once you know what you’re arguing for, you need to sustain the argument. I know that the word ‘sustained’ causes some confusion. It’s likely to puzzle you if you think that your thesis is something on the page—if, for example, you think ‘you need a stronger thesis’ is a comment about your introduction alone. This is a natural assumption if you think that a thesis is like a topic-sentence for the whole essay. It’s not. While it’s not a bad idea to conclude your introduction with a thesis-statement (in fact, it’s a good idea), a thesis-statement is no more a thesis than a punchline alone is a joke. Expository essays seem to want to get the thesis out of the way to make room for as much analysis as possible. The business of an argumentative essay, on the other hand, is to defend a thesis. So the whole of your essay must serve the thesis. Linking sentences are crucial here (I’m sure you’ve also seen the comment ‘refer back to the question’). They aren’t just recitations of the question; it’s no good writing this: ‘in this way, texts engage us intellectually and emotionally with significant ideas’. A linking sentence is meant to tie your paragraphs to your interpretation of the question. In other words, they’re meant not to remind the reader of what question you’re answering, but to draw the reader’s attention to how what you’ve just said contributes to your argument. This is what makes essays cohere. Each new paragraph represents another point in support of your thesis. Sustaining an argument is nothing more than making sure your paragraphs work together to this common end.
The take-home message of this post is a sort of holism: if you find yourself struggling to write a good thesis, you probably need to think about writing a different kind of essay. As you move through your final years of school, you need not only to show your reader what you know, you need to convince them that you understand.
Sam Lewin- Capra English TutorDate Posted: 4 November 2015