You Can Teach Writing

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Make working thesis statements first thing.

The typical adult will define a thesis statement  (assuming she or he  even recognizes the term)  as a single-sentence summary of the main idea of a book or article.

That definition is predicated on the notion that a thesis is something readers discover in final draft writing — and it's a totally wrong idea. 

We won't make the world a better place by teaching our students a correct definition. Students don't need to memorize the answer to the question, "What is a thesis statement?" They need to make thesis statements. 

If students make a thesis statement at the very start of the writing process, it boosts their chances of turning out a good paper with a minimum amount of revision.  

That just might make the world a better place.

When students write a thesis matters. 

Sadly, most English texts focus on defining the term thesis but don't explain how or when to do it. 

Bright, motivated kids who like writing may be content to spend hours free writing to find an idea, but the vast majority of students who, at best, tolerate writing are totally turned off if they don't see some results quickly.  

Most students must get a controlling idea on paper at the very start of the writing process, or they will give up in despair before they discover a main idea.

To keep confusion to a minimum, I call the strategy nonfiction writers use as a starting place for expository writing a working thesis to distinguish it from the polished versions embedded in the introductory paragraphs of writers' final drafts.

A sentence is a whole idea.

Idea fragments are not much help to writers: Writers need sentences. 

We all have far more mental activity in our brains than we could ever capture on paper. If we manage to grab some of our conscious sensations and jot them down, they usually turn out to look like fragments of what might once have been an idea. 

Even dull students know they need sentences to make an document, because: 

  • Sentences nail down flyaway thoughts
  • Sentences connect ideas.
  • Sentences reveal relationships

For optimum efficiency, teach students to capture their idea fragments in sentence format right at the beginning of the expository writing process. They do that in a working thesis sentence.

Expository writing begins with a thesis statement.

Whatever else students learn about how to write a thesis is almost worthless unless they learn to make a thesis the very first thing they do when confronted with an expository writing prompt.

A writing topic is not a working thesis.

Before we start teaching students to prepare and use a working thesis, we need to make sure we and they understand what a thesis is not.

A topic is not a thesis. I know the two terms are often used as if the terms were interchangeable, but such sloppiness causes grief for students and teachers trying to understand the complexities of writing. 

The first requirement of a thesis statement — either a working thesis or a polished thesis — is that it be a complete sentence

Many writing topics are sentence fragments, usually nouns or noun phrases. For example, these are writing topics:

  • tree toads
  • consequences of global warming
  • becoming a writer

Not all topics are fragments. Some writing topics appear in sentence format as questions, such as:

  • What makes tree toads able to climb trees?
  • Will shore areas or inland areas suffer more from global warming?
  • How do I go about becoming a writer?

The answer to any one of those questions might be a thesis statement, but the question is just a writing topic. Asking a question is the opposite of making an assertion

So, the second requirement of a thesis statement is that it must make an assertion about something. 

A working thesis is a controlling idea.

Writing is supposed to transmit an idea from a writer to a reader. When the transmission fails it is usually because the writer didn't have start with a controlling idea.

The writer may have plenty of ideas — plural — but lack one single, central, controlling idea. The controlling idea for an document goes by the name working thesis statement or working thesis sentence.

Think of the working thesis as a device for imposing tunnel vision on students as they write. Properly prepared at the beginning of the writing process a thesis statement denies entry to ideas that don't belong there. 

What is a thesis statement? It is simply the most important element in an document. It captures in a single sentence the: 

  • purpose of the entire document 
  • content of the entire document 
  • tone of the entire document. 

It is no stretch to say that without a thesis statement there is no document.

Make students assert something.

Left to find their own writing topics, students will look out the window, check Facebook, or text their BFF.

That's hardly an efficient way of teaching writing, is it?

If we're going to get students writing, we need to force them to assert an opinion on a topic whether they have an opinion or not.  Having to say something will keep them moving forward. 

The trick to getting students started writing working thesis statements is to give students writing prompts on topics authentic to your class. Include an assertion or a choice of assertions within the prompt. 

Writing the working thesis statement is the first step in expository writing. Seeing that accomplishment is enough to push students who have struggled with writing all their lives to take a second step.

Starting to plan a piece of writing by making a thesis statement may sound crazy, but it works.

1) Starting with a working thesis fits the real world.

In real life situations, ordinary people don't sit pondering what to write about: The topic is a given. It comes with the assignment. It's up to the writer to come up with an idea (let's call it an assertion) about that topic.

Topics are given to writers in business, in college classes, and in every high school class except English. (As any student can tell you, English class is not real life.) 

2) Starting with a working thesis limits the number of ideas a writer has to think about.

Even dumb students have millions of ideas. In fact, struggling students are often overwhelmed by the sheer number of possible writing topics.

Students who learn to just pick the first plausible assertion they see avoid that anxiety and frustration. What they choose scarcely matters; what students are doing is practicing writing, not competing for a Pulitzer Prize in Literature. 

3) Starting with a working thesis feels right.

Even the dumbest students know instinctively that the sooner they get that working thesis statement, the sooner they'll finish their assignment.

Professional journalists feel the same way. As a newspaper reporter, I knew as soon as I got my nut 'graf — my thesis statement — I could whack out a story in a few minutes. 

What to read next

Learn how to write outlines that start with working thesis statements and become the topic sentences of the document's body paragraphs. Such an outline is called a writing skeleton, and that's the name of the next writing strategy students need to learn.

The writing strategies (WS) for students use are best read in the order in which you teach them and students use them: WS1, Make a working thesis; WS2, Make a writing skeleton; WS3, Ripple for sources; WS4, Make a complete plan; WS5, Speed draft; WS6, Do the evidence waltz; WS7, Revise to match the plan; WS8, Do single error editing.

Content on this page was published 2008-08-10 and updated 2011-12-23 by Linda Aragoni at you-can-teach-writing.com. She published it to yctwriting.com 2018-01-01.

Visitor comment about importance of thesis statements.

This year teaching Expository Composition in High School, it dawned on me that the real problem students have is finding the Thesis Sentence to begin their essays. I am afraid they have not mastered this skill.

I need some advice from fellow teachers for easy ways to help students find the courage to proceed on a test. Some students have become so bewildered that they just will not write at all. ~ Anna Johnson

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