by Sonia Epstein
I’m finishing up an essay about a 19th century British novel, a pretty typical “marriage plot” novel whose curtain closes on a headstrong female protagonist, now with a ring around her finger, ready to live out her happily-ever-after: she will not become destitute; she will enjoy a respectable social standing; she will have a husband who can provide for her. My thesis statement argues that although the novel traces the triumph of this marriage, as well as the marriage of the protagonist’s close female friend, it simultaneously traces the collapse of a different relationship—the friendship between the two young women.
I’m feeling good: writing teachers often say that a thesis statement—in any discipline—answers what, how, and why questions. In an essay about a literary text, for example, you might answer the question, “What is an author doing, and/or how?” (What language does the author use, what metaphors, what kinds of characters?) I know my essay is doing this—it’s describing what I think the author is doing (showing the dissolution of a friendship) and how (by juxtaposing it against successful marriage arrangements). But what I haven’t really done is explain why the author is doing this, or why it’s important to see these contrasting relationships together.
Because I’ve extensively re-chronicled the scenes in which the protagonist is manipulative of her friend—scenes that catalyze both the marriages’ success and the friendship’s decline—it’s hard for me to see that I’m only describing “what” is happening and not “why” it’s happening. But I’m six pages in, and it’s conclusion-time. I’m gleeful. I have that feeling you sometimes get when you know you’re approaching the end of your work, and you’re ready to sign off with an epic mic-drop. This whole marriage-plot-thing has honestly made me a little angry, so I try to channel that into my final paragraph, to end with a flourish. I write that maybe, if marriage at the time wasn’t so transactional, with women needing to evaluate whose wages and estate and family are most promising, then maybe there’d be more altruism; maybe the female relationships in the book wouldn’t be so doomed to fail. There—done!
In this final paragraph, almost unintentionally, I’ve actually answered a big “why” of my essay: I’ve convinced myself that by juxtaposing the marriage plot against the friendship, the book suggests how transactional both kinds of relationships were at risk of becoming in this era of the history of the British middle class. It was difficult to understand the broader implicationsof my initial, “factual claims” (“this is what’s happening in the book; this is how”) until I’d been sitting with them for several hours—and that’s why, time and time again, I’ve found compelling thesis statements hiding in the concluding paragraphs of others’ work and my own.
Sometimes, writers will feel obligated to keep those more-developed statements of their argument in the concluding paragraph: they worry that transplanting that argument to the introduction will “give away” everything they’re going to be talking about. But a thesis statement shouldn’t be a teaser-trailer; it should be the “tl;dr” of your paper. Your body paragraphs are there to explain the logic behind the claims in your thesis of “what, how, and why,” and convince your reader of their validity, so that by the time the reader reaches your concluding paragraph(s), you will have the opportunity to restate that thesis with authority. Having done that, you can elaborate on the significance of that argument even further: how it might contribute to a broader understanding of a topic, field of inquiry, or existing body of scholarship. In my essay, for example, I might say that paying attention to the friendships in the book allows a reader to see that, in spite of the “happily-ever-after” ending, the author is actually presenting a critique of the types of relationships existing in this world, but uses the structures of the marriage plot to convey that message in a popular form.
Now that we’ve talked about how you might find a better version of your argument in your conclusion, here are a few main action-items for essay writers:
- If you’ve finished a draft, copy and paste your intro and conclusion to a different document. To what extent do they match? Does the conclusion present a more specific, developed articulation of your thesis? If so, try to integrate that into your introduction, and put aside fears of “giving away the argument”—your reader doesn’t want to wait until the end of the piece to understand it.
- Go back to your body paragraphs. If you’re describing what is happening (in a book, historical event, scientific study), are you also developing that into a discussion of why it’s happening and why it’s important? Rework sentences and paragraphs to make sure that you discuss the significance of your argument with specificity and clarity.
- If you’ve identified that your argument isn’t fully developed in the ways described above, but you’re still working on the essay and don’t have a concluding paragraph to peak at, fear not! Have faith that the writing process can bring you toward a place of greater understanding. It may sound ridiculous, but try writing what you might imagine an impassioned conclusion to your essay could be. Go overboard; wax poetic. It’s just an exercise, and it may help you take a step back from your paper to consider its overall significance. Lastly, come visit us at the Writing Center! We’ll ask you why you felt compelled to write about the topic in the first place, and revisiting that question can help you forge your path forward.
by Elliot Schiff
My first year of college, in Expos and other humanities classes, I would get this feedback from my instructors: “Elliot, could you make your thesis statement more argumentative?” Or, “Elliot, this is a good paragraph but it’s missing an argumentative topic sentence.” I couldn’t help but think, “Why does everyone think this argument thing is so great?” It felt like everyone in an academic position of power over me had met in some room and decided unanimously that argument is good and we like argument. Why?
I’ll give you two answers, one theoretical and one practical. These are answers that I’ve come to understand through my experience as a writer, a student, and a tutor.
Imagine that there’s a national academic conference of experts on bouncy balls (maybe there is? maybe there should be…). Who knows what they’d look like or be wearing — probably elbow patches, they’re academics after all, they’ve got a public image to maintain. These are the people the world relies on to understand what’s important about the science of the very very important and ever-confounding bouncy ball. The conference gathers. They’ve got a huge stack of papers to peer review. It’s gonna be a long day.
“Bouncy Balls are Often Made of Rubber,” the first paper is titled. Not off to a great start. The contents of the paper are not any better. As a matter of fact, it’s just that sentence repeated over and over: “Bouncy balls are often made of rubber.” We know this, the experts cry. For ten pages. A prank. For some reason, some punk has decided to make fun of the very serious field of Bouncy Ball Studies.
Time to peer review another paper. This one’s called “From Handheld Toy to Exercise Ball: How Highly Elastic Rubber Spheres Went from Mere Distraction to Lifestyle and Fitness Craze.” We know this! The experts protest once more. Of course they know that the handheld toy led to the exercise ball that brought abs of steel to office workers across America. But then they read the paper: it makes specific claims they haven’t seen before. The paper’s fundamental argument is that the exercise ball’s former life as a plaything led to success and predated the gamifying of fitness to make it more fun. Here’s an argument! The stakes of the conversation are about what we think about when we think about bouncy rubber spheres, but also the history of American fitness culture.
This is all made up — and wildly oversimplified. But in the second paper on the history of bouncy balls, the author is making an argument. Simply put, when you make an argument, you are contributing something new to the conversation. That’s why your instructors keep asking you to be argumentative at every turn: it’s the best way to ensure that you’ll contribute something to a broader academic conversation. How cool is that! This is the theoretical answer to the question, “Why argument?”
The practical answer to “why argument” is that a highly argumentative paper is an easier paper to structure and revise. Think back to those bouncy ball papers. If you had to write a paper whose thesis statement was, “Bouncy balls are often made of rubber,” how the heck would you structure that thing? What evidence would you put where–and why? What would you even analyze? On the other hand, if your thesis was that the exercise ball rose to prominence in American offices not only because of its fitness benefits but because of its origins in play, now you’re cooking with gas. You would probably start with a history of the bouncy ball: its invention, its absolutely unanimous popularity — frankly its dominance over the toy market and the imaginations and Christmas wish-lists of American youth. Then, you would probably do the same with the exercise ball, a markedly different product, even though it’s largely the same material. You’d look at the marketing of the exercise ball, partnerships with offices, the history of office labor in the U.S. You’d find primary sources about the exercise ball as a replacement for the chair and compare those to firsthand accounts of the joy of the bouncy ball. And then you would be able to prove your point: the exercise ball really did rise to popularity in American offices because it is inextricable from its roots as a fun toy. Then you’d do some cultural analysis to connect this idea to the current ubiquity of gamified fitness.
This is not that great of a paper. I admit it. It’s also totally made up. But it helps me prove my point: see how much easier it is to structure a more argumentative paper? With a highly argumentative thesis, your natural wheels of logic start to turn, and moments where you’d otherwise be pulling your hair out over the right place to make a sub-claim or offer a piece of evidence suddenly become much easier.
This logic of the argumentative thesis making your life easier applies on the micro level (topic sentence) just as much as the macro (thesis statement). A paragraph with a non-argumentative topic sentence could often contain just about anything, but a paragraph with a highly argumentative topic sentence must contain evidence and analysis to prove the point outlined in the topic sentence. The same is true with the thesis statement: often, with a non-argumentative thesis statement, just about anything could be in the paper. Let’s make that very weak bouncy ball thesis a little better: “The bouncy ball’s shift from leather to rubber shows the use of post-WWII use of military materials in the toy sector.” If this is true (I have no idea), chances are that bouncy ball experts already know this. But because this thesis is slightly more argumentative than the original, you know that the paper will have to contain a discussion of military materials being repurposed in the civilian sector. That’s more focused and more specific than a paper focused only on the fact that bouncy balls are made of rubber, which increases the likelihood that the paper will say something new.